Paul Rice, the chair of the Port Townsend Planning Commission, displays the subarea map for Rainier Street and Upper Sims Way. Behind him is a lot at the corner of Rainier and Sevenths streets where the Mt. Townsend Creamery plans to relocate and become a cornerstone of the new development area. (Brian McLean/Peninsula Daily News)

Paul Rice, the chair of the Port Townsend Planning Commission, displays the subarea map for Rainier Street and Upper Sims Way. Behind him is a lot at the corner of Rainier and Sevenths streets where the Mt. Townsend Creamery plans to relocate and become a cornerstone of the new development area. (Brian McLean/Peninsula Daily News)

Planning visionaries: City creating new ‘heart’ in Port Townsend

Development plan mixes commercial, residential uses

PORT TOWNSEND — Paul Rice called it the inverse of a popular phrase from the movie “Field of Dreams.”

Instead of, “If you build it, they will come,” the chair of the city planning commission has helped to put concepts in place to attract developers to bring jobs, walkable streets and multifamily neighborhoods.

“It could be the new heart of Port Townsend, the new town center,” Rice said Thursday as he walked through a grassy field, pointing to all the possibilities along Rainier Street.

After nearly 30 years of visioning, a development plan is just one step away from final approval.

The Port Townsend City Council unanimously passed the first reading of the ordinance last week that would add a new chapter to the municipal code and apply preferred zoning areas along Sims Way west of Sheridan Street, and north from Sims Way in undeveloped areas between East Park Avenue and Spring Street.

It encompasses Rainier Street in a mixed commercial and light manufacturing area with a commercial focus overlay district that Rice sees as essential to the next phase of city development.

Many people have worked on the plan, from retired City Manager David Timmons to Lance Bailey, the city’s development services director, in addition to the seven-member city planning commission.

“We planted a seed,” Bailey told the city council Aug. 5 during a public hearing for the plan. “Hopefully we will be able to reap some fruit from this. It’s the last step in a very long process.”

The concept dates to 1993, when the city adopted the Port Townsend Gateway Development Plan. It pieced together guiding principles and community vision for how the area should be developed.

“The Gateway Plan had an eye for how to bring people into town, what the first thing they see should be,” Rice said.

While it’s changed some throughout the years, Rice credited Bailey’s creativity, calling it “subtle” in that there were only two changes to city code, the biggest being the addition of the commercial overlay district.

“He was terrified he would be going in and re-writing code,” Rice said.

The focuses include job growth, light manufacturing and artisan uses — all mixed with a customer-facing retail component on the main floor in the commercial overlay district and the possibility of housing on top.

“In my 20 years of doing this, this is the first time I’ve seen a zone like this,” Bailey told the council. “It certainly fits the discussions we’ve had on this over the years.”

More recently, the city received community development block grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to build infrastructure along Rainier Street, including water and sewer connections on each corner, Rice said.

“The focus has always been on commercial, so we have another walkable retail destination that isn’t downtown or uptown,” Rice said.

Sidewalks and bike lanes line Rainier as it angles north toward 10th Street, and many parcels have been zoned for multifamily uses west of Discovery Road.

The concept of adding residential zones wasn’t on Rice’s high-priority list when he started with the project two years ago, but several factors led to the change.

“There was more emphasis on being an economic driver,” he said. “Now it’s still part of the desire, but the housing crisis has made us really conscious of how housing is more of a priority than it was previously.”

Rice, who also works as a real estate agent, cited the lack of housing inventory and a median single-family home price of $380,000 in the city. To make it more challenging, he said closing costs typically are 38 percent cash in the current market.

“The job market is better than it was when we started this project, but there’s no housing,” Rice said. “Absolutely no housing.”

Planning Commission co-chair Rick Jahnke told the council last week he hopes the commercial areas will create living-wage jobs.

“At the same time, if the opportunity comes along for housing, we couldn’t say no,” Jahnke said.

That’s what some of the R-III and R-IV zones will do, Rice said.

“[R-III] is pretty versatile,” he said. “You can’t really build single-family residences, but you can play with your density a little more.”

The whole district may help protect the city if a major employer, such as the Port Townsend Paper Co., leaves town, Rice said.

“This will serve as the financial backbone, and it means Port Townsend will not just turn into a full-on retirement community if the mill goes,” he said.

One of the major pieces already is in place.

Mt. Townsend Creamery owns the undeveloped parcel at Seventh and Rainier streets and is planning to build a factory there, Rice said.

That corner also could turn into a “festival street,” which could be shut down regularly as a promenade for markets, music stages and more, he said.

“I’m really hopeful there will be a groundswell of interest,” Rice said.

Timmons, Bailey and several members of the planning commission, both past and present, each have taken turns trying to picture what it might look like.

“We threw everything in, and then we took 3 1/2 years taking things out,” planning commission member Monica MickHager said during last week’s hearing.

Ultimately, they’re all taking a step back from prescriptively requiring specific building plans or business models.

“If you build it, what’s going to come?” Rice asked.

________

Jefferson County Managing Editor Brian McLean can be reached at 360-385-2335, ext. 6, or at bmclean@peninsuladailynews.com.

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