Clinic property center of storm

A proposed rezone is supported by merchants, resisted by neighbors.

Efforts to loosen land use restrictions on a downtown parcel could allow Virginia Mason Winslow Clinic to expand but may alter the character of Ericksen Avenue.

Heralded as a boost for Winslow’s future vitality, proponents say the changes would allow the cramped clinic to expand services downtown rather than moving to a larger parcel elsewhere.

Dr. Tom Haggar and Dr. Rob Scribner have requested an amendment to the Comprehensive Plan to change land use designation for the nearly one acre property encompassing the clinic’s Ericksen Avenue parking lot and the building formerly occupied by Exotic Aquatics.

As owners of the property, they hope to broaden the downtown “Core Overlay District” to include their parcel, which is currently part of the “Ericksen Overlay District.” They want the property brought in-line with other contiguous properties they own for uniform zoning.

City planning staff recommended in October that the rezone be approved. The changes are currently being discussed in the City Council’s Land Use Committee.

While stressing there “is no plan in existence for development of the property,” Haggar said this week he hopes to “gain flexibility for the property to make it easier to develop, whether it’s for the clinic or other uses.”

Current restrictions there limit a building’s footprint to 2,500 square feet, which “severely limits design possibilities for clinic space,” the recently retired Winslow Clinic doctor said.

Current zoning bars a large, contiguous building from taking shape on the property, but would allow for multiple, smaller footprint buildings. One other commercial building on Ericksen has taken such a tack, with side-by-side buildings connected by an overhead walkway.

But Haggar said such design adaptations are costly to build and heat. They also take up more space compared to a more densely developed structure, he said.

The clinic’s medical director Kim Leatham supports the proposed rezone.

“We want to offer more specialty and radiological services than we currently have,” she said. “We are unable to do this due to the constraints in our present building.”

Physician and downtown property owner James Brandt said forcing expanding clinic facilities into multiple small buildings would “compromise patient care” and is “without question, simply poor planning.”

Some merchants fear that the clinic may move to another location, stripping downtown of one of its draws. Bainbridge Island Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Kevin Dwyer said the clinic’s presence is “crucial to the future economic vitality of downtown Winslow.

“It also serves as a destination business, meaning that people who are attracted to the clinic may stick around after their appointments to shop, go to restaurants, meet friends,” he said.

Pharmacist Bruce Von Normann of the Medicine Shoppe said the clinic’s downtown location is critical to the continued viability of his pharmacy.

Von Normann said the island’s growing population will need a commercial district that accommodates rising demand.

But the character of Ericksen Avenue could be a casualty of unchecked growth, said Bainbridge Island Historical Museum director Erica Varga.

“Our mission is to advance historic preservation,” she said. “We can’t support zone changes that could set a precedent and endanger the historic Ericksen neighborhood.”

According to the island’s Comprehensive Plan, the Ericksen Avenue Overlay District is intended “to preserve the unique and historical features” of the avenue and “should provide for a mix of residential and small-scale nonresidential development.”

While Varga said the amendment wouldn’t eliminate a historic structure, it could change the character of the largely residential area and set a precedent for a “creep affect” allowing more land use changes. With the museum bordering the parcel, Varga said she hopes to work with Haggar if the amendment is passed to ensure the building’s design is appropriate for the area.

Haggar acknowledges some people “fear a huge thing coming down the pike,” but contends a four-story building would exceed zoning and would be “vastly beyond the size that the clinic could ever conceive of needing.”

Councilwoman and Land Use Committee member Deborah Vann also has reservations about the land use changes.

“My problem is with how big a building could be allowed there,” she said. “We don’t know what the difference is right now. We might be overturning the overlay too casually.”

Vann disagrees with some about how important the clinic is to the island as a whole.

“It doesn’t serve the island, it only serves those with Virginia Mason coverage,” she said, saying some residents have complained to her that the clinic no longer serves after-hours patients.

“It’s not that they don’t serve a purpose, but I don’t see it as critical,” she said. “If the clinic needs to grow and needs to move, then maybe they should move.”

Haggar said he intends to work with the city to “achieve mutual goals” for the property as the island rapidly grows and changes.

He warned that not amending some density and development restrictions downtown could encourage sprawl elsewhere. He said islanders are beginning to understand the need for more land use flexibility as downtown commerce outgrows small, single-story structures.

“We’ve had years of study and we’ve decided we want to concentrate development in downtown Winslow,” he said. “The dream is changing.”

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