The morning former Olympia planning commissioner Jerry Parker left for the Montana bike trip on which he would pass away, he raised a question with friends about Olympia’s ongoing downtown strategy: “What is the one game-changing project that downtown needs and should be added to the strategy?”
If I could have responded to Parker, I would have said, “700 housing units.”
Over the past few years, some 300 units have been constructed or are under construction downtown. More than 400 units are in varying stages of review. By 2018, I anticipate more than 700 new units will be completed in our downtown. That’s a pretty good indication that the game has changed.
I’m not sure what the catalyst was for this change. Perhaps it was the city’s investment of $50 million in a City Hall downtown, the $13 million invested in Percival Landing, the $20 million invested in the Hands on Children’s Museum, or the $5 million invested in the Washington Center’s face-lift. Perhaps it was the millions that the port invested along East Bay or the millions that LOTT invested in the WET Center and the East Bay Plaza. Collectively, this is more than $100 million in public investment.
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Perhaps it was private investments such as the Cunningham Building — Walker John’s modest first project. Maybe it was John’s 19-unit Franklin Lofts and Thurston First Bank building that brought a vacant state office building back to life. Perhaps it was 123 4th Ave and its 136 units, structured parking and commercial space. Maybe it was important third spaces such as Three Magnets Brewery, Dillinger’s, Burial Grounds, Oly Tap Room, Oly Underground and Obsidian.
Perhaps it wasn’t any of these. Perhaps it was all. Regardless, the next question is: “What will help maintain this momentum?”
A master plan for the isthmus will help determine a more productive future for this powerful space and new public and private investment will follow. A new Thurston County courthouse could bring hundreds of well-paying jobs to downtown. A new state-of-the art Downtown YMCA could be a catalyst project, or a new library. And underpinning all of this: a solid parking strategy and a plan to address sea level rise.
As we move forward, we must not forget the vulnerable among us. Homelessness has a huge impact on downtown. We have engaged a consultant to help us think about how to respond in a coordinated and compassionate way to this issue. A well-executed plan, with strong commitment from partners could have a game changing impact for the homeless and downtown.
Downtown is starting to see changes that we only dreamed about five years ago. More than 3,500 people participated in forming the downtown strategy through workshops and online. Now the priorities are clear and a draft implementation plan has taken shape, which identifies realistic and impactful actions to move our vision for downtown forward.
Keith Stahley is the city of Olympia’s director of community planning and development.