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Architects return, look for progress

Three years after a team of architects and community members created the Blueprint For Change, a document that was supposed to lead the way to improvements in Oak Harbor, several of the architects returned Thursday to review what progress has been made.

The answer was a mixed picture, although the proposal to build a new library downtown — which is on the ballot Sept. 14 — is the brightest point, if it passes.

Oak Harbor architect Terry LeDesky brought members of the Northwest Chapter of the American Institute of Architect to meet with city officials and community members Thursday night. The purpose, he said, is to is to review what has happened since he organized a Design Assistance Team, or DAT, in the city three years ago.

Then, a renowned Florida architect named James Moore led a group of 13 architects and the community in creating a consensual document called the “Blueprint For Change.” It outlined specific ways in which the city can revitalize and improve itself. Much of the plan focused on the downtown area, which was identified as the “heart and soul” of the city, according to LeDesky.

Thursday, LeDesky gave the architects a brief tour of downtown Oak Harbor before meeting with city leaders and community members at the Big Cup coffee shop. He pointed out that business people have been investing in the downtown area, though there are still a number of empty store fronts and the large empty waterfront lot, known as the Copeland / Beselin property, on Bayshore Drive next to Mi Pueblo. Moore had said that a hotel or conference center would be a good fit for the site, as long as the city imposed guidelines to ensure that it looked good.

At the meeting, LeDesky went over the successes of the Blueprint For Change. A community group called Harbor Pride — which focuses on improving the community, especially the downtown area — evolved out of the event and has been active in the community ever since.

LeDesky said 26 principles from the document were incorporated into the city comprehensive plan. The city is moving forward with filling in the gaps on a walking trail from the Scenic Heights neighborhood all the way to the marina. Harbor Pride’s adopt-a-block program to improve landscaping failed, but he said the Oak Harbor Garden Club has done an astounding job of landscaping areas, planting flower boxes and putting up hanging planters.

He pointed out that the document called for a coordinated sign program to draw people downtown, which is a project that a city and Chamber of Commerce committee is tackling.

One of the most important accomplishments, LeDesky said, was to create a vision for the downtown area, which is positive in itself.

“I’ve heard from people,” he said, “who decided to move here or invest in the city because they heard that the city has a vision and so much going on.”

One of the most controversial recommendations from the document turned out to be the proposal to improve the aesthetics of the intersection of Highway 20, Beeksma and Pioneer Way by moving the car dealerships to another area of the city. Moore said the city should 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.

The city did amend the zoning in the commercial zone that covers the area so that car sales became non-conforming uses. The City Council recently reversed the decision, which allows the dealers to keep selling cars and build bigger buildings, if they desire.

But on the positive side, LeDesky pointed out that the car dealers agreed to work with the city to landscape and otherwise enhance the aesthetics of the area.

Several proposals that didn’t get accomplished were moving the city’s visitor center downtown; getting rid of the fence on the north side of City Beach Park to ease pedestrian access; cleaning up vacant storefronts, possibly by putting up historic photos; and most notably, improving the intersection of Midway Boulevard and Whidbey Avenue by playing up the historical importance of the corner and possibly putting the stadium at the corner.

One of the biggest downfalls of a plan like the Blueprint, LeDesky said, is that it provides a vision without identify any funding.

Yet several local officials at the meeting also said the new upcoming plans will also expand on many ideas from the Blueprint, with possible funding to follow. Councilmembers Larry Eaton and Sue Karahalios defended their decision to hire a $49,000 consultant, Roger Brooks, to create a tourism development and marketing plan for the city. They said part of his job will be to find funding sources for projects. Karahalios said Brooks will look at the Blueprint and meet with Harbor Pride.

Steve Powers, community development director, explained that his staff is working on an effort to incorporate all the existing plans, including the Blueprint for Change, into a workable framework of projects that can be accomplished one at a time.

“The real goal behind it is to have incremental successes,” he said, “to build on momentum. If you look at things in smaller pieces, it’s often easier to find founding sources.”

Although the architects didn’t have much to say, they did informally agree that an “anchor project” like the proposed new library in Oak Harbor may be the key to further revitalizing the downtown area.

“I think the library idea is a great start. It’s like a come here,” said Langley architect Jean Steinbrecher, gesturing with her finger.

LeDesky agreed. He said Moore told him that a library downtown was vital part of turning the area into a thriving, pedestrian-friendly paradise for both residents and tourists.

“The last thing he said when I was putting him on the plane,” he said, “is that the biggest fight you have on your hands is getting the library into downtown.”

Join the pride

Harbor Pride, a group that works to improve Oak Harbor, evolved out of the Blueprint For Change even three years ago. The public in welcome to attend the meetings, which take place the first Wednesday of each month at the Big Cup on SE Pioneer Way. The board meeting runs from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. and the public input portion begins at 8 p.m.

You can reach Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or 675-6611.

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