Shape Olympia's future

What do you want Olympia to look like?

The city is preparing to redo its Comprehensive Plan for the first time since 1994. The plan is the city’s guiding document for planning and zoning, and is required by the state Growth Management Act to include density and housing goals, in which the city has fallen far short.

It also covers topics such as land use, transportation, environment, design, utilities and housing.

“What are your hopes and dreams for Olympia?” asked Keith Stahley, director of Community Planning and Development.

To that end, the city planning staff is gearing up for more than two years of exhaustive public involvement. Stahley estimated the entire public input effort would be done by the city staff — instead of a consultant — and cost between $30,000 and $40,000, Stahley said.

The city typically allows small revisions in the comprehensive plan each year — such as a zoning change for a piece of property. But this is the first time the plan has been largely overhauled since 1994.

The process will start this year and continue until the new plan is drafted and adopted, which won’t be until November or December 2011.

To get public input, the city’s plans call for converting some parking spaces downtown into “mini parks” with grass, plants and benches between mid-July and mid-August so staffers and residents can chat about the plan.

An official kickoff event is planned for Nov. 14, perhaps with a keynote speaker, said Jennifer Kenny, a planner with the city.

But that barely scratches the surface of what city planners are planning.

Students at The Evergreen State College will conduct interviews with people in Olympia to get their impressions. Booths will be placed at community events. “Meeting kits” will be distributed to allow people to host a meeting in their home.

An Internet and phone survey is proposed. Community workshops in schools will get more input. Meetings will be scheduled with community groups and other “stakeholder groups.”

Social media such as Survey Monkey, YouTube, LISTSERV and others could be employed. Traditional public hearings will also be used.

Much of the process involves looking at the existing comprehensive plan to find areas that aren’t working, or taking care of emerging problems, such as how sea level rise could affect downtown.

A key concern the city will address is why it’s not meeting its housing goals. The 1994 comprehensive plan recommended 1,500 new market-rate housing units by 2010.

A 2004 downtown report called for 2,500 new housing units over 20 years.

“We’re going to continue to talk about how can we further that goal,” Stahley said, “how can we further encourage the development of market rate residential housing in downtown?”

The city has paid for plan after downtown plan — 20 of them over the last several decades — many of them stressing the need for new housing, especially market-rate housing. A report as far back as 1988 called for adding 18 to 23 units a year.

Yet the limited housing the city has added has been mostly subsidized or restricted to seniors and low-income people. Stuart Place, at the corner of Capitol Way and Legion Way, was built in 1994 with 30 apartments that have affordability requirements. The Boardwalk Apartments, at 410 and 510 Capitol Way, opened in 1999 with 284 units for seniors. It also has affordability requirements.

The city also helped rehabilitate existing apartment buildings, ensuring they would continue to be available for residential use.

Little to no market-rate housing has been added in the last 30 years. The city did gain 26 market rate units in 2004 at the Capitol Steps Apartments on Eastside Street, the eastern border of downtown. And it added units at Capitol Crossings at 11th Avenue and Chestnut Street, along with a smattering nearby, as Stahley has said.

“The missing element is market-rate housing,” says a 2000 Percival Landing Area Housing Study. “Market-rate housing will bring additional income to downtown, some of which will be captured by the businesses in the commercial core, adding to its vitality.”

Where to put all of that housing is a matter of community debate. A proposal to put 5- and 7-story high-end condominium buildings on the downtown isthmus has deeply divided the community. Opponents say some views would be obscured.

Coming up with a plan to bring housing to downtown, assimilating 20 plans that came before it, was a key task for a just-released $75,000 plan by Barney and Worth of Olympia. The consultant suggested incentives the city could offer to make a development possible.

And it suggested where a mixed-use development would best work — at Fourth Avenue and Jefferson Street, near the new City Hall. Olympia is building a $36.5 million City Hall at 615 Fourth Ave. East, the site of an old Safeway grocery.

Though the plan was purely conceptual, the consultant envisioned a seven-story building with 120 units of market-rate housing in five stories, ground-floor retail space and a floor of parking with 87 spaces.

Studio apartments would be 500 to 640 square feet, one-bedroom units 720 to 780 square feet, and two-bedroom units 1,020 to 1,320 square feet.

An artesian well would be routed into a fountain that would sit near the building.

The city has made housing efforts that haven’t yet paid off. For example, Colpitts Development Co. of Seattle plans to build 126 market-rate apartments with parking and retail on a parking lot the city sold it along Columbia Street between Fourth and Fifth Avenues.

The Olympia City Council voted unanimously in August to sell the land to Colpitts for $270,000. In a follow-up agreement, the council agreed to spend $270,000 for environmental cleanup and split the remaining cleanup costs with Colpitts — up to an additional $223,000 for each party.

But construction on the project still is not under way, in the thick of building season.

Some people say that the city’s housing hopes may rebound when the economy does. The city is investing heavily in public projects, such as the City Hall, with the hope that private developments will follow, especially on the east end of downtown. Council members were hopeful about the city’s comprehensive plan process when it was rolled out at the council meeting last Tuesday.

“I’m really, really pleased to see how much flesh you’ve put on this since we last talked,” Councilwoman Joan Machlis said.