Winslow’s ‘sense of place’ is at risk | Guest Column

While downtown still looks much like it has for the past several decades, we may be on the brink of great change there.

Guest column by Rod Stevens

While downtown still looks much like it has for the past several decades, we may be on the brink of great change there.

The reconstruction of Winslow Way will lead to the closure of a number of stores, and these vacancies, coupled with regulations that favor redevelopment, could lead to creation of a place dominated by a couple of big projects and more offices on the ground floor where stores used to be.

The New York Times describes this as the worst retail period in the last 35 years, possibly the last 80 years.

Stores here are already struggling, and next year will likely bring more closures. Couple this with the traffic re-routings and sidewalk closures caused by the reconstruction of Winslow Way, and we are likely to see a quarter or more of the stores close. The timing could not be worse This retail will not necessarily come back once the construction is done, particularly if new buildings replace old, since the rents in these are usually too high for small, independently owned stores.

Recent closures include: some stores in “The Winslow” on the northeast corner of Ericksen Avenue; three in the new building on Bjune Drive; and an increasing number of offices on the ground level of Harbor Square.

We are likely to see the replacement of older, smaller buildings with much bigger ones that are out of scale with what remains. The Winslow Tomorrow planners told us this would never happen, because downtown property ownership was so deeply divided.

To the contrary, however, just three landowners control more than half of the land in the two core blocks between Ericksen and Madison avenues. They own Town and Country Market, the Winslow Clinic building and the two-story Winslow Mall.

The mayor’s proposals would allow these three owners to collectively build as much space as now exists on the two key downtown blocks combined.

On the north side of the street, where the Winslow Clinic is now, we could end up with a project very much like Harbor Square, facing one, directly across the street, very much like Central Market. And remember that this development will displace the post office, a meeting place that brings people downtown daily, weekly and monthly.

Some of these large landowners have played a dominant role in the mayor’s downtown make-over, serving on a select and largely self-selected committee that proposed the new density. Some of these same owners also pushed for the city study of how to put a parking garage on land next to theirs.

Now owners who are thinking about redeveloping with big new projects will sign only short-term leases.

Intended to encourage reinvestment downtown, Winslow Tomorrow is having the exact opposite effect: dis-investment in existing buildings. This conjunction of political and private interests is not surprising, but what is unexpected is the fact that so many of Winslow Tomorrow’s most ardent supporters simply do not like downtown the way it is.

They think it is dumpy. Perhaps they want to live in a more “urban” place. Whatever their motivations, they should realize that Winslow is not a city, but the historic center of a semi-rural community whose key strength is its small-town charm.

Suburbs like Mercer Island are trying to create new main streets like ours. We have the real thing. Nothing in the comprehensive plan says we have to sacrifice the character of our main street.

Yes, let’s concentrate some of the growth on the island in Winslow, but let’s put that density behind Winslow Way.

Up and down the coast, the most successful main streets are predominantly just one story tall, and almost all of these have older buildings like ours. To the extent we do spend planning dollars downtown, we should focus on the streets to north, where we need to make the density more livable. To the extent that we build up on the main street, let’s at least get some jobs out of the upstairs space.

There are two political strategies in the near- to mid-term that could forestall this loss of place. One is to convince swing votes on the council to delay the Winslow Way construction this spring, when there will be even more hard evidence, in the form of declining sales-tax revenue, of how retailers are struggling.

The second and longer-lasting strategy is simply to elect better leadership next November, when three seats will be up.

The current council, once heralded as “the dream team,” has become “the bad dream team.” The council needs to concentrate on spending priorities that benefit people who already live here.

We need leaders who will protect the sense of place here, a sense of place that, in many ways, is more threatened by City Hall and by local special interests than by any outside developers.

Great places take 50 years or more to create, but they can be undone in less than a decade. We will have to fight to save ours.

Rod Stevens is a real estate consultant. He has recently completed a business strategy to revitalize downtown Gig Harbor.