The current budget shortfall for the city means that very few of the capital projects will get funded this year. To me the most important project is the big dig – the utilities and infrastructure replacement in downtown Winslow. Downtown is the central diamond in the jeweled ring that is Bainbridge Island, an exception to the trend of small downtowns fast disappearing in our car-oriented society.
In Kitsap County and our state, the friendly, pedestrian-oriented, compact downtown is being surrounded and replaced by strip development or malled beyond recognition.
Witness Poulsbo. Thirty years ago it had a compact downtown, admittedly Norwegian kitsch, but appropriate because of its original settlers. The intervening years have resulted in strip development on all sides, plus a new set of box stores on the hill surrounded by acres of asphalt. Traffic has quadrupled, and worst of all the numerous red lights on the ring roads have had the undesired side effect of funneling traffic through downtown Poulsbo as the quickest way to get to the other side of town. Silverdale also has a small downtown on the water, but is almost impossible to find in the mass of strip development and the mega-mall.
Downtown Winslow is still the heart of Bainbridge Island, and a great place to stroll, window shop, meet neighbors, eat and shop. However, it does have a few problems: the need to replace the sewer and water lines below the street and about half of the sidewalks.
That said, I am not in favor of the big dig until it can be done right. We will get one chance in the next 25 to 50 years to tear up downtown, so let’s not do it on the cheap. All the disruption will be especially hard on existing businesses on Winslow Way, which means we get a single shot at the project. While the road is dug up, let’s replace the sidewalks, add some amenities such as an innovative open stormwater collection system and possibly bury the overhead wires.
Seattle is facing a similar problem on a bigger scale and a longer time horizon with the failing Alaska Way Viaduct. Seattle will have to live with the viaduct replacement for the next 75 to 100 years.
In the 1950s, when the viaduct was built, the Seattle waterfront was a rundown area and the car was king after World War II. The viaduct moved cars, but at a terrible price. It walled the city off from what has become Seattle’s greatest asset – a revitalized waterfront filled with shops, restaurants and entertainment – with breathtaking views of the Puget Sound, the Olympic Mountains and the green of Bainbridge Island in the foreground. In most cities, the waterfront is a grimy industrial area that you wouldn’t want to visit. For Seattle, the waterfront is its front porch. Too bad the viaduct is a noisy, tall curtain that separates the vibrant downtown from the even more vibrant waterfront. I’m hoping Seattle decides to remove the wall and selects the tunnel as the replacement solution.
The viaduct is an example of what happens when a city focuses on today instead of the future. Let’s wait with the Winslow dig until we can do it right. Don’t saddle Winslow with a stop-gap solution that just fixes the underground utilities, and ignores the other shortcomings.
The biggest of these shortcomings are the sidewalks that are too narrow to walk two abreast in places, are encroached by car bumpers, and are frequently an uneven hodgepodge of crumbling and badly patched concrete. If replaced by non-slippery red brick or some other unique material, the sidewalks of Winslow could become a positive design feature, separating pedestrian walkways from asphalt/concrete roads and parking lots that are Winslow’s most prominent feature at the ferry dock and the High School Road shopping area.
Let’s allow for sidewalks wide enough in places to accommodate tables spilling out from Winslow Way restaurants, where patrons can sit with a cup of coffee or a meal and watch as the rest of the town parades by. Under-grounding the wires and removing the telephone poles is also a worthy project, but one that may or may not be worth the extra cost.
So I urge the City Council to delay the Winslow downtown project until it can be fully funded and done right, rather than settle for a halfway solution that we will have to live with for the next 25 to 50 years.
Gary Pettersen is an island resident living on Parfitt Way.