Of the many visions and strategies that have been suggested for improving downtown Olympia, the Community Renewal Area (CRA) planning process holds the most promise. It recognizes that sustainable community renewal cannot occur without private sector partnerships and proven market need.
If the City of Olympia had adopted a CRA ordinance a year ago, before wasting taxpayer money on the ill-conceived Artesian Commons park, it would not be considering closure of the park today. The CRA process is quite simple. The city identifies areas that need renewal and finds a private sector partner to invest in them. The private partner collaborates with the city, and with the public, to shape the project and to clearly define what is required of each party to make the project successful – for example, assessing whether there is a real market for what is being proposed, and how the public will benefit from the project.
The Community Renewal Area process is designed to minimize the risk of public investment by acting on clear economic analysis and data, with private sector partners who are identified at the outset.
Other Washington cities, such as Bremerton, have successfully used the CRA process to turn around declining downtowns. And the South Sound business community appears to support the concept for Olympia: Thurston First Bank, which just moved its offices downtown, has pledged $10 million in loans if the city adopts the CRA process.
That’s an offer the city cannot afford to refuse.
The Artesian Commons park is a prime example of what happens when well intended people act without sufficient research and without a deep understanding of the likely consequences of what they are about to create.
The original goal of Friends of Artesians was to make the artesian well site a better place for people who use the well, and to celebrate the resource of cool, clean water. But the city went further, and tried to turn the well site and adjacent vacant lot into a park, to attract nearby office workers and privately owned food trucks.
But they built it entirely with public money, without data about the realities of the market, and without commitments from the private sector operators of food trucks. The result is a park used only by our city’s most vulnerable people and the criminals who prey on them.
Mayor Stephen Buxbaum warned the council against going down this road at the June 2013 council meeting. He was the lone dissenting vote against development of the park. Buxbaum suggested there were ways, such as the CRA, of doing the public’s business that minimize risk.
There are at least a half-dozen properties in downtown Olympia that would benefit from the CRA process, including the isthmus. But creating more parks in our downtown without creating more residences, without creating more destinations and human activity, is doomed to repeat the mistakes of the Artesian Commons.
Using the CRA process, downtown renewal will succeed because projects only move forward after thoughtful consideration is given to balancing public and private space.
The City Council should not hesitate to pass a resolution to officially adopt the CRA, and immediately begin the search for private partners.