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“Neighborhood” centers— or centers of commerce?

Another investor–driven strategy

Most Olympia residents would welcome a coffee shop or small grocery store into their neighborhood, yet plans for such Neighborhood Centers have been in talks for years with little to show for it. Being able to get to a slice of pizza or head to a bakery without a car adds quality, sociability and identity to where you live.

Now the City seems to be angling to take advantage of the public’s desire for Neighborhood Centers to allow three– and four–story apartment buildings in broad swaths of residential neighborhoods. The City risks turning a “Yes in my back yard” (YIMBY) proposition into a divisive “Not in my back yard” (NIMBY) proposition.

Diverse housing types and existing centers

City zoning already allows for townhouses, cottages, duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes and ADUs in most neighborhoods. What is not allowed are three– and four–story apartment buildings.

Olympia defines Neighborhood Centers as “small walk, bike, and transit–friendly business clusters within residential neighborhoods that serve the day–to–day retail and service needs of local residents and foster community interaction.”

Olympia has designated 17 areas as “Neighborhood Center” areas—some exist already and some are “aspirational.” Existing designations among the 17 areas include two successful examples: Olympia Food Coop on Bowman and Rogers NW, and Wildwood on Capitol Way. Each fits the definition above: small–scale local businesses, tucked into a limited area and fostering relationships among local residents.

Who was consulted

To kick off its “neighborhood centers” work, the City hired two firms—for a combined $85,000—Makers Architecture and Leland Consulting. They were charged to look at “barriers” to Neighborhood Center development. The consultants produced a market analysis and a neighborhood center profile. While business stakeholders and commercial property owners were consulted early and often, local residents—that is, people who live in these neighborhoods—were markedly not consulted.

Despite the report noting that in Olympia, higher population densities are not associated with the success of Neighborhood Centers, the consultants’ first recommendation was to modify the City’s zoning so new types of commercial and residential buildings could be located anywhere within a 6.5 acre center defined by a 300–foot radius.

This upzoning would allow taller buildings, less parking area, higher intensity of use, checkerboard pattern development and increased lot coverage—in sum, more concrete, less green space, diminished light and concentrated development.

Making room for more commercial development

The City’s strategy appears to be a classic case of “manufacturing consent”—an effort to manipulate neighborhoods into accepting a corporate–sponsored agenda as a necessary or even “natural” consequence of today’s economy. One of the most pernicious aspects of that agenda is to replace home ownership—the foundation for building wealth and economic security for the middle class—with “rentership”—a stream of ever–increasing rents draining a family’s housing payments into corporate and hedge fund bank accounts.

The Profile report goes on to suggest that modest homes could be replaced by commercial development. It actually acknowledges that this could lead to gentrification and displacement, i.e., destruction of some of the most affordable housing in Olympia.

When the reports reference “infill,” they are not talking about building on empty lots, but rather identifying the destruction of “modest” homes that constitute some of the most affordable housing in Olympia and their replacement by rental apartments. The consultants met with business and real estate reps to get input before issuing their report, but—again—not with neighborhood residents.

Collecting evidence to show community support

In line with an attempt to manufacture consent, the City created an online survey with questions designed to elicit answers that can be used to indicate public support for the corporate agenda.

Take the question that asks respondents if they support allowing a
“…greater variety of home types within a ¼—½ mile of the neighborhood center for greater consumer base, vibrancy, and housing options and affordability. (Most are currently zoned low–density residential even though the Comprehensive Plan vision calls for greater variety.)”

The question seems to ask whether you support a change in zoning that will bring “a greater variety of home types” which in turn bring “…vibrancy, housing options and affordability.” This misleads by falsely implying that a “great variety of homes” isn’t possible under current zoning.

The question also describes up to a half–mile radius from the neighborhood center for the new zone. To put this in perspective, the total area encompassed within a circle with a radius of a half–mile of 17 neighborhood centers would be 13.4 square miles. Since the City of Olympia is only 20.1 square miles, this is a vision of new commercial zoning covering two–thirds of the city.

To achieve a community–driven plan

The survey questions do not represent a genuine attempt to gain insight into resident desires for housing density and local neighborhood businesses within walking range. The take–away when City planning staff summarizes the “yes” answers will be that there is support for these zoning changes, i.e., more commercial development, taller buildings, higher intensity of use etc. This will enable the next steps toward something that will qualify as a “commercial center,” not a “neighborhood center” as advertised. One question even alludes to scattering commercial businesses throughout neighborhoods, not just at centers.

Working with the residents of existing neighborhoods should have been the starting point for this effort, not an afterthought. Integrating Neighborhood Centers into Olympia could be a win–win–win for the city, residents, and businesses. That is unlikely unless the City’s approach to their development changes.

Judy Bardin is a resident of West Olympia, and was formerly an Environmental Epidemiologist.

More info at Neighborhood Centers

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