Olympia Planning Commission hears proposal to amend city code for allowing drive-thru's to boost density goals 


On Monday, December 4's meeting, the Olympia Planning Commission heard a proposal from private developers that could open new opportunities for mixed-use development downtown.  

Olympia City planner Casey Schaufler presented an application from Thomas Architecture Studios to amend OMC 18.06 regarding drive-through and drive-in uses.  

Schaufler explained that under the current code, drive-through and drive-in uses are prohibited in downtown and urban waterfront zoning areas, with two exceptions: 

  • Drive-through banks are allowed for conditional use.  
  • Any drive-through or drive-in restaurants permitted before 1994 would be considered legally non-conforming uses.  

Thomas Architecture Studios is proposing a text amendment to the city code to facilitate the development of mixed-use multifamily projects in specific auto-oriented corridors in the Downtown Business district.  

The proposed amendment aims to allow drive-throughs and drive-through-centric businesses in these areas, but only if they are included alongside a mixed-use multifamily development. This integration of drive-through uses within mixed-use developments enhances the project's appeal to commercial tenants and increases feasibility.  

The map shows the proposed area on Plum Street. Concept diagrams depicted ground floor commercial with residential above and drive-throughs located behind rather than along the street.
The map shows the proposed area on Plum Street. Concept diagrams depicted ground floor commercial with residential above and drive-throughs located …

According to Schaufler, the proposal seeks to allow drive-throughs and drive-ins as a conditional use within a defined segment of Plum Street between Union Ave and 5th Ave. 

He said this corridor was designated as a downtown entry street with high traffic volumes from its connection to Interstate 5.  

Donnie Hull of Thomas Architecture Studios outlined the overarching goals to increase the viability of mixed-use multifamily developments in the specified Plum Street area. He said this could increase residential and commercial density and spur economic growth through new development opportunities. 

The proposal also seeks to activate underused buildings and extend their useful lifespan. 

Hull provided some examples of potential redevelopment projects that could occur if the proposed text amendment were approved: 

  • Franklin Lofts - This converted an old warehouse building in Olympia into a mixed-use project with residential and commercial space. That added new life and extended the building's useful lifespan. 
  • Center project - Although not from Olympia, this example from Alabama demonstrated how a large commercial space at the corner with a parking entry/drive-thru access could realistically be integrated into a new mixed-use building under the proposed code changes. The drive-thru would not be readily apparent. 
  • Views on the Fifth project - This showed how an existing building was reused and brought vibrancy to its area through more density and people on the street, which is the outcome hoped for along Plum Street. 

Hull mentioned that securing commercial tenants has become more critical for mixed-use multifamily feasibility. Drive-through usage has risen roughly 30% since 2020, and many businesses now rely on their drive-through sales.  

Hull also explained some of the goals in the city's comprehensive plan that they hoped the proposed text amendment would help accomplish: 

  • Bringing new development to urbanized areas like Plum Street that already have public services like utilities and transportation infrastructure. That aims to capitalize on existing infrastructure. 
  • Creating higher residential and commercial densities downtown, specifically along the Plum Street urban corridor identified in the proposal.
  • Encouraging land use types and densities that are consistent with and supportive of various modes of transportation. That relates to goals around walkability, transit access, and linking bicycling infrastructure. 

Ron Thomas, president of Thomas Architecture Studios, commented that the proposal is one example of how amendments could incentivize office-to-residential conversions and attract commercial development. He hopes that their proposal is one of the ways that could improve the character of one of the primary entries to the city.  

"I have been for 65 years, and I have been embarrassed by the Plum Street entry to our city," Thomas said. "Some of you know the failed attempt that our firm was involved in the Thurston County Courthouse project, and our preferred site was the old city hall site. It would have been a huge step in the right direction. Well, that's not going to happen for the foreseeable future. And this type of text amendment is one thing we can do to help facilitate potential mixed-use multifamily in this area." 


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  • psterry

    Years ago the city decided that drive throughs were bad. Many prospective developments were cut off at the knees.

    Now, the city decides that drive throughs are good. It is the arbitrary nature of government regulation that drives business people crazy. And out.

    Tuesday, December 5, 2023 Report this

  • johnvaneenwyk

    Drive-thrus are great if you love pollution and congestion. Idling cars are a major source of pollution. If drive-thrus are permitted, they should also be required to be no-idle zones, like in British Columbia. Also, if not all the cars that want to drive in cannot be accommodated, the line will spill out onto the roads. This is a cash cow for business at a high cost to the public's health. It's a very bad idea.

    Tuesday, December 5, 2023 Report this

  • KarenM

    The Plum Street area is not currently very welcoming for people who walk. That doesn't mean we should give up on it into the future. Drive through businesses cause unsafe conditions for people who are walking. The driveway traffic and waiting areas make access to businesses less safe and less welcoming. Idling vehicles increase air pollution.

    With the population in downtown and east of downtown, the business opportunities seem excellent. The request for this 'text amendment' is not a simple change. The character of the area would get worse as the focus is more and more aimed at car-centered business.

    I hope the Planning Commission will hold to the community desire for a safe walkable community and deny this request.

    Wednesday, December 6, 2023 Report this

  • GinnyAnn

    Adding drive-throughs for Starbucks or other services would be attractive reasons to drive in to downtown where there are few such services available. What I'd really love to have downtown is a traffic-free pedestrian zone such as those in Europe and many other downtown areas in our country. If only we could park for free or at nominal cost, and walk all over the downtown to shop at all the wonderful shops and cafes! The reason most of us shop at the Mall is free parking and the ability to walk from store to store without traffic. Making downtown more pedestrian-friendly, without vehicles and safe from unsavory characters would be such a boost to drawing in more shoppers. I prefer the locally-owned businesses downtown, but find shopping more difficult when I can't find a place to park within several blocks. I don't mind walking a few blocks, but downtown parking is formidable. Why encourage drive-throughs where people can buzz through and never stop to shop? I want to park and stay awhile.

    Wednesday, December 6, 2023 Report this

  • FordPrefect

    It’s definitely the lack of drive-throughs that is hampering business in downtown. I’m sure it has nothing to do with drug addicts that wander the streets and loiter in the parks whacked out of their mind.

    Oh how I wish we had more drive-through, downtown businesses. Then maybe Olympia could finally realize its full potential as a clean, prosperous, and safe city.

    Wednesday, December 6, 2023 Report this