In a meeting on March 16, the Olympia Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee discussed an update on the Capital Mall Triangle Subarea Plan and the environmental impact statement.
The area known as the Capital Mall Triangle was developed in the 1970s and 1980s. High-density, mixed-use, multi-family zones and low-density residential zones make up the area.
The Capital Mall Triangle Subarea Plan and Planned Action Environmental Impact Statement is “A subarea plan will provide a long-range strategic and implementation framework to help us realize our Comprehensive Plan vision for this area,” according to the Engage Olympia website page.
“The vision is that over the next 20 years this area will grow into a more people-oriented urban neighborhood. A place where residents can commute to work, shop, recreate, and meet basic needs without a car,” the Engage Olympia page shared.
The city’s existing comprehensive plan has guidance for how the area should eventually transition, shared David Ginther, senior planner of community planning and development. Eventually, more of the area will be transitioned to “a high-density mixed-use neighborhood where people can live and obtain things that they need, have good services as well as entertainment in the area, and be able to be able to get to where they need to within the neighborhood easily, especially have the option of not using a personal vehicle.”
“The second and just as important part of the comprehensive plan goal for this area is to maintain the area as a regional shopping destination that continues to support the businesses. So we do have our work cut out for us here,” related Ginther.
The comprehensive plan is updated every ten years, he shared. “Not much has really happened in the whole area. So this whole project is figuring out: why isn't it happening? How can we make it happen? How can we facilitate it happening? So, it's really an analysis of what's going on? Why isn't it working? And, what can we do?”
The city has a variety of plans that it is working on such as the transportation master plan, the climate mitigation plan, as well as plans for storm and surface water plan. A storm and surface water plan was developed after a flood in 2007, “when that intersection of Black Lake Boulevard and, and Cooper Point Road was actually under several feet of water,” Ginther said, to highlight how important the plans are to have. "I remember it was on the front page of the newspaper back then."
Ginther shared that “last fall, we did the visioning,” where they held a well-attended public meeting to start putting together this plan. They brought in consultants to help gather and analyze the needs of the area, and what the existing conditions were and created a marketing analysis, Ginther said.
The group has done multiple outreach steps to the local community through public meetings, mailings, talking with business and property owners and more.
Timeline and funding
Ginther said, “This project is funded by a grant through the state. It came with a deadline that ended at the biennial budget deadline end of the biennial budget, which was June of this year.”
Ginther shared the projected timeline of when things will happen, “We would likely have the preferred alternatives done by the end of spring here, and the draft submarine plan started. But we're going to shove that back a little bit, probably a couple of months. So, it'll probably be late summer. In the fall, we'll be working on the on the final suburb plan and the EIS. And that'll probably stretch into winter there. And then once we're done with the EIS and the sub area plan, then we'll be doing any recommended implementation, such as development or regulation changes.”
The feedback that was given helped them come up with the three alternative plans that have been drafted into the preliminary plans. They gathered information from the communities needs in the form of calls, direct meetings, in person comments, online comments, interviews, polls online, online meeting interaction.
There are three development scenarios to be analyzed, Ginther shared. The first one is labeled No Action, explaining, “that no action one is not going beyond what the city is already planning specifically to do for the area, it is called no action.”
“The second one is a little bit more intense, it's sort of a moderate approach. And then the third one is quite intense going seeing, it's proposing the city do as much as possible to help get the kind of development and the resulting neighborhood that is envisioned,” said Ginther.
Safety, transportation, walking, biking, vehicular access, environmental commitment, stormwater mitigation and community gathering places are some of the subjects that people commented on their needs.
Planned Action Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)
Ginther shared that doing the environmental analysis ahead of time helps with developments in the area removing uncertainty and potential delays. “So that makes it a little bit smoother for when the desired kind of development comes into the area.”
The EIS is very specific in its focus, Ginther said. “It's to review future development scenarios, we have three of those. And it's going to figure out what they're going to analyze what would be the potential significant adverse environmental impacts.”
The transportation portion of the plan also covers a 20-year scope and was presented by Michelle Swanson, a senior planner, in public works transportation, and on the internal project team.
“The plan also encompasses bike lanes, intersection improvements, and connecting streets,” Swanson detailed. “It gives us the opportunity to consider what sorts of transportation improvements are needed within the triangle with new developments.”
Street Connections – Human Scale
“We are not building streets like we did in the 80s. And that is when a lot of the development around the Capitol Hill triangle was built. In general, our current standards require sidewalks that are buffered from travel lanes, often by a grass strip,” Swanson said.
“When we talk about street connections being vital to pedestrians and bicyclists, part of the reason is because they create spaces for people to walk and bike comfortably. And the other reason is the importance of creating what we call a human-scale street system. Now what we mean by human scale is that it's an easy street system for human beings to move through on their own steam, rather than needing a vehicle or machine to get through it,” Swanson detailed.
Other reasons for building the street connections are to disperse traffic more evenly and to build resilience into the street system, Swanson said. “When a street is closed for construction, a collision, or a weather events – which the climate models do indicate you need to be thinking about more. When we have a well-connected street grid, there are alternative routes that keep the system from breaking down. This is especially important on the west side, because there is a hospital there.”
“Street connections also help reduce vehicle miles traveled and greenhouse gas emissions for a couple of reasons. One is it shorter trips for those who drive means fewer vehicle miles traveled and fewer emissions. When trips are shorter, it's also easier to not drive at all but rather to walk or bike to your destination,” she stated.
“A well-connected street grid is also vital for transit because buses need to be able to turn around. It is a challenge for a local transit agency to serve the west side. And it is something that has been studied and found to be consistent across the United States, where there is poor street connectivity, transit service suffers,” Swanson said.
“And finally, street connections are a key element of what we call growth management. This means concentrating growth in already urbanized areas,” Swanson shared, going on to say, “This prevents sprawl and it can help prevent humans from encroaching into wild lands. So for the development of the Southern plan, my colleagues and I are spending some time creating a map of a reasonable street system that can be built with redevelopment. We need to do this because it shows our future vision for this area in a way that text cannot. We do have strong street standards already in the EDS.”
“But we have struggled to get new street connections built by new development in areas where we do not have maps to show the full intent. So we will do that. And that will be one of the significant outcomes of this project,” shared Swanson.
“Now I want to be clear, no one is planning to take a wrecking ball to the mall, we would not require that they demolish any of their existing buildings for new streets. We do expect that the mall will likely remain a regional destination as it developed into its next phase, which will include more housing. However, should the mall ownership decide that they want to do what's called a full scrape and redevelop the area or even part of it, we want to make sure that we've done our part to ensure that what gets built in its place reflects the vision for this area. And that has to include a well-connected street grid or the building blocks for one as it develops incrementally, which is probably more likely,” Swanson detailed.
Flexibility in the standards to help make room for redevelopment will also be a priority, shared Swanson, “So it's really a balance.”
Funding and outcomes
“Our current policies require that new development pay for the cost of the infrastructure to support it. And that happens in a variety of ways. One of the key findings from the markets analysis that was done in support of this project, is that our street connectivity standards may be a barrier to new development in this area,” Swanson said of the issues they are working on.
“One of the outcomes of this project will likely be a policy recommendation for the city to explore some public funding for street connections, how where and how much to do this are all issues that need to be sorted through later and they are beyond the scope of this particular project,” said Swanson.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled David Ginther's name. We regret the error.
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The hardest thing for these government-types to accept is that the way to accomplish this vision is to move away from strict zoning and trying to plan out what people do with the land, and instead adopt a generative approach where rules are in place to act as guardrails, and the landowners are free to build and change the land as they see fit. It’s about allowing people to heal the land as it is now, not trying to bring about some government vision, where government determines what’s valuable and what isn’t.
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