The Inevitable Olympia
To build a viable vision for our city we need to first address those existing elements that are clearly not sustainable. The following is a brief overview of those elements currently in an unstable state but nonetheless critical to Olympia’s future.
That gritty character of worn and underutilized historic buildings and 'colorful' street culture will likely not survive much longer as developers respond to the demand for market rate housing and the economy that follows. The Great Recession is over, investment money is loosening up, and Olympia is transforming into a denser more vibrant and well-heeled urban village right before our eyes. Five thousand new residents are expected in the downtown in the next two decades according to city planners. Already several significant residential projects have opened their doors or are in planning and construction phases. The Olympia City Council approved a “Downtown Strategy” this spring after over a year of public input and study. Have you read it and does it include your voice and values? How effective, you might ask, are these aspirational plans at harnessing otherwise unbridled growth and guiding a city toward a favored future state? We do all need to envision how we want this process to end since it is already fast underway. Challenges around traffic, parking, housing, historic preservation, social services/homelessness, etc. will all become more acute as this natural evolution continues at an ever-quickening pace. But the big picture as to where we are heading as a city does not end with only a view of the downtown core.
The Lake, Isthmus and Waterfront
Capitol Lake is unhappy. Some would say on a death spiral but few would disagree there’s something seriously wrong with it. It is first and foremost the end of a river, the Deschutes as it meets the Sound, so it wants to be an estuary. It’s only natural. If it can’t be one then it will remain out of sorts and a growing eyesore unsuitable for human interaction. The dam at Fifth Avenue that created this manmade 'lake' is also causing it to fill with sediment carried downstream by the river. This is according to the state agency entrusted with the lake’s long-term management: The Department of Enterprise Services. The agency website is replete with reports and studies dating back over a decade that all amount to roughly the same conclusion: it’s a mess and something needs to be done to fix it. Funding for expensive dredging of the sediment to maintain the artificial lake's unnatural state will likely remain hard to come by and for good reason: it’s not a sustainable game plan for the future of this body of water. One proposal entails a design for a hybrid lake that maintains a reflecting pond beneath the capitol campus with the rest reverting to its natural state as an estuary. Some say that’s an even more expensive solution than simply restoring the whole lake to an estuary but others reject that as just another word for a swamp or "stinking mud flats". With the right planning and investment in time, patience and funds, restored estuaries have become recreational and aesthetic amenities in similar parts of the country. But at this late stage in the debate, and with the lake in such a prominent location, Olympia appears to be stuck in a wait and see mode in determining the fate of one of the core features of its cityscape. Nature has its own timeline on this front and a final solution is clearly overdue.
Since a restored estuary entails removing the dam this creates the risk, according to some, of altering the current contours of the lake and perhaps the very configuration of the city at the point it interfaces with the river and Sound. A response might be to ask whether we should remain married to a design born from the 1950s when the dam was first installed. This was a very different time both culturally and economically in Olympia and perhaps the lake and waterfront are both overdue for a serious facelift that reflects the modern economy and a new appreciation for the natural world.
Now turning to the isthmus between the lake and Budd Inlet. This stretch of land has been the cause of much hand-wringing and arm-twisting by its various stakeholders. Development of the isthmus has drawn loud voices from those who wish the land converted from dilapidated buildings to simple sprawling parks void of any view-blocking structures. Have no doubt though, it will be developed. There is not and never was a reliable public funding source presently available to buy, raze, and convert this prime real estate to well-maintained parks as some would wish it. That became clear when the “mistake by the lake” (aka Capital Center Building) finally got purchased to be renovated into high end condos. Granted this will be housing for the well-to-do, but unless the government has the present funds to buy the property, the owners can develop it as they see fit. It is worth noting that this demographic may go a long way in supporting a richer tapestry of downtown arts and homegrown independent specialty retail stores. For too long hearty entrepreneurs have tried to survive downtown and provide an alternative to the vapid malls and big box stores. They deserve a new source of sustaining income and all patrons of the downtown regardless of socio-economic standing will benefit from this enhancement.
The other elephant in the room, and there are quite a few when it comes to our city's future, is that removal of the dam will increase the flow of sediment into Budd Inlet. That in turn raises the question of whether the Inlet should continue to be dredged which brings us to yet an even larger elephant, the Port.
Ah the Port, our favorite punching bag. It seems an anachronistic vestige of when we were a resource-based economy. It can’t seem to turn a decent profit and, for good measure, its very business is upsetting: reminding locals we’re still shipping our denuded forests abroad as raw timber. But none of that stands up to the reality that it seems more and more like a dumb place to try to maintain a deep water marine terminal. We rely on a dam and costly dredging on either side of it to struggle to maintain a fake lake and a shipping terminal. The latter in turn relies on the vagaries of international shipping traffic to come all the way down to the bottom of the Sound from time to time and load up logs, fracking sand, armaments or some other cargo that causes consternation among the locals. Not an appealing or sustainable plan for the future.
At the end of the day, the Port belongs to us. It was created by the people of Thurston County early in the last century and so the people need to decide whether it’s still meeting our collective interests. If the downtown is quickly packing in urban dwellers wanting the culture and aesthetics that come with this choice spot at the end of the Salish Sea then maybe we should think about pushing northward into what is currently prime real estate stacked with forlorn piles of logs. If we do this right and in stages we can grow a better city for all. As we increase our tax base through thoughtful and varied development we can access the funds to support the right mix of affordable housing and public amenities to include wildlife preserves, parks and maybe a public swimming pool all blended in with a tastefully designed larger urban core.
You see where this is going. That’s the point really: part of planning a sustainable future for Olympia is to see where its evolving elements are already headed regardless of what any particular faction thinks should happen. There are powerful natural, social, and economic forces at play that must be acknowledged and contended with, or better yet, aligned with. To ignore them is folly. We can’t merely hope that the disparate interests of politicians, city planners, activists and developers will somehow magically stir the pot just right and get the perfect recipe for our future vision. We need to collectively get ahead of the curve and bring harmony to where the lines meet in the future. That’s simply good public stewardship and each of us owe it to each other and to the city we love.