What Does Downtown Olympia’s Future Hold?

This could make a compelling documentary film.

Saturday night I attended an interesting five-person panel discussion at downtown Olympia’s hippy theater, a 94 year old building that shows independent movies, about the importance of cultural spaces in our fair city. The panelists were artists who spoke eloquently on the importance of the arts. One lived downtown and most worked there.

As an academic, it was glorious listening to one person after another actually honor their five minute time frame. Collectively, they stimulated my thinking not just about the arts, but about economic inequality, downtown development, and the future of these (dis)United States.

Here’s the conundrum. Olympia has long had a vibrant arts scene encompassing live music, allegedly more theatre seats per capita than any other 40,000 person city, murals galore, a vibrant farmers’ market, and well attended public art events. Many downtown buildings are historic, which the panelists all described as wonderfully unique and relatively affordable for artists to live and/or work in. The unique, historic, funky buildings they argued, are the very essence of downtown.

But lots of other more politically and socially conservative people in the surrounding burbs would describe the exact same buildings as run-down, gritty, and in need of serious investment. Some think downtown is too far gone, even unsafe, and avoid it altogether.

It was refreshing that downtown’s growing homeless population wasn’t mentioned once since it tends to dominate any discussion of downtown, but it’s one of the most common reasons some have soured on it. The focus was on low-income artists and others, but at some point obviously, the discussion has to expand to include the fate of the no-income walking wounded.

Meanwhile, in keeping with free-market capitalism, deep pocket developers eye downtown as a place to make money by flipping ancient, crumbling buildings that are too expensive to maintain. In some cases, by knocking them down and starting over, which of course enrages the art community and others of modest means. Shiny modern buildings mean higher rents, meaning low-income artists are priced out.

There are no easy answers on how best to move forward. The only thing I know for sure, the more voices that are heard before buildings are razed and rebuilt, the better. Make no mistake though, those voices will be wildly divergent.

I’m conflicted. Take the hippy, Capital Theater, as a point of reference. When a panelist “preached to the choir” by saying, “I’d much rather attend a movie at this theater than a neighboring multiplex,” the crowd applauded lustily. But all I could think was “I’d much rather attend a movie at the Grand Cinema in Tacoma, than at the Capital Theater.” Why? Because at the Grand Cinema (prices $8 matinee, $10.50 general; versus $8 and $9) I’m unlikely to tear my jeans on the springs in the seats as a Swedish friend of ours once did. And damn they’re uncomfortable.

Admittedly, I have a different sense of aesthetics than the typical Capital Theater member who is much younger than me and may live in a dorm with three other people at Evergreen State College. I appreciate historic, artistic, funky elements in buildings and downtowns, but I also like sitting in comfortable seats and not having to hope my timing is right for the one toilet.

Furthermore, new buildings, like new cars these days, are far safer. The future will bring tidal flooding and a major earthquake to downtown Olympia. Also, new buildings, like new home appliances these days, are also far more energy efficient. When well built, they also require far less maintenance, but even those cost savings aren’t enough to offset the land and building costs, which developers of course pass on to renters and/or customers.

There has to be a middle ground, I’m just not sure what it is. I do not think adding taxes to existing building regulations is politically viable, but could there be economic incentives for retrofitting and markedly improving old buildings instead of knocking them down? And what about a 1% add-on to require new building projects to include public art?

Ultimately, I suppose, the fate of downtown Olympia, and others, will come down to who is most successful in persuading the City Council to adopt modern building policies that somehow incorporate genuine respect for the city’s past. Even that though, won’t adequately address the concerns of downtown’s low-income residents.

 

 

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