Build a canvas for the future

There’s a quality to an aging sidewalk that someone

once artfully described as “the patina of age.”

It’s the rough, pockmarked texture of old concrete that conveys the familiarity and comfort of longevity. “I’ve seen a lot of years,” it says, “and a lot of shoes,” as somewhere in the back of your mind you wonder who else has

trodden this same path through neighborhood or town.

Change is rarely pleasant, but incremental change is at least easier to absorb. Consider the various artistic treatments up and down our commercial and cultural corridor of Winslow Way. Most of us were probably around when the colorful mosaic tiles went in in front of Cafe Nola, as a dying tree was replaced a few years back. But you have to have been around a good 15 years to remember when “Bob’s Ball” – the large, cheekily named sphere in front of T&C, designed by then-much-talked-about Suquamish artist Bob Lucas – created quite a community buzz. And longer still to have your name on one of Winslow’s original sidewalk bricks.

Likewise the design of our current “streetscape” itself. The wider sidewalk in front of American Marine Bank downtown gives a hint of what’s to come; it’s a relatively new addition, having been improved when the bank was rebuilt four or five years ago. The inviting pedestrian islands and benches in front of Blackbird Bakery, Town & Country...were any of those even here 20 years ago? All were installed over time, a years-long collaboration between the city, the merchants association and local artists; each represented incremental and idiosyncratic change to the downtown environment. It didn’t look like we were “building a theme,” because we weren’t. Rather, each feature came to signify a different period in the unfolding of our community, and the different personalities and visions in play. Taken together, they became “Winslow.”

We hope the city’s design team is mindful of this lesson as the new and (presumably) improved streetscape plan unfolds. The council this week rightly moved the project forward, for reasons wholly unrelated to aesthetics. That downtown utilities are crumbling and must be rebuilt has been known for years; the project would already be in the rear view mirror, but for legitimate fears over the practical impact that construction will have on merchants. And it’s going to cost what it costs: an estimated $18 million for utility and roadwork. There’s no way around it.

What we’re really talking about – what people are going to notice when it’s all said and done – is the last $2.6 million, and with that, may the city spend judiciously. In fact, this is one project where we hope aesthetic flourishes are kept to a minimum. The streetscape presentations show an array of inviting and functional ideas – pedestrian islands, varied textures for sidewalks and curbing, “bioswales” for storm runoff – all fine elements. At the same time, we might create a canvas upon which the community can draw and color in its own ideas over time. Leave spaces for future islanders to make their own imprint on the town, a mix of periods and forms that will suit the hodgepodge of buildings around them. Merely commissioning different artists for different treatments won’t escape a sense of “theme” if everything’s built at once. There’s a natural, organic quality to change that only the passage of years can imbue. And you never know when the next Bob’s Ball will roll into town.

We can’t design and build in a patina of age. But time can take care of that for us.

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