Gateway: Opinion

From the Helm: Outsider perspective might help solve complex downtown issues

Tyler Hemstreet
Tyler Hemstreet The News Tribune

As many know by now, opinions on the present and future of downtown Gig Harbor run the gamut.

Those who live in the Millville neighborhood likely have a different vision for downtown going forward compared to those who live in a new housing development in Gig Harbor North. And those who live in Pierce County and visit downtown Gig Harbor once in a while might want something completely different.

That’s why it’s interesting that the Downtown Waterfront Alliance paved the way for 10 University of Washington graduate students and seniors in Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture to spend their 2013 summer reviewing buildings, properties and open spaces along Gig Harbor’s downtown waterfront. They worked with an advisory group of citizens and developed ideas to improve downtown properties. The results of their efforts were published in a 132-page book, “Storefront Studio.” The “Storefront Studio” project was headed by Professor Jim Nicholls from the UW School of Architecture.

Nicholls returned to Gig Harbor last week to review progress three years after the 2013 University of Washington study. The professor toured downtown and met with five different sub groups (City and Council, Proposals for downtown developments, citizens and preservation group, merchants and property owners) before gathering for a community forum to report his observations and take general questions from the community.

While I didn’t have the chance to attend the forum, I talked to Nicholls over the phone to get a better idea of what he thought about some of the bigger issues facing downtown.

The bottom line: Gig Harbor and its downtown isn’t that much different from some of the other communities Nicholls has studied. He did note that there was significant passion here when it comes to activism and development issues — no big surprise to most of this newspaper’s readership.

First, let’s touch on the positive. He liked the new outdoor deck at Anthony’s, the Finholm historic mural, the Harbor General Store and the Ship to Shore buildings and plaza.

“It becomes almost a landmark,” Nicholls said of Ship to Shore’s new complex. The key piece being the boating element and water-connected sports that really tie into Gig Harbor’s theme of being a Maritime City.

Nicholls also praised the walkability of the downtown area.

That’s great news, but those pieces were already in place, and those projects simply improved and beautified something that residents were already used to. The uncharted waters come when you start building new buildings or completely redeveloping plots of land. And the thought of that is scary to many who hold downtown dear to their hearts.

That’s when the “idea of the worst possible outcome of development” pops into people’s minds, Nicholls said.

In our case, that has come in the form of fast food joints dotting Harborview Drive, wine bars packed with patrons drinking until the wee hours before loudly parading out to their parked cars, and high-rise residential towers rampantly blocking sight views.

But Nicholls says the reality as it pertains to downtown development going forward is found somewhere in the middle ground of the extremes.

Once things are said and done, we find “it wasn’t as bad as the image of what was (initially) conjured up,” he said. “Eventually, we think these things that we were afraid of turned out to be pretty good.”

Another reality, Nicholls says, is that nothing ever says the same. “There is no evidence in life that you can stop change,” he said.

What people can do, he said, is continue to advocate for their position and be skeptical of development plans. But that also translates into not just shooting down every idea for change that comes into play.

“Try to imagine a way to say something positive,” he said.

While that might be difficult when it comes to several tough decisions possibly coming down the road concerning the Haub property, Nicholls thinks residents should look at all the possible positive outcomes of the proposed project might bring; the possibilities for the 0.59-acre waterfront parcel with the building and its adjacent marina — which the proposed plan would give to the city — are something people can get excited about.

Nicholls suggested the residents and city officials should even start putting together a vision for the parcel before the deal is approved.

At the end of the day, however, residents are going to have to concede on certain development projects, Nicholls says, noting that it’s about “sacrificing for the greater good.”

Tyler Hemstreet: 253-358-4150, @gateway_tyler