On a makeshift stage at an October meeting of the Downtown Rotary Club, Bruce Smith and Patrick Smith stood behind podiums, waiting for their debate to begin. Patrick shifted on his feet with a nervous energy; Bruce sat stoically on a stool, arms crossed, looking out over an audience of fellow business owners. The crowd shuffled empty lunch plates and refilled coffee cups while the moderator of the day’s event shuffled his list of questions. After calmly adjusting the referee jersey he wore as an ode to the friendly nature of the event, he cleared his throat, tapped his mic, and signaled to the room that the debate was ready to begin.
With everything that’s happened over the course of the past couple of years, it was almost refreshing to think that the debate topic, leading into the November 2018 midterms in Yakima, was over a parking lot. For the better part of the year, residents weren’t divided by Cadet or PIrate; Republican or Democrat. Instead, the question that billowed through the streets like a fertilizer cloud through a field of grapes was a simple Yes or No: should a 194-spot parking lot in the heart of downtown be converted into a public space - The Yakima Central Plaza.
Debates surrounding what to do with public space have been a central issue in urban planning and development for cities of all sizes, from New York City to Butte, Montana. The central case for developing public spaces centers around a few common tenants - revitalizing an under-utilized or decaying area, building a stronger sense of community, and increasing property value for both commercial and residential real estate. A 2015 report by the Trust for Public Lands notes “studies have shown that parks and open space increase the value of neighboring residential property… and growing evidence points to a similar benefit on commercial property value.”
The study also sites a number of high profile projects that helped lift the fortunes of various cities across the country - from Bryant Park, a once drug and crime riddled park in the center of New York City that now hosts the world’s top fashion shows, to the San Antonio Riverwalk which has become a top tourist attraction and revenue earner for the central Texas city.
The Yakima Central Plaza became an idea back in 2012, when a public survey was conducted on how to improve Yakima’s aging downtown, long suffering from the economic ups and downs rooted in its ties to the agricultural industry. Over the course of multiple decades, a once vibrant downtown core had seen everything from large department stores to local restaurants click off their lights and head for more fertile grounds.
Along with general economic development and public safety, the concept of creating a centralized, communal green space open to the public was a popular outcome of the survey. Models from nearby cities like Portland, OR and Missoula, MT were studied; A world-renowned (and locally grown) landscape architect, Kathryn Gustafson, agreed to draw up designs; An urban planning firm even went so far as to target the parking lot in front of Yakima’s historic Capitol Theatre as the ideal location.
And even after the city council, in a series of abrupt last minute decisions aimed at avoiding a lawsuit from a group of downtown business owners, opted to abandon a place to use city funds to pay for a majority of the cost, donations from the community poured in to the tune of $9.7 million. More than half of the projected total.
So when the city council then decided to put an advisory vote on the midterm ballot in efforts to avoid a burdensome lawsuit by the group of business owners opposed to the idea, supporters felt confident they were going to prevail. So why, then, did the proposition fail on November 6?
“Misinformation” says Yakima native Laura Rankin Schlect of Gilbert Cellars and a member of the all-volunteer Plaza Implementation Committee. “The city didn’t do a great job of providing the public with good information. And by the time they did, it was too late.”
That misinformation - about building and maintenance costs, about loss of parking downtown, about safety - led to a feeling of ill will and mistrust in the city council, says Schlect. One that seemed to sour the project as a whole. When it was voted on on Nov 6, according to the Yakima Herald Republic, sixty seven percent of voters rejected the project. According to Patrick Smith, “Yakima never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”
Disappointed that it failed, Schlect still sees a silver lining to the whole experience. “There’s a definite shift happening now. A lot of younger people I think saw what it was like to be involved. A lot of people of my generation realized, I think for the first time, that they could actually do something about their town.”
And both Schlect and Patrick Smith remain positive about what is already happening in the downtown core. Old buildings are continuing to be converted into boutique hotels and apartment complexes, the historic Wilson Building is being developed for new use, and a new incubator, Fulcrum Yakima, wants to provide living, working and office space to local entrepreneurs.
Smith also points to upcoming elections and the possibility of getting a few new members on the city council that could be stronger advocates for community projects like the plaza.
“We still want to see it happen,” says Smith, highlighting the fact that nearly $10 million was raised in support of the plaza. “We’ve said no to change for so long. It’s time we finally said Yes.”