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Downtown: Where all the ideas are bright

Steve Powers, Oak Harbor’s development services director, recently presented the City Council with a new plan that he said isn’t really a plan at all. It’s more of a framework that borrows, combines and updates ideas that came before.

It’s called the “downtown public realm plan” and it’s meant to “improve the appearance, function and livability of the downtown area,” Powers explained.

The plan, which is still a work in progress, includes everything from the proposed pier and street extensions to improved signage and landscaping. Powers’ hope is that it will spur action and help create momentum for a variety of projects in all shapes and sizes.

“It is meant to organize projects into a coherent system that we can move ahead with,” he said.

Powers is probably wise to stress that the document, which is a product of his planning department, is not a new planning effort. After all, the city is infamous for spending time and money on planning efforts that go nowhere. There was the 1990 Harbor Watch plan, the 1995 North Whidbey Community Diversification Action Plan, the downtown circulation plan, Harbor Pride’s Blueprint for Change, and even a 1981 Oak Harbor Revitalization Study.

The downtown public realm plan, Powers said, brings together ideas from all these other plans and the city’s Comprehensive Plan. Besides using good ideas, he said the benefit of the strategy is that all the proposals have already been accepted by city officials and the community at large. That means no more lengthy discussions or studies.

There are several proposed project that aren’t specifically defined in the other plans — such as obtaining a historic designation for Smith Park or extending certain streets — but Powers said they correspond to goals set in the Comp and other plans.

Perhaps the most important thing about the plan is that it capitalizes on an asset that is pretty unique to Oak Harbor — the amount of waterfront and downtown property that is in the public domain. From Freund Marsh to City Beach, Flintstone and Smith parks, the city owns a major portion of land along the water.

“I think it’s one of the great things the city has going for it,” he said. “It’s a tremendous asset.”

The plan divides the downtown area into five distinct neighborhoods — Freund Marsh, Lower Pioneer, Old Town, Oak Grove and the Marina. Powers said the division is partly an organization tool, but it also acknowledges the unique qualities of each area. “Anyone who spends time downtown,” he said, “can see there’s a definite break in the character.”

The Old Town area, for example, used to be the city’s center and features many old buildings that were built close to the streets. Powers points out that the newer Lower Pioneer neighborhood is more automobile-centered, with buildings built a distance from the road with parking lots in front.

The plan identifies a list of proposed projects within each neighborhood. Some of the projects for Old Town include a plaza, a municipal pier, enhancing pedestrian connections, extending Jensen Street and improving the Barrington Drive streetscape. A waterfront walkway is one feature that runs throughout all the neighborhoods.

It’s a lot of familiar territory and may draw some skepticism from community that’s used to plans getting shelved. “There’s been so many studies and so much planning and they’ve just fallen by the wayside,” Councilman Larry Eaton said to Powers during a meeting. “When does something like this start coming together?”

Powers argued that the Downtown Public Realm Plan has a much better chance of bringing about real change because it offers a wide assortment of projects of different scales. He feels that one of the reasons previous plans failed was partly that they were simply too large and costly.

“It doesn’t rely on any single grand-scale project,” he said. “There are a range or projects that come with a range of price tags.”

Powers suggested that the city start a relatively modest project such as improving the aesthetically-challenged entrance to City Beach Park on Bayshore Drive. He pointed out that the “sea of asphalt” is poorly defined and in an embarrassing state of disrepair. The plan suggests such improvements as a new gateway feature, sidewalks, tree planting, landscaping and realigned parking so that cars don’t block water views or the waterfront path.

It’s an especially good time to make changes in the area, Powers said, because it fits in with other projects going on this spring. Alder trees are being cut down and tennis courts are being replaced with ball fields.

Powers hopes that completing such a project will create momentum in the community to complete other projects, causing a snowball effect.

While all of the projects identified in the plan are worthy of city investment, Powers said, he suggested that the city should be open to work with community groups and private organizations to get things done.

The next step in the process is for planners to complete narratives on each neighborhood and then create a cost estimate for each project. Then it can be returned to the City Council for possible action.

You can reach News-Times reporter Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611.

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