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Oak Harbor gets a blueprint for change

"There should be a walking trail around Oak Harbor Bay, from Freund Marsh to the bird sanctuary on the Navy Seaplane Base. The car dealerships near the intersection of Highway and Pioneer Way in Oak Harbor should move to the edge of town and be replaced with well-designed businesses.A new city library should be built downtown at the corner of Pioneer Way and Dock Street.These are some of the recommendations that a team of architects presented to the Oak Harbor community during the conclusion of a three-day workshop put on by Harbor Pride, a local group led by architect Terry LeDesky, and the American Institute of Architects.The goal of the Blueprint For Change event was for the team of 13 architects to listen to community concerns, analyze the current shape of the city and recommend ways that the community can revitalize and improve itself.Saturday afternoon, the leader of the team of architects, University of South Florida architecture professor James Moore, presented a slew of ideas for improving Oak Harbor, including both simple and ambitious proposals as well as some familiar ones.Many of the proposals focused on the downtown and waterfront areas, which Moore called the heart and soul of Oak Harbor. During two days of public input, community members also focused on the area as both the city's greatest weakness and biggest asset.The architects came up with a list of short-term projects intended to build community support and momentum because noticeable changes will happen quickly. Using maps and graphics, Moore also presented many specific recommendations for larger, long-range projects and changes in regulations that may result in improvement over time. While he was critical of the Wal Mart/Albertson's Bayview Plaza and the impending commercial projects on Highway 20 - as well as the traffic congestion in that area - he said the group of architects decided to focus on the downtown area and Midway Boulevard since it was too late to change the highway commercial strips. He said the community should do the same.Some of the more controversial proposals include lowering the building height cap downtown and encouraging building designs that allow sunlight to get through to the pedestrian level. The city recently increased the building height limit to 50 feet in some areas in an effort to spur development, but the architects suggested reversing that.Moore said that a Greater Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce committee's proposal to build a destination hotel/conference center on the waterfront next to Mi Pueblo restaurant is fine, but there needs to be some strict guidelines about how the building can look.No matter what the use, it should be thought of as a public building, he said. It's the kind of building that could become a make or break building for the city. ... The city should exert serious influence on the look of the building.Also, Moore said the hotel shouldn't block the water view down Midway Boulevard, though he said it would be a good idea to reroute Bayshore so it heads north next to Mi Pueblo.While most of the 50 or so community members at the meeting said they were impressed by the presentation, there was some caution amid the optimism. Some people pointed out that many of the architects' ideas, or variations thereof, have been proposed and worked on in the past but nothing ever got accomplished.We've been trying to do this for 20-some years. ... We have worn out a lot of volunteers in the efforts, Mayor Patty Cohen said. It comes down to a lack of community will.Yet LeDesky said that the Blueprint For Change has community credibility since it came out of a very public setting. Past efforts have failed, he said, because a small group of people came up with their own ideas and never engaged the community at large. In addition, he said the group of architects will periodically check back with the city in the future to see if any of the ideas were actually implemented.There's a lot of work ahead of us, he said. The follow-up is as important or more important than this process.The architectsA team of 13 architects gathered input from Oak Harbor residents during the three-and-a-half day Blueprint for Change event. Here's a list of the architects who participated.James Moore. Team leader, associate professor of architecture at the University of South Florida.Terry LeDesky. Architect in Oak Harbor since 1991.Dan Nelson. Designs Northwest, Stanwood.Cynthia Richardson. Richardson Architecture & Planning, Anacortes.Michael Smith. Zervas Group Architects, Bellingham.Jean Steinbrecher. Jean Steinbrecher Architects, Langley.John Cheney. Mount Vernon.Dave Christiansen. CDM, Bellingham.Jed Clark. Ross & McClure Architects, Bellingham.Brad Cornwell. Ross & McClure Architects, Bellingham.Brett Detering. Ross & McClure Architects, Bellingham.Steven Daneman. Daneman Realty, Inc., Portland.Lowell Larsen. The Henry Klein Partnership, Mount Vernon.Architects suggest some quick fixes, bigger goalsSome of the quick-fix ideas for downtown that came out of the Blueprint For Change event include:* Cleaning up vacant storefronts and put historic photos or other visually interesting displays in the windows.* Open a visitor center in a storefront downtown. The architects were critical that the Greater Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce's new visitor center was on Highway 20 instead of in the heart of downtown, which is where the community wants tourists to visit.* Move the Oak Harbor Farmer's Market to Pioneer Way and close the street for several hours each week. Bring in arts and entertainment in addition to carrots and muffins. * Create a coordinated sign program, especially at the Midway and Pioneer intersections with Highway 20, to direct people to downtown.* Make it easier to walk into City Beach Park by getting rid of the fence on the north side of the park and possibly putting a walking bridge over the ditch.* Clean up vacant lots, plant flowers in empty planter boxes around the city, install decorative lighting along Bayshore and organize a volunteer team to spruce up landscape islands.Here are some of the larger, long-range recommendations:* Build a waterfront trail from Freund Marsh, through City Beach Park and the marina, ending at the bird sanctuary area on the Navy seaplane base. The architects said that the city could advertise the long waterfront trail and bring in visitors. It would tie together all the fragmented elements on the waterfront. It could lead to the proposed PBY seaplane museum on the base. Also, the trail should be connected to the rest of the city by numerous points of access and other trails into the city.* Improving the intersection of Highway 20 and Pioneer Way, which architect James Moore called one big ugly parking lot. He said the car dealerships are inappropriate for the area, but will likely move to the edge of the city on their own eventually. He said the city needs to have zoning and design standards in place in anticipation of redevelopment of the four corners over time. The businesses should be built close to the road with parking area in back, hidden from view. He said the Beeksma Gateway park is nice, but in the wrong place. * Improve the intersection of Midway Boulevard and Whidbey Avenue by playing up the historical importance of the corner, which is where the old high school - now refurbished as Oak Harbor Elementary - stands. They said the stadium should be moved to the corner and the ugly bus parking lot should be located behind it, out of view from Midway travelers. They recommended that the city encourage an entrepreneur to build a historic-looking cafe or another aesthetically-pleasing building on another corner. Also, they said the city should relax zoning on Midway to allow a greater variety of uses, but pay more attention to the design and look of the buildings.* Build a new city library at the corner of Pioneer Way and Dock Street. The architects said the library is a very important civic building and can do a lot towards revitalizing the area, plus it is near the transit station. They said the plaza planned for the area is a nice design, but plazas don't bring people to an area.------You can reach News-Times reporter Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611. "

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