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Olympia’s last stand


(This story was written in 2014 but its overarching question is still quite relevant.)

Why are we not preserving the last major stand of trees on Olympia’s main arterial? I’m referring to the undeveloped parcel between Target and McDonald’s on Olympia’s westside at Harrison Avenue and Kenyon Street. It’s hard to believe when you first think about it, but there are no other significant stands of trees between Safeway on the westside and St. Peter Hospital on the eastside of Olympia.

last-traffic-med1This is a powerful symbol of what’s wrong with Olympia’s land-use planning. You’d never know the westside has one of the largest concentrations of environmentally conscious voters in the county by driving down Harrison Avenue. What a dispiriting expanse of generic strip development.

A small park at Harrison and Kenyon could be a small but hopeful step in showing that Olympia is committed to offering a higher quality of life even around a major mall.

last-target-med1Not just another park but a biophilic experience

Edward O. Wilson developed the “biophilia hypothesis,” which is that humans possess an instinctive bond with other living systems. Urban planning professor Timothy Beatley argues that this bond can be strengthened even in cities.

The key assumption here is that urban density and nature need not — indeed, should not — be treated as fundamentally incompatible. To the contrary, Beatley offers many ideas in his book, Biophilic Cities, about how to reweave nature into the urban fabric. Doing so will result in functional benefits, such as mediating air and water pollutants. However, equally important is cultivating a sense of “wonder and awe” about natural systems.

If Olympia were to experiment with biophilic urban planning, what could be a better place to start than on the edge of a classic American mall? Even more so than downtown Olympia, the Capital Mall is the most biophilically impoverished place in Olympia. The undeveloped parcel on the corner of Harrison and Kenyon presents an opportunity to show that a mall can be more than a desolate expanse of concrete.

last-stand-med1Park site not on radar of city leaders

This idea was not included in an Olympia City Council proposal to conduct a feasibility study of five potential park sites (go here and here). Indeed, it isn’t on the radar of the planning commission, according to a commissioner.

The feasibility study is part of a mid-term update of the city’s 10-year parks plan. An Olympian editorial lauded the council’s approach “because continuing to deviate from its long-term strategic parks plan based on flavor-of-the-day pressure from community special interest groups will only result in new unfunded commitments. The city already has too many of those.”

last-fern-med1That argument makes sense, particularly given that the city already has its hands full developing blighted isthmus properties into a park. The problem is one of timing — the Kenyon Street property could be long gone by the time the city begins work on a new 10–year plan.

Even if the parcel hadn’t already been developed by then it would also presumably need political advocates. As a case in point, one of the sites on the above-mentioned feasibility study is a 150-acre expansion of the LBA Park in southeast Olympia. A group of residents submitted to the city council a petition with 4,800 names calling for the site to be turned into recreational space rather than housing developments.

last-sky-med1Building that level of support is much easier when a residential neighborhood is immediately impacted. However, I would argue that biophilic land-use is going to be the next big thing in urban planning. What better place to show its value than around the westside mall, which — like it or not — has become the economic hub of the city.

Over the last few decades much attention has been invested in making the downtown more livable. It’s now time to do the same for the area surrounding the mall.

last-beer-med1Are there other creative ways to finance a park?

If the city won’t step up to the plate might someone else? For example, REI’s store has a generic, overly suburban quality that really doesn’t fit its outdoorsy values. Why not buy the Kenyon property and the building that is on its south side? Add a small cafe and the area could become a magnet for people to hang out — as well as test REI gear. The goodwill engendered from the park could become much more valuable than advertising.

Of course, that would require thinking outside the box — which doesn’t seem to happen a whole lot with businesses that locate at the mall.

Oh, well. Why should Olympia look any different than Federal Way?



This story was originally written in July, 2014 (Photos: Olympia, Earth Images).


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