“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.
“It's about strategic public investment to set the table for the private investor,” says Crandall. “If that doesn't happen, revitalization doesn't happen.”
Unsurprisingly, parking is the hot-button issue. The initial proposal eliminates all 220 spaces in the lot. Some owners of businesses adjacent to the proposed plaza feel workshop participants haven't fully considered the impact of those lost spaces.
The plan utilizes public and private parking areas within two blocks, and restriping area streets for angled parking, to mitigate that loss. In theory, those measures would add 300 spaces.
Craig Carroll is the co-owner of the Yakima Sports Center, one of those perimeter businesses. He insists he's not a naysayer, but he's especially concerned about parking in the winter. “People are creatures of convenience. You remember that cold snap?” he asks, referring to a few days recently when temperatures never exceeded single digits. “Would you want to walk two or three blocks through that?” Carroll figures many would instead go to competing establishments with their own lots.
Hawkins insists there is no shortage of parking spots, and that there will be drop-off zones and handicapped parking for the less mobile. “But we've had a management problem, and an enforcement problem. You want to make sure your best spots are always available for your retail customers. You don't want to have an employee parked on a prime spot all day.”
One possible compromise is to downsize the plaza to preserve some parking. At two acres, the site is twice the size of Portland's Pioneer Courthouse Square. Indeed, the council recently elected to have prospective designers present three options: the original version, a downsized version, and a version utilizing a different site.
Steven Larsen, the general manager of a thriving Olive Garden next to the Sports Center, prefers a different site where no parking-dependent businesses exist. “I wouldn't be in favor of even the downsized version,” he says.
The potential resurrection of a historic Yakima trolley system could alleviate parking concerns, although that option isn’t likely to be seriously considered until after the plans for the plaza have been finalized — as part of the calming of Yakima Avenue.
Councilman Bill Lover has proposed putting the final design to a public advisory vote, maintaining that's the best way to garner public opinion about the plan, but Crandall has been down that road a couple of times in other communities. He knows how hard it is to educate the general public about development designs.
“We say the public will always do the right thing if they're given good information,” he says. Giving a slice of the community that information in workshops is far easier than getting that information out to the entire community and administering a vote on it, which is a massive undertaking. “That is an expense most communities are not willing to make. If you call for a vote, it is usually a ploy to get a project shut down.”
Not all of the affected owners got the word about the workshops, but all are now on the recently formed implementation committee along with other citizens and council members. In addition to the jobs above, members must also vet design guidelines suggested by city staff, and the possibility of a mercado near the plaza. The committee may seem exceptionally large, but saving the heart of a city is an exceptionally large task, and all of them will have to be intrepid explorers.