‘Downtown Strategy’ is underway in Olympia

Downtown Olympia’s problems are complicated.

If they were simple, we would already have thousands of units of downtown housing, at every price level. We would have a compact, walkable city center teeming with art and culture, a prosperous and growing community of downtown businesses, safe and inviting streetscapes and parks, just the right amount of office space, bike lanes galore, and state of the art infrastructure.

Why hasn’t all that has happened yet?

First, downtown is an expensive place to build. It has a lot of contaminated soil, which has to be cleaned up before it’s built on. A big swath of downtown is built on fill, which may turn to jello during an earthquake, thus requiring new buildings to have deeper, more expensive foundations.

Downtown has a high water table, which makes underground parking impossible. And speaking of water, a lot of downtown is also prone to flooding when high tides and heavy rains collide, and a rising sea level could put significant areas underwater without expensive protective barriers. These issues need to be front and center as the city seeks to rebuild the rest of Percival Landing and fix other aging infrastructure.

Then, of course, there are the blighted buildings like Griswold’s, which burned over a decade ago and still sits gaping and empty, like a missing front tooth on Fourth Avenue.

And there is the fear factor. Panhandlers, people with untreated mental illnesses, and public intoxication are undeniable problems.

And then, of course, there are the politics of downtown. The huge fight a few years ago over the future of the isthmus isn’t settled. The city now owns some land there, but we are far from consensus about what to do with it. The “mistake by the lake” building is still privately owned, still too costly for the city to buy, and still ugly. Some people want more isthmus park land, and some want to see more buildings that provide tax revenue.

The good news — and yes, we’re happy to say there is some — is that the isthmus is no longer the queen of downtown issues. It’s just one element of a larger picture that is slowly emerging from a series of evolving, sometimes overlapping planning initiatives. There is a completed comprehensive plan, and the city is now launching a year-long Downtown Strategy process to identify specific things that can be achieved in the next five or six years.

As the economy continues to recover, downtown housing projects are sprouting — including, most notably, the 123 4th building, which will provide 138 new units of market price housing. A total of 299 downtown housing units are on the way, putting some wind in the city’s sails.

In spite of its problems, downtown is fun, quirky, creative, and home to successful businesses, happy residents, a thriving farmers market, a great waterfront, and lots of art, culture, coffee and good restaurants.

There is also talk of building a new county courthouse downtown, and glimmers of hope for resolving the lake versus estuary debate.

What’s working downtown is the result of ambitious, visionary planning with lots of public participation. Now it’s time for the next crucial round of it.

We hope that economic recovery, the Downtown Strategy process, and a new generation of entrepreneurs and activists will converge to produce a livelier, more prosperous downtown that is truly safe and welcoming for everyone.