Downtown Olympia is on the cusp of a welcome renaissance. New housing is being built, renovation of commercial space is about to begin, and construction of a downtown county courthouse complex is under discussion.
But not everyone is thrilled. Many devoted denizens of downtown fear the loss of its funky, quirky character and its stock of low-cost and subsidized housing, which now accounts for more than 80 percent of downtown residences.
These fears are not entirely unfounded. As people look to the north, they see Seattle’s relentless urban growth pricing people out of the city and into remote suburbs or even homelessness. And they see the character of historic neighborhoods being lost in the rush of gentrification.
But Olympia is not Seattle. Amazon is not going to move its headquarters here in this lifetime or the next. The threats to our downtown’s character and income diversity are far more manageable, and if we address them now — before this next spurt of growth hits its stride — we can balance old and new, and low-income and market-rate housing.
To do that, we need to be clear about our intention to preserve both downtown’s historic and hyper-local character and its affordable housing. The city center’s longstanding designation of a historic area is an important first step, but more is needed.
As the city engages in the yearlong Downtown Strategy planning process, we hope the result will include policies that balance promoting growth with ensuring that low-income downtown residents will not be displaced. Many of these longtime residents are elderly and/or disabled and can’t afford to own cars, so the convenience of living downtown, close to the Olympia Community Center and the transit center, is a huge boon.
Others are younger working people who also love the convenience of a downtown location that makes it possible to live without a car, and the proximity to night life and cultural amenities.
Some of the housing downtown is owned by nonprofit organizations, but there are also older, lower-rent buildings that are privately owned. It’s these privately owned buildings that are most vulnerable to redevelopment and displacement of low-income residents.
In a market-based economy that is entering what appears to be a pretty major building spree, it’s inevitable that these buildings will be under pressure. But there are specific actions that can be taken to preserve them. A few buildings might be appropriate for historic designation that could prevent them from being torn down. Others might be protected by moving them to nonprofit or public ownership.
There are other housing policy ideas to consider as well and lots to learn about the specific inventory, ownership and condition of what we have. These will be topics at future Downtown Strategy study sessions and public events.
What matters most is the adoption of a Downtown Strategy that clearly spells out the city’s intention to prevent displacement and to preserve low-income housing while encouraging the construction of plenty of new, market-rate housing units. It may at some point also make sense to give housing developers incentives to include affordable apartments in new buildings.
The look and feel of downtown is inevitably going to change, but its heart can and should remain the same. And that heart is the daily reality of diversity — of people of every persuasion and walk of life mixing it up together.