Height makes neither right nor blight

  • Wednesday, May 9, 2007 9:00am
  • Opinion

There are many words that come to mind while strolling along Water Street in Port Townsend, but “canyon” isn’t among them.

The towering buildings of the little Victorian seaport to our north are among the most picturesque and treasured in the region. Glorious three- and four-story stone hotels, shops, offices, apartments and alehouses line the boulevard, harkening to a more colorful architectural age and imbuing a sense not of insignificance, but of awe.

The massive brick facade of the Port Townsend municipal building dwarfs the neo-retro “milk shed” of Bainbridge Island’s City Hall, and it is revered as a landmark in that town.

Into the shadow of such edifices, countless locals and visitors wander each year, and we suspect not one of them complains of being stuck at the bottom of an architectural abyss. And yet “canyon” has emerged as the new all-purpose pejorative for any proposed redevelopment along our own Winslow Way. Critics are challenging proposed code changes that could allow five-story buildings under some circumstances, citing the potential loss of our downtown’s “small town feel” among other concerns. That difference in perceptions – Port Townsend’s monumental seaport buildings versus our humble Mayberry – shows the subjective nature of scale, and suggests that one’s notion of the perfect Main Street is whatever we happened to grow up with, or have simply gotten used to over time.

Truth is, there isn’t an old building along Winlsow Way (besides the congregational church and the Alliance Building) that can claim any real historical significance or architectural merit. So in that regard, there’s not much about the present arrangement worth holding onto. And let’s remember a few facts:

For one thing, even current zoning allows a much taller downtown, as high as four-stories; that Winslow Way hasn’t seen much in the way of redevelopment is largely a function of strict parking requirements. Winslow Tomorrow isn’t proposing much that’s new, just strategies to achieve what’s already on the books. For another, any redevelopment along Winslow Way would be done over a period of years, perhaps decades. That should ensure that our downtown grows up with an organic feel, reflecting an array of architectural styles and sensibilities. Nobody’s going to tear up the block tomorrow and plunk down another Harbor Square.

As one of our local architects (who, for the record, is ambivalent at best about a five-story Winslow Way) has observed, the key to a picturesque downtown – at whatever hodgepodge of heights it finally settles into over time – rests more with tasteful design guidelines and required public amenities than with a uniform height limit. Moreover, our “sense of downtown” will be defined by the interactions that take place at street level – where community is really built – regardless of how close to the clouds the buildings around us rise.

Height in and of itself is not the enemy. In fact, we dare say that if we were going through this exercise in that little town to the north – call it “Port Townsend Tomorrow” – folks would be clinging for dear life to the towering Victorian buildings that leave their main street in shadow.

Funny how that works.

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Correction

• Eagle Harbor liveaboards will likely pay city fees on top of an an average of $145 per month to the state, under a new “open water moorage” plan. A story in last Wednesday’s Review suggested liveaboards would pay only the state fee. The city has not yet specified how much it will charge for anchoring out.

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