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Yakima's future: Parks or parking lots?

The Eastern Washington city's quest to remake itself in the image of a smaller, more walkable town.
Photo looking west from the roof of the Capitol Theatre, showing Millennium Plaza and the adjacent parking lot, city lot #2. Yakima Avenue visible in upper right.

Photo looking west from the roof of the Capitol Theatre, showing Millennium Plaza and the adjacent parking lot, city lot #2. Yakima Avenue visible in upper right. Tuck Russell

The Plaza Concept, courtesy of Crandall Arambula

The Plaza Concept, courtesy of Crandall Arambula

“Intrepid Explorer” was not one of the job requirements for the City of Yakima’s new Economic Development Manager. Nevertheless, shortly after Sean Hawkins was hired for the position, he braved the descent into the lexical catacombs of the city, where old laws and regulations, and council meeting minutes, among other things, are laid to rest.

There in the archives, in the belly of city hall, guarded only by a few spider webs and a thin layer of dust, the explorer found a set of ancient, undigitized plans.

Hawkins was actually looking for a piece of legislation from the late 70s that had shaped Yakima’s downtown core, creating an improvement district that led to the development of several parking lots there.

The larger lot occupies two central downtown acres and provides free access to two theaters, a government building and a restaurant-heavy host of small businesses. The smaller one sits on one acre just north of Yakima Avenue and is surrounded by a variety of small businesses.

As part of the improvement district in question, Hawkins was told, the city is allowed to replace the parking lots with a convention center or for some other public use, so long as the lost parking is replaced — a rule he is hoping to capitalize on.

The new plan envisions a pedestrian friendly downtown featuring a central plaza with infrastructure for events, and an adjacent mercado. It also calls for the calming of Yakima Avenue by replacing some of its lanes for bikes and trolleys, rerouting some of the through auto traffic to nearby streets.

But, down in the archives, Hawkins also found a half dozen redevelopment plans for the space drawn up by city staff, consultants, even a local downtown association over the course of the last half of the 20th century.

Many of the old plans “were calling for public space, they were calling for a public market,” says Hawkins. “A lot of these ideas that are coming forward, they're not new. They've been sitting around there before, but the execution and implementation of them – for whatever reason – just never occurred.”

Peppered with drive throughs, a fair number of nearly windowless buildings and not a few empty storefronts, most citizens agree revitalization is needed in Yakima’s downtown. But after all these false starts, some are skeptical that this plan will fare any better.

There are reasons to think that it will: With a new city manager, Hawkins, and a council that seems largely behind the push, there is, for once, energy and unity in the city government. Crandall Arambula, a new consultanting firm hired for the job, specializes in downtown redevelopment, and is experienced in shepherding the process, not just cranking out designs and studies.

The firm started with studies, of course, but their next step was a series of three public workshops last year to include community opinions and ideas in their plans. Participants learned some general revitalization concepts, some particular to Yakima, and brainstormed ideas for the project. Topically, each workshop built on the previous one. Drilling down from the present strengths and weaknesses of the downtown to two conceptual proposals — one for what Crandall calls a “game changing” central plaza and another for the calming of traffic on Yakima Avenue.

The plaza site preferred by workshop participants is the larger of the two city lots, which is flanked by two iconic renaissance-style buildings – the Capitol Theatre and the Federal Courthouse. It is also the site of Millennium Plaza, a large public art piece. In its current iteration, it's more art installation than assembly place.

Crandall says he hopes to make the plaza the city’s gathering place — “a key block where they'd put their finger down and say 'that is the center, and that's where the action is…’” Public space, he hopes, will attract pedestrian traffic and those pedestrians will  patronize local businesses, drawing more business investment.


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