Olympia Planning Commission opens public hearing for a drive-through proposal; weighs in on development vs. safety


The Olympia Planning Commission is weighing on a proposal to change regulations and permit drive-throughs within a defined segment of Plum Street between Union Avenue and Fifth Avenue that could impact development and public safety.

On Monday, January 8, Planning Commission vice-chair Greg Quetin opened the public hearing for drive-throughs in mixed-used developments among downtown entry corridors – via portions of Plum Street – requested code amendment.

Supporters commented that it could boost the economy, while a community member raised concerns about potential risks to pedestrian safety.

In December, Olympia City planner Casey Schaufler presented an application to the Planning Commission from Thomas Architecture Studios to amend Section 18.06 of the Olympia Municipal Code (OMC) regarding regulations for drive-through and drive-in uses.

Thomas Architecture Studios is proposing a text amendment to the city code that would allow drive-throughs and drive-ins as conditional uses within a specifically defined area to facilitate the development of mixed-use multifamily projects along auto-oriented corridors in the downtown business district

Schaufler explained that under the current OMC, drive-through and drive-in uses are generally 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.

Public hearing

Ron Thomas, president of Thomas Architecture Studios, supported the proposed text amendment. He stated that the intent is to provide more flexibility for future development to support increased housing opportunities in the city.

Thomas noted that the commercial space on the ground floor of mixed-use projects is becoming an important part of making projects financially feasible. Allowing drive-throughs in the specified area of Plum Street could help more development proposals "pencil out." He also pointed out that over 50% of the state workforce no longer commutes to traditional offices full-time, which has impacted businesses along this corridor.

Donnie Hull of Thomas Architecture Studios spoke briefly in support of the proposed text amendment. He echoed Ron Thomas' comments that the application aims to provide more housing opportunities in the community by giving developers more flexibility and allowing potential drive-through uses.

In introducing drive-throughs, Hull said it could bring more people to downtown Olympia, aligning with the city's goals of creating a healthy, safe downtown area, especially with new residential development.

Business owner Robert Knudson expressed strong support for the text amendment.

Knudson has owned Casa Mia restaurant on Plum Street for nearly 40 years. He said the changes on Plum Street over that time have been mostly negative, including the loss of retail businesses and vacant office buildings.

While housing downtown has increased, Knudson noted that the pandemic has significantly impacted businesses like his. With many now working remotely long-term, he said Plum Street is no longer viable for running a business.

Knudson believes acknowledging these impacts and allowing more flexibility through the amendment could help spur additional investment and development to revitalize the street.

In her comment, Karen Messmer expressed concerns about the proposal's impact on pedestrian and bicycle safety. She noted that drive-through businesses inherently lead to traffic crossing sidewalks and bike lanes as cars enter and exit the property. She stated that this type of traffic makes it less safe for walking and cycling.

Messmer pointed out that there is a designated bicycle route entering downtown from the east side neighborhood that passes directly through this "new zone." She argued this would create a conflict for bicyclists using that route, hoping to access downtown safely.

A former Planning Commissioner, Messmer acknowledged that the area has seen changes with vacant office buildings in recent years. "That doesn't mean we have to compromise the safety of people who are walking and cycling in order to make the change. This will not improve this area."

Messmer expressed skepticism that such minimal amenities would sufficiently address safety concerns raised by introducing more vehicle cross-traffic at drive-through access points.

Messmer also criticized the equity analysis submitted with the proposal, which only mentioned impacts on corporations and commercial building owners. Still, it needs to address the fact that approving drive-throughs could reduce safety for pedestrians and cyclists. "It damaged the equity for those who cannot or choose not to drive."

Regarding climate analysis, Messmer said it left many unanswered questions about how the proposals would address climate impacts.

Commissioner Tracey Carlos asked if any traffic or bicycle safety impact studies had been done looking at gateway areas or dedicated entryway streets near interstates in other cities. She wanted to consider safety in response to a concern raised in the public hearing.

Schaufler said he would look into what studies could provide information on safety at similar locations.

The commissioners agreed to continue the discussion on January 22.


5 comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here

  • KarenM

    This article from Strong Towns describes how bad drive through businesses are for cities.

    1. Drive-throughs are a bad financial deal for cities.

    2. Drive-throughs are traffic nightmares.

    3. Drive-throughs are pedestrian nightmares.

    4. Drive-throughs just aren't necessary. The needs they meet can be met in other ways.


    Tuesday, January 9 Report this

  • AugieH

    Olympia is such an armpit, drive-throughs would only improve it. So would more nail salons.

    Wednesday, January 10 Report this

  • Kruz81

    Such insane reasons to not have drive thrus. And people commenting that some crappy article.from no where is evidence...Olympia save yourself

    Thursday, January 11 Report this

  • AaronG

    Where are all these pedestrians that use Plum St.? I hardly ever see more than 3 or 4 people...walking or riding on it.

    Anything is better than letting it sit and rot...like it is.

    Friday, January 19 Report this

  • SusanM

    The article cited by KarenM was written in 2020, well before the pandemic changed the world. The proposed amendment is intended to address some of these changes and their economic fallout. A more realistic and representative case was made in the New York Times in November of last year:

    The https://www.nytimes.com/2023/11/07/dining/drive-through.html?unlocked_article_code=1.JE0.pRYG.OMKi9t09uDN5&hpgrp=ar-abar&smid=em-shareart

    Sunday, January 21 Report this