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Land Use as Problem and Solution

By Carole Richmond

Olympia has acquired a reputation as a difficult place to get a building project approved, which no doubt comes as a surprise to readers of the Green Pages. Indeed, local activists and residents have had to organize on more than one occasion to defeat a badly conceived building project, such as the proposed Lareda Passage condominiums on the isthmus downtown, the proposed 7/11 on the corner of Harrison and Division on the Westside, and the proposed 6-story apartment building near the bowling alley, also on the Westside. Fortunately, all three of these projects were defeated, but not without considerable effort from residents. To project opponents, it seems the city is anxious to strike any kind of deal with developers, whereas project proponents see defeats as evidence that NIMBYs ("Not in My Backyard") rule.

As far as Olympia's reputation, one factor is there is simply not a lot of room to grow in the city and what room there is invites the scrutiny and involvement of existing neighbors. Therefore, a lot of growth has gone to expansive Lacey instead, feeding the impression that Olympia is not development-friendly. Olympia's Comprehensive ("Comp") Plan indicates that it wants "density," but that density has been elusive for a variety of reasons, including the lack of county impact fees (until very recently), which meant that development in the county was much cheaper than in the cities.

But land use is much more complex than this simple dichotomy would suggest. One of the fundamental problems is that the Growth Management Act (the statewide land use planning act) requires local jurisdictions to plan for growth. It allows, but does not require, jurisdictions to create livable, sustainable communities. The growth imperative inevitably clashes with the aspirations and expectations of long-settled residents.

Though the legal environment favors development, residents and activists have the ability to appeal proposals. If a legal basis for appeal can be found, the plaintiff can prevail, provided he or she is willing to make the effort and spend $1,000 for an appeals fee.

The story of the proposed 7/11 on the corner of Harrison and Division is an example of a successful appeal that not only nixed the project, but reaffirmed statewide planning law. The first indication that change was coming to the long-vacant property was a notice of proposed development submitted by a developer hired by the property owner. As filed in February of 2011, the application called for approval of two one-story retail and commercial buildings and 29 parking spots.

A public meeting convened by the city immediately raised concerns about the project, including its apparent incompatibility with the existing Comp Plan, which calls for the area to be a high-density corridor oriented toward pedestrians. After the city approved the proposal, neighbors organized to appeal the city's decision. Then-Hearings Examiner Tom Bjorgen upheld the city's decision, prompting neighbors to take the next step and sue the city. An opinion was issued by Thurston County Superior Court Judge Lisa Sutton saying that because both the city's ordinances on high-density corridors AND the Comp Plan were in agreement that such corridors are required to have multi-story buildings, the city's approval of one-story buildings was a violation of its own code and the project could not go forward.

We now know the property has been sold to another owner, who has plans to create a "pocket park" in this location. Would this also be a violation of the judge's decision? A park or open space might be legally compatible with high-density corridors, just as Woodruff Park down the street is compatible and a welcome respite from all of the surrounding hardscape, but in this case, the corner of Harrison and Division is simply not suitable for a park. This is one corner of a very busy intersection with high commercial value. It is also a "gateway" into downtown Olympia and existing traffic would require parking to be extremely limited. Ideally - and the Comp Plan supports this - multi-story buildings should line the streets to encourage pedestrian use. Even Westgate Plaza on the NW corner will eventually be enclosed with buildings along the street. In the meantime, the property can remain de facto open space for as long as the owner wants. If the owner decided to build something, however, that building would need to be multi-story.

The issue is density. Without it, transit systems do not work efficiently and infrastructure is very expensive. We have covered square miles of land with sprawl here and across the country, and we're finding that we can no longer afford to build this way. Sprawl also contributes to energy consumption and climate change. The City of Olympia has recognized the importance of density, but city residents are understandably leery of it. Could density mean a 6-story apartment building creating shade and traffic problems for existing residents? Yes, and such a proposal was recently defeated on the Westside.

So what is the answer? I believe the only way we can incorporate "growth" is through intelligent urban design. This means creating something called a "master" or "re-development" plan that includes neighborhood representatives, property owners, the city, and a professional urban designer leading participants through a "charrette" process.

A charrette is an intensive process intended to create solutions to design problems. The outcome of this process would be a district design that meets the needs of all participants. I believe such a plan would provide predictability for all concerned, and would pay for itself by eliminating appeals and reducing the city's costs. I believe the Comp Plan Update should include this requirement and implement it in certain key areas, such as downtown and the westside.

But what about parks? There is no doubt that we need as much green space as possible. One advantage of urban density, of course, is the preservation of open space outside of cities, but green and open space is needed inside of cities too. Prior to creating master plans, we need to create a citywide "greenprint" that identifies open space needed to preserve natural and recreational values, while accommodating the growth we are required to accept. Then, district master plans can and should identify finer-grained areas that would be appropriate to retain as pocket parks or community gardens.

Planning can be a solution to our most difficult land use problems, if we proceed intelligently, with professional design help, and with everyone at the table.

Carole Richmond is a retired policy analyst with an interest in urban design.

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Updated 2015/01/07 21:14:22