The fuss over the Isthmus

February 9th, 2015 by Ken

By Dale Cooper

There’s been a lot of talk lately about Olympia’s Isthmus.  It contains several businesses as well as vacant derelict buildings that look more like the nightmare called Detroit, than Olympia.

A few years ago the city got wind of something called the “Community Revitalization Act” which would give Olympia the authority to tear down and re-build it’s deteriorating parts.  That has led lots of people to look at the sorry, run-down state of the isthmus and ask questions like “What’s to become of it?  What will it look like a generation from now? and Who will make it so?”

One group that’s tried its best to “make it so” consists of Olympia activists who’ve advocated for something they call the “North Capitol Campus Heritage Park” which would fulfill architects Wilder and White’s plan from a century ago.

The group has lobbied for their park for a quarter of a century to no avail.   They promote it as a wonderland of green stretching from Water Street and the Fourth Avenue Bridge.   I would house such splendid attractions as a Squaxin long house, an artesian well, a carousel and much, much more.

However they’ve bumped into a couple of insurmountable obstacles along the way – – under-whelming public or legislative support.

Beyond the usual hollow rhetoric there’s virtually no real financial commitment by any of the major players on the hill for the project.  And who could blame them?   The agencies are too busy chasing legislators for more money.  Cash-strapped legislators are fighting judges over more money for education.   A hapless governor’s hitting up everyone for more tax money and hyper-partisanship has made the verb “to compromise” or “to govern”  – antique.

Is it any surprise then that they’ve tossed the entire notion of an Olympia park – – costing untold tens of millions of dollars into the broom closet?

There’s also a palpable lack of passion for the park on the part of Olympia’s hard-pressed taxpayers.   And who can blame them?  Why would they want to pick up the tab for a public amenity that would be enjoyed tax-free by those free-loaders from Lacey and Tumwater?

Then, there’s the question of whom the park would attract.

For a short answer, just take a look at Sylvester Park or the new Olympia Commons Park.  Idlers, druggies and young gangsters have taken over these spaces.

Another group, one critical to failure, is the Olympia City Council.   This assembly of “leaders” has debated the Isthmus for years without resolution.   The problem is they’re afraid a real decision might upset someone.

So, with a surfeit of talk and the instincts of a bureaucrat, the council throws money at the consultants who cheerfully produce zippy studies with happy conclusions and then afterwards, congratulate each other as the studies collect dust in the city’s archives.

The sad fact is that after these fruitless studies – – the council really believe they’ve accomplished something.    In reality they’ve simply mistaken planning for action.

However, there is something that would solve the Isthmus debate.   Liberate it.  Let the marketplace do its work.  For inevitably it will – one way or another – do just that.

Zone the isthmus for low-rise residential housing then trust the people .  Encourage high-income residents to live there and bring true diversity to downtown.   After all, the place needs a strong tax base and those are the people who will generate it.

Remember – – Rome wasn’t built in a day and it wasn’t built by bureaucrats, planners or jabbering consultants.   It was built by the muscles of  dreamers who risked their own money for their dream.

The market can work miracles.   It’s done so since the beginning of civilization and will continue to do so.

But, if you tinker with it, frustrate it and place unreasonable constraints and artificial incentives – it will produce tragedies – – just as it did with the once proud Detroit.



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