Designs on a vital downtownArchitect Charles Wenzlau is reshaping the town center.
June 9, 2008 · Updated 6:47 PM
"Architect and planner Charles Wenzlau wants to make his mark. He just doesn't want observers to know he's done it.My real preference would be for people not to know I've done these projects, and start thinking that they've always been there, he said about the high-profile work he is doing in downtown Winslow.By the middle of the decade, Wenzlau will have designed three projects that redefine Winslow Way, the island's main street. * The street's eastern anchor is the recently completed San Juan Building, on the corner of Winslow and Ferncliff Avenue, where Wenzlau's office is located. * The street's midsection at the corner of Ericksen Avenue will have an as-yet unnamed project that Wenzlau is designing in a joint venture with architect Frank Karreman. * The street's principal intersection with Madison Avenue will have a Wenzlau-designed project on the northwest corner, on the site now occupied by Lundgren Station and the adjoining brick building to the east.But Wenzlau's contribution to the city-scape doesn't stop there. He also designed the Courtyards on Madison, the condominium development on Madison at Knechtel Way; the West Home project on Knechtel for the Housing Resources Board; and the Village Square complex of office buildings on Hildebrand Lane.Not bad for somebody who has only been here three years.A native of Pasadena, Calif., and graduate of the University of Oregon, Wenzlau spent 12 years practicing in San Francisco, Calif. His wife is from the Northwest, and in 1995, they decided to move north to be closer to her family.Wenzlau took the next two years off work and got a master's degree in urban design at the University of Washington.I wanted to reshape my practice to work in a smaller community and help cope with growth issues, he said. My interest is with in-fill development, working in a town center.In other words, just what Bainbridge Island wants to do in its comprehensive plan - concentrate population growth in downtown Winslow.Wenzlau had his introduction to Bainbridge-style planning with the San Juan Building, the first of his projects to be completed.When we began, the neighbors were vocally opposed to the project, he said. We met with them many times, and incorporated what they suggested into the building. By working with the neighbors, we got a better project.Wenzlau says that as the architect, he is frequently caught between the demands of the neighbors and the economic imperatives of the developer. But he enjoys that position.When I wrote my college application essays, I said that I envisioned myself as somebody who could be in the middle and bring people together, he said. I find that I'm doing a lot of that now.Looking to the future, Wenzlau hopes that as the island grows - I can't control population increases, he said - it can maintain a small-town, small-scale feel.I would like to see more housing downtown, he said. Not just apartments, but access to open space and gardens. And we need a better place for pedestrians, not letting cars be king.He praises what he calls the messy vitality of Winslow Way, a street that he believes works very well. He contrasts that to the High School Road area, which was built around use of the automobile.Maintaining downtown vitality is a challenge, he said.More attention needs to be given to keeping the merchants that are downtown in that location, he said. We need big enough building pads for them to have room, and parking needs to be reasonably convenient but not dominant. It's a tough balance.While Wenzlau finds satisfaction concentrating on urban-center projects, there is a built-in tension that comes from having your vision become highly public.It's a huge responsibility working in downtown Winslow, he said. Our towns are the product of a number of people's efforts, and I'm honored to be one of them. "