Over the past couple of years, the City of Bainbridge Island has been transforming its town center. A massive makeover of Winslow Way is the latest effort in a series of public and private investments that have been taking place.
Back the mid-90’s the City made a deliberate decision to deflect the majority of new development away from the pastoral parts of the community and into the town center. Since then, town houses, apartments, condominiums and cottage houses have cropped up in an area around Winslow Way between the ferry terminal and Madison Avenue.
The City built a new city hall, along with a village square that serves as a location for the weekend farmer’s market. Other civic structures have been developed as a result of significant community financial contributions, including a performing arts theatre, a children’s museum and, recently, a dramatic new art museum. All these reflect the high level of interest in the arts among the island’s residents.
As the centerpiece of the town center, Winslow Way has lagged behind. For many years, it has served as a sort of linear commons, both in the physical sense and as a subject of debate — often with great heat — about the future of the city. This is a place that managed to fend off the invasion of chain restaurants and stores that has been the bane of many other communities.
Most of the Winslow Way stores are locally owned and display a homegrown quirkiness that has been gradually disappearing from many small towns. Bainbridge Island residents fiercely defend their turf; the political landscape is littered with both developers and public officials who were ripped apart by protracted periods of dissension over building height, density, parking, signs and almost every civic minefield one can list.
So it is all the more remarkable that despite this prickly atmosphere, Winslow Way has now been re-invented to incorporate state-of-the-art principles of sustainability. Previously, the street was nothing much to write home about. An overly wide swath of paving for cars and trucks was flanked by narrow sidewalks and angled rows of parking stalls. At several points, artists had added small touches to provide something interesting to look at or touch — a decorated bench, a planter. But for the most part, it was a pretty ordinary commercial thoroughfare (below).
Now, the street has been reconstructed (below right). The traffic lanes have been narrowed and the curbs lined with generously-sized rain gardens that break up the angled parking. Some of the gardens are larger than parking stalls and infuse the street with a park-like quality.
Having been through one season of growth, the gardens have become lush with grasses and other plantings that thrive on stormwater running off the pavement and into recessed pockets of soil. Rain water used to be channeled via curbs and gutters into underground pipes and eventually into Puget Sound. The new rain gardens feature inlets cut into the surrounding curbs, or no curbs at all. This allows the water to be collected, scrubbed free of contaminants by the rain garden’s plants and filtered back into the ground. This more natural system of surface water drainage was designed by the Seattle firm SvR (part of a team headed by Heery International engineers and architects).
This technique has been gaining popularity across the country and even has its own science and name: “low impact development.” It’s been showing up in places from New York City to Lexington, Kentucky to Portland, Oregon, which helped pioneer the idea in the middle of the last decade. It’s hard to go anywhere in Portland without encountering a street that has been refashioned in this manner.
Seattle has been installing rain gardens too. A failed attempt in Ballard in 2011 slowed the momentum for a while. Still, designers have applied the lessons learned from those early efforts to more recent projects. Bell Street in the Belltown neighborhood is currently being refashioned along low impact development lines.
But back to Bainbridge.
The Winslow Way makeover involved more than just rain gardens. The city added new LED street lights. Some sit next to the curb and are pedestrian scale. Others are suspended over the center of the street on thin wires. Parking was reorganized and the roadway was narrowed to slow down vehicles. A small plaza with serpentine stone walls and signs that interpret community history now anchor the entry to the ferry terminal.
This kind of multi-purpose, comprehensive rethinking of a street is unusual, especially in a smaller community where every inch of ground is frequently fought over by someone who believes that everything is just fine the way it is, thank you. It took an enormous community effort, with lots of people championing the idea, and elected representatives with the political will to make it happen.
Now that Winslow Way is done, it should open the door for many other smaller communities interested in taking similar steps. No one likes to be the first to try an experiment that flaunts all the usual rules, because the risk and expense of failure is high, not to mention embarrassing.
Tom von Schrader is a partner with the SvR, the Seattle firm that was involved with the redesign of Winslow Way (as well as Seattle’s Bell Street). “We’re going to see many more street reconstruction projects like these, as we take aging infrastructure and re-think it, infusing 21st century values and technologies,” observes von Schrader, adding, ”Of course, it also requires an extraordinary level of community cooperation and political will.”
To see what Tom von Schrader means, take a pleasant ferry ride to Bainbridge. Stroll along a whole new type of Main Street and kick the tires. Metaphorically speaking, that is.
Photos courtesy of SvR Design.