Supporting Sense of Place

I love Bainbridge Island. Its wet woods and salty beaches were “home” from toddlerhood to teenagehood, and though I don’t live there permanently anymore, they still serve that role.

This summer I’ve enjoyed catching up with family on the Island. It has been refreshing to somersault in the Sound and wind through the Grand Forest again, but distressing to watch a redundant commercial shopping center emerge, tabula rasa style, at the intersection of Highway 305 and High School Road, where once was woodland. While being an Islander means owning a Bay Hay & Feed sweatshirt or twelve, it also means wincing at Silverdalesque developments like this one by Ohio-based developer Visconsi.

As one might expect, Islanders took a stand:

Last summer a then 19-year-old Bainbridge High School graduate scaled a Douglas-fir on the property to stage an inspiring “tree sit” in protest of the development. Long-term Islander Ron Peltier founded Environmental Bainbridge. Islanders for Responsible Development was created to oppose the planned development. Residents spoke out against the development to city officials.

Bainbridge Island’s own Wenzlau Architects – whose website describes a design methodology that “integrates community planning with innovative building solutions” – has taken on the project, and not without repercussions. Environmentalbainbridge.org lists the firm’s phone number on its “Action!” page with a message encouraging those who oppose the development to “call Charlie Wenzlau and let him know you are not happy with his role as the architect on this project.” Interestingly, Wenzlau has been the architect involved with a different and generally supported Bainbridge project, the Pleasant Beach Village development, on the south end of the island.

I’ve tried to piece together how, in the context of such layered opposition to the Bainbridge Visconsi project, it was approved. Answering that question is crucial to protecting important habitat areas and preventing future sprawling developments on Bainbridge. An architecture and landscape architecture student, I am no expert on issues related to policy. However, this course has provided an exciting exploration of that realm, and I will try my best in this post to articulate how a future development like the Visconsi one might be prevented.

It seem to me that this is fundamentally a matter of discord: between (a) zoning regulations and the City of Bainbridge Island Comprehensive Plan and (b) between residents and Bainbridge city council.

  1. Align priorities between invested groups.

The first step is to align priorities. While Visconsi might have different priorities, all things considered, I think the above-mentioned four entities all wish to support the Island’s special sense of place. It’s particularly important at this stage that zoning is revised to better reflect the Comprehensive Plan. While both articles should reflect the city’s best interests, it seems as if the misalignment took authority away from the Comprehensive Plan. If at all possible, areas that are vulnerable to unchecked development and not protected by conservation easements should be zoned as park land.

  1. Implement a TDR program.

Now that Islanders and city council have gotten together to make sure zoning aligns with the city’s Comprehensive Plan, it’s time to take action. While I don’t know Bainbridge’s policy on TDRs, after reading about them in A-P Hurd and Al Hurd’s The Carbon Efficient City, I am optimistic that they could be useful in this kind of scenario, especially if designation as a Bainbridge Island Land Trust conservation easement or rezoning aren’t options. The original landowner – in the case of the Visconsi project it would have been Deschamps Partnership LP – could have transferred the development rights to a landowner with property in Bainbridge’s downtown Winslow, where the Comprehensive Plan apparently recommends targeting future growth. Of note, the Bainbridge Downtown Association is a nationally accredited Main Street. Also, Winslow Way is within walking distance of the ferry terminal. This is where growth makes sense, but not at the scale of the Visconsi development. In this imaginary scenario, Deschamps Partnership LP could have still enjoyed the development opportunity of their land while it remained permanently protected as open space.

Redundant, sprawling developments like Visconsi’s don’t make sense on an island that’s less than 75 square miles of land area, especially when there is already a McDonald’s (that’s a different but equally cringe-worthy story) across the street from it, and a development including a Safeway and Rite Aid kitty-corner across the adjacent intersection. Interestingly, while the Visconsi development is being constructed, long-time Island favorite Paper Products in rebranding and moving from Winslow Way in order to stay afloat.

Sprawl is contradictory to the Island’s sense of place. Thankfully, Island keystones like Bainbridge Gardens and Bay Hay & Feed are still going strong. No “Anytown” development can offer what they offer: homegrown Bainbridge Island sense of place – something that is not, in fact, stationary.

If you want to learn more about the Bainbridge Island Visconsi development or get involved, visit environmentalbainbridge.org.

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