Special Reports

Lacey ponders its core desires

Virgil Clarkson, the mayor of Lacey, is hesitant to call any one area of the Thurston County city “downtown.”

“As of this moment, we don’t have a downtown, at least not officially,” said Clarkson, a Thurston County resident for four decades. But that hasn’t stopped the city’s planners and business people from trying to transform one of the town’s key business districts into an urban center any small burg would be proud to call their downtown.

Downtowns usually grow up around a town’s historic center, whether it’s a main street, city hall, row of retail shops or a bustling square.

Incorporated in 1966, Lacey doesn’t have that traditional core. Instead, the South Sound Center, a shopping center that includes Target and Mervyn’s, has served as the town’s commercial center and default core. It’s also called the Woodland District.

Mike Kelson, 45, works about three blocks from the shopping center and lives in nearby Tumwater.

“There’s no one area that I’d consider a downtown,” he said, while eating a sandwich near the mall. “But if I did, I think this would be it.”

The city’s planners feel the same way.

The city started the slow process of identifying and revitalizing its core in the late 1990s. City officials hired a consultant, convened a task force and gathered input from residents on what they yearned for in downtown. The library, city hall and state offices anchor one end of the Woodland District and the shopping center designates the other.

The conversations on how to give the district a more urban feel yielded many suggestions, including creating more open space and parks, pedestrian-friendly streets and an easy route to access a range of services from offices to restaurants. The city’s response was a set of design and planning standards aimed at generating a more vibrant downtown. The standards allow for on-street parking, require new businesses to build wider sidewalks and pushed the front of new buildings closer to the street.

“We’re just starting to implement those now,” said Jerry Litt, director of the city’s community development department. “We’re getting there, but we’re getting there slowly.”

Transforming the suburban area into an urban core has its challenges. The city is forced to work around what it already has and wait for redevelopment of properties to get the look and feel that it wants, Litt said. The lack of residences in the area also means it can be quiet on evenings and weekends.

But the heart of Lacey is a work in progress. Concerts in Huntamer Park, located on one end of the district, and a weekend farmers’ market are bringing people back to the downtown after work hours. The city has plans to build a pedestrian plaza and clock tower adjacent to the South Sound Center. It also will reduce Sixth Avenue Southeast, one of the main streets running through the district, to two lanes from four – with left turn pockets – so that cars can park on the street.

And the city recently received proposal for mixed-use development downtown that would include housing.

Priscilla Terry, president of a local commercial real estate company, was part of the first downtown task force. Terry and other investors bought a building that’s part of Bell Towne Centre, a mixed-use complex downtown that includes a fitness center, office space and restaurants.

“It’s going to take awhile, and there will be some redevelopment along the way,” Terry said of the downtown development. “But we bought into the vision, and we love it here.”

Lacey facts

Incorporated: 1966

Population: 33,000

Median household income: $43,848

Kelly Kearsley: 253-597-8573