Island Forum | Reviving the Town Center

It was heartening to read that the City Council has begun to discuss a new, holistic vision for our downtown core. Over the past several years, we have seen many changes downtown and more lay ahead. If the city center evolves along its existing, piecemeal course, the results to emerge a decade from now are likely to be both familiar and disappointing. We risk setting atop today’s random assortment of 70s and 80s-era buildings a new hodge podge of taller buildings. That would leave the downtown essentially as it is – without any sense of coherence or comprehensive, people friendly design. Let us hope – or actually, let us insist – that our leaders take the long view and work towards a a more inspiring downtown.

Mercer Islanders are lucky for many reasons. We enjoy beautiful surroundings, great parks, and a well-regarded school system. What we lack is a town center with any sense of magnetism or vigor. Our shop and restaurant owners occupy various strip malls, and the newer ones lease the street fronts. But unlike many successful towns and villages, we have no Main Street, no central plaza, nor shopping promenade. There is no central place – no stretch of street – that beckons the casual shopper, the couple out for a stroll, or the kids looking to hangout in their hometown.

To the extent today’s downtown has any overarching purpose, it seems designed mostly for people who want to drive, park, and accomplish a task. Need some milk, grab it at the QFC or Albertsons. Tired? Go get a mocha at the Starbucks. Need a restaurant? Drive to one, park behind or in front of it, and then go home. Restless? Go to Mercerdale with the kids, perhaps drive to Baskin Robbins, and then, again, just go home.

It need not be this way.

If we looked at the big picture, we also could see that Mercer Islanders are lucky because we have a large expanse of level land and low lying buildings that make up our downtown. Roughly speaking, there are 20 blocks of existing parkland, development, and parking lots. The City Council apparently has begun to wonder how to guide a more creative use of that space. It would seem straightforward to invite into the dialogue some urban planning expertise. A planner who has studied how to remake places so that they serve as social and commercial hubs would relish the chance to re-envision downtown Mercer Island. The “Project for Public Spaces” is just one organization chockfull of examples of how deliberate place-making can and does strengthen communities.

Done right, the City Council can establish a guiding vision for the next 50-plus years. It won’t be easy. It will take persistence, a collaborative spirit, and perhaps chutzpa. But a holistic plan could truly be transformative. It could instill in our downtown a vitality that would endure for our lifetimes and beyond.


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