Commentary: Politics, change and building heights
It seems that once again in this election the tired, old, red herring of building heights has reared its ugly head as the prime defining topic of candidates –- how sad. It’s boldly on campaign literature, voiced clearly and loudly in the debate forums and in general has become the issue for those running to define themselves with. Of course no one is going to define themselves as being “pro” building heights, that’d be the death knell of their possibility of election. I find this simplistic presentation by candidates of how they feel we should choose elected officials extremely disappointing. Why are we so willing to accept this year after year after year? In the decade I’ve been involved in Edmonds, I have yet to see any skyscrapers appear on the horizon.
The blatant pandering to the public fears on this, as well as our willingness to accept such a view, is shameful. Now I know they’ll be plenty of folks who read this and say “wait a minute, that’s not me!!” but the reality is — it is you and me and everyone else if we choose to believe this tired, retreaded rhetoric, It’s disingenuous fear mongering, plain and simple. Aren’t we better then that ? Aren’t they or shouldn’t they be? Shouldn’t we hold them to higher intellectual standards?
Although I recently resigned due to general workload and family needs I did spend the last four-plus years sitting on the Edmonds Economic Development Commission. In that time, we had many discussions regarding development for different areas, we worked on multiple plans – The Strategic Plan, Westgate and 5 Corners development plans, the “Festival Retail” plan for the BD1 zone (downtown core district), public amenities, public spaces, Boutique Hotels, farmers markets, connectivity, tourism expansion, transit oriented developments for Hwy 99 and other area’s plus many, many more discussions. Perhaps early on in the EDC’s existence, the idea of taller development in the core was broached by a select few, but quickly dismissed and not out of fear of backlash but really an understanding of capturing and retaining the value of the downtown core’s intrinsic character. All these discussions were based upon improving the quality of life and long term viability of the city for all citizens and visitors.
I know the perception has existed for some that the EDC has been, and would be, only of benefit to developers and businesses — that couldn’t be further from the truth. All the volunteers who served as commissioners have a passion for the betterment of the city overall, not necessarily real estate developers or builders. Which is why it’s been so disappointing to see this ridiculous issue of heights and elections show up again.
Have proposals been created where building heights have been raised? Sure. Are they the Ballard monstrosity depicted in one councilmember’s campaign literature? Of course not. Westgate, 5 corners, Harbor Square (to be accurate, that’s a Port-driven and -created plan – Not EDC generated), Highway 99, Firdale Village and some along Edmonds Way that were “spot” zoning projects – The Compass Building, have all had increases discussed or implemented.
The Compass Building as an example leads me to the meat of why I’m writing this in the first place. That building has been maligned for many reasons — its general design and look, its proximity to the street and its height. As far as its general design, I personally think when compared to, oh say the very large boiler-plate apartment complex directly behind it, aesthetically it’s far more interesting to look at than that. Or for that matter, all the other standard ’70s, ’80s and ’90s designs that make so many similar buildings look like generic, boring boxes.
This particular building and its design would fit nicely in the Westgate Redevelopment plan. It could have been nestled up against the hillside where the old bowling alley was or perhaps across the street where the old strip mall is. In any case, if the Westgate Plan had been in place perhaps those options would still be there, unfortunately at least one site is not — the home of the new Walgreens. Now I have nothing against Walgreens but the problem lies in the individual development of all the sites that the Westgate Plan would cover as a whole. If this plan is implemented, then single-story buildings such as the new bank, the drugstore and the fast food restaurant being rebuilt would not be occurring as they are currently.
This in my opinion is the tragedy of having the current zoning and lack of a plan for the greater area in place. We continue to get single-story, individual parcel development under current code verse creating a viable, long term vision for the area that will provide mixed use development. It can have both housing and businesses and provide positive, guided growth for the city. This is far better than letting it continue to be developed individually, look what we get and what we lose. We lost a service station to a bank, an entertainment center to a drugstore, and we’ll likely get another bank on the other side of the car wash eventually. How many banks does Edmonds really need…apparently four new bank buildings at a minimum. Now that’s positive development!
My favorite business development example, of course (truth be told, I live close to it which is why I’m so annoyed by it) is the old gas station on 238th that now sports a nighttime, back-lit 20’-foot-long “Liquor & Wine” awning sign and two posts that used to house the old “Gas Mart” pylon sign. That’s a code compliance thing – take the sign down and retain the awning signage. Overall, it’s not an attractive, well-thought-out business design and is now the entrance beacon to our neighborhood. Is this responsible, thoughtful neighborhood development? I don’t think so, and its placement is a result of a council vote (I believe a consent agenda vote, although I could be wrong) that allowed a liquor license to be relocated without proper investigation. Where was that vigilant citizens rights mentality from councilmembers when that occurred ? Obviously taller buildings are evil but apparently booze and cigarettes are “A OK”.
Wouldn’t it be better if the Westgate area could foster business development in a more useable manner? Restaurants, retail/entertainment businesses and housing all interconnected to create a walkable, usable community instead of the old, tired, single-trip model of go to the business area, then leave.
All we have to do is look around at other cities and neighborhoods that are so much more than they used to be, all because they embraced the idea of “urban village,” “festival retail” or just basically mixed-use development. Look at Ballard Ave, Queen Anne, Capitol Hill, Fremont, Mill Creek and of course the dreaded Kirkland. They all have examples of successes in creating viable, vibrant neighborhood centers that people flock too. Now, are they all perfect? Of course not, what is? But that’s what Westgate can become if the policy makers can quit studying the minutia and move this plan forward.
Now some of you will make the assumption I’m all about “pro height” — not so. As a matter of fact, I’ve been an ACE (Alliance for Citizens of Edmonds) member for a number of years, a group well known for its “low architecture” stance. I have advocated for appropriate, responsible development during my entire time on the EDC. I’m not married to the idea of taller or shorter; rather quality over quantity and that development occurs in a manner consistent with creating vibrant, dynamic areas that people — including me — can go to shop, eat, hang out, play or live if I chose to. We have a very limited amount of that now and if Edmonds doesn’t embrace a more youthful, forward-thinking approach to its development path, we’ll never move in that direction.
I’m tired of seeing the lack of action on this plan become an action by default. The end result is we continue to see individual development occur that really is only beneficial to the businesses, not the general public. We need to create new and enticing mixed-use districts to accommodate future growth needs and requirements and stop this current disjointed development method.
Which leads me back to council elections; in my opinion this type of change can’t occur because some current councilmembers hold up plans like this. Some out of fear that if they don’t get it “perfect” right now it’ll create a domino effect of failure in the future and some from their view that no mixed use and or residential development at all is a good thing. Mind you, this is all supposition but based upon history and a few years of involvement in city politics, one gets pretty good at reading between the lines.
The really unfortunate result of all this is that the actual citizens lose in this situation. The vocal minorities or the elected officials who are following their agendas win by progress not occurring and development/change remains static. I’ve had a councilmember tell me that they do not accept citizen survey information as valid even though it was generated by a council-hired and -approved consultant for the strategic plan. One councilmember vocally opposed the EDC and tried unsuccessfully to shut it down completely, then turns around recently and tells us (the EDC) how highly she values our input in the Westgate plan. I find this behavior hypocritical.
The point here isn’t necessarily to blast councilmembers but instead point out some of the backroom political underpinnings of why change does not and cannot occur. When emails circulated recently titled “From the desk of Former City Council Member……” and endorsing anyone who doesn’t want tall buildings show up, they just continue to fuel the rhetoric. The man he’s endorsing sits there in his hat saying in his down-home, soft-spoken fashion “I’ll meet with anyone and listen………but no taller buildings!”. That does not promote a sense of open-mindedness or willingness to really have a meaningful discussion. Seriously, what’s the point, you may as well go talk to a wall.
And this is crux of it all: On our council we need thoughtful, independent-thinking members who can rise above and see beyond the sound-bite politicking. Ones who are willing to NOT hitch their wagon to the most politically expedient method of getting elected. We need a council willing to find compromise and work for what’s truly in the public’s interest in all aspects.
Edmonds can become something so much greater than it is today if we plan our changes instead of allowing it to continue in its conventional ways. This will be our undoing, this city needs youth and new life breathed into it in all shapes and forms; businesses, amenities, housing, entertainment, and on and on. If we don’t plan the future landscape for the city, then we’ll stagnate and get passed by eventually, becoming less and less desirable.
Now I won’t presume to speak for the majority of Edmonds nor would I ever, but I doubt that is what most of Edmonds wants, and I urge anyone who hasn’t voted to not fall for the simplistic and intellectually insulting tactic’s of this method. If you’ll notice I also didn’t title this “From the desk of former EDC chairman….” and send it to 1,500 of my closest friends.
Please choose your officials well.
– By Evan Pierce