The Studio Storefront Project, conducted by a group of graduate students and seniors from the University of Washington’s architecture and planning school, provided an eye-opening demonstration during its 10-week study. Under the direction of professor Jeff Nicholls, the students worked with downtown Gig Harbor’s resources, including the water, buildings and other pieces of real estate, to show different possibilities for the future.
All it takes is a little imagination.
As our story on page A1 details, the project focused on economic vitality and the natural draw to the downtown area. Most of the students were unfamiliar with the harbor, so they didn’t have preconceived notions about what might work or what residents wouldn’t find acceptable. And that’s a good thing.
Their ideas were meant to be outside the box, to help community members brainstorm possibilities within a certain framework but without restrictions we put in place all too often. Their concepts — such as transforming the Boat Barn into an indoor Co-Op Farmers’ Market, or dual-level parking that blends into the landscape with green spaces and mixed-use retail — were fresh and exciting, a perfect wakeup call that could continue discussions on development just as the city considers height requirements that one group staunchly opposes.
Some proposals were provocative, some mundane. Students gathered information from business owners, city officials, local organizations and residents from three open houses and tailored some of the plans to maintain the character of the area. But they also pushed the envelope with concepts such as the museum district with outdoor learning labs, a park with a tidal pool and ampitheater, pubic water access for human-powered watercraft, and a marine fuel dock to bring in boats. They also considered bringing in a water taxi to alleviate foot traffic during the summer. Some of those concepts have been discussed for years, but the Storefront Studio Project went a step beyond to illustrate what it might look like.
Groups of UW students have performed similar studies in place like Cle Elum, Vashon and Fall City. In Roslyn, the city followed through and applied for state funding to remodel two historic buildings. It also worked on downtown landscaping to improve aesthetics. Both suggestions may have been small, but they made a big impact, and that’s part of the idea that drives the Storefront Studio Project.
In Gig Harbor, progress has been slow because there is a diverse group of people who have different interests. Nicholls said the view corridor is important, but he sees how it can hurt the environmental aesthetics. He suggested using the Haub property near the Tides Tavern for retail space, but putting the buildings behind the trees and keeping height limit restrictions. It’s a different concept that flips conventional wisdom.
From here, it’s up to stakeholders. The project reinforced the strong community assets but suggested a different way of thinking.
Active, open dialogue is the key. Everyone may not like every idea, but discussion may work to a concept worth pursuing.
One thing is clear: Downtown Gig Harbor needs connectivity and spaces in order to people to spend blocks of time. It can be the destination place it once was with emphasis more often than a free Tuesday night concert during the summer.
Growth can be a good thing. The question is, can commercial interests mix with character? Can recreation mix with education?
Overall, the Storefront Studio Project wasn’t meant to be a plan written in stone for the future. Its intent was to be provocative, to take tradition and history and incorporate those concepts, to challenge the status quo and make people think about the possibilities.
If it starts a conversation, it’s a success.