Almost eight years ago, the City of Bainbridge Island turned toward a new future. Still a relatively new incorporated city, the community was quickly shifting from a bucolic paradise into a suburb of Seattle.
City leaders could not help but notice that farmlands and woodlands were being replaced by subdivisions filled with tract homes. Strip malls were springing up. Major development companies were eyeing the island for huge projects. Bainbridge Island was in danger of losing the very attributes that attracted people to it: its verdant pastoral setting with a distinct small-town sociability.
Despite calls in some quarters to simply pull up the drawbridges, so to speak, and stem the tide of newcomers, that was not an option. Through the state's Growth Management Act, all communities have a responsibility to accept a reasonable share of regional growth. It is not possible for any place to declare itself a free-standing island — even a place that literally is one.
In fact, the state assigns population targets, based on sophisticated projections of growth. This has served to shift the question for city councils and other policy-making bodies. The issue is no longer whether to allow new development, but rather where to allow it — and in what form.
Fortunately, most city councils throughout the region have adopted policies and regulations that accommodate growth and development — but in ways that are more sensitive to their surroundings.
In the case of Bainbridge Island, the new direction was particularly dramatic — a decision to channel at least half of all new growth into the town center, rather than outlying areas.
Many cities have taken similar positions. But while it is relatively easy to express intent, it is yet another to make sure that it actually happens.
Upgrading and building
with unique style, vision
In the mid '90s, the Bainbridge Island City Council took a series of actions to ensure that its visions were carried out. It adopted a town-center plan. It changed its codes and embraced design standards to shape the quality and character of new development. Most importantly, it put its money where its mouth was.
A new City Hall was built squarely in the town center — precisely where civic buildings belong. This elegant structure flanks a new village green with the Bainbridge Performing Arts Center. The green is the home of the popular weekend farmers market.
The city upgraded its main streets. Winslow Way now has generous, attractive sidewalks, with pieces of public art sprinkled about. Madison Avenue is being converted to a landscaped boulevard that will slow traffic. An attractive roundabout anchors one end. The waterfront park was refurbished, and a walkway allows people to amble along the water's edge for a considerable distance. Finally, the library was expanded with a handsome addition.
All of these strategic public investments have been matched by private developments that exhibit extraordinarily high quality — eclipsing many developments in Seattle for attention to detail and craft of construction.
Almost immediately, initial efforts at infill development, such as the Madison Cottages, raised the bar of expectation. Several other developments followed with similar style and finesse. But more recently, it seems developers are almost competing to see who can do even better, with respect to displaying both a charming character and distinct sensitivity.
This is indeed remarkable, given that so many communities brace themselves for the worst when it comes to denser development. Bainbridge Island demonstrates clearly that it is possible to both encourage development and get it in a form that is not just tolerable, but welcome.
Look at the Ericksen Cottages, for example. Here is a neighborhood that has its roots in the late 19th century: small houses on small lots, set close to the street with front porches and well-tended gardens. A few years back, this precious corridor was almost chewed up by suburban-style houses and generic office buildings surrounded by seas of asphalt.
Today, the charming cluster of homes surrounds a lushly planted central green on the west side of the street. Designed by Wenzlau Architects of Bainbridge Island for Jim Soules' The Cottage Company, the small houses reflect the rich, finely-grained texture of the street. Generous porches spill out onto fenced-in front yards that are each small botanical gardens.
The Ericksen Cottages is no gated community — it welcomes passers-by to peek in, perhaps even stroll in a few steps to enjoy the gorgeous composition of buildings and landscape.
Parking for this little village of 11 homes is discreetly tucked off to the side in a tree-shaded courtyard.
It is evident from the degree of care and attention that the residents thrive on the sociability and intimacy of their homes. In that respect, it is not unlike a houseboat community — only on dry land.
Keeping a small-town feel
A few hundred feet to the south, at the intersection of Ericksen Avenue and Winslow Way, is another development designed by Wenzlau, with architect Frank Karreman. Built by the Magnano family, which has owned the property for many years, the Winslow is village-like in character, containing shops and services, offices and nine homes, all within a less-than-one-acre site.
In this mixed-use development, the density is sufficiently high to pay for the cost of out-of-sight, underground parking, to contribute a positive image to the street.
There's a sun-filled plaza right on the corner. So small-town friendly is this space that a cafe-keeper immediately offers up a hamburger freshly turned on an outside grill.
Inside, the place is packed with folks chatting animatedly over coffee or tea.
Another courtyard can be found in the interior — this one more private and quiet. But again, no fence bars entry. An arched entrance leads back to the space, which is surrounded by elegant condominiums.
The combination of solid masonry, bay windows and well-crafted details suggests that this development might have been there for decades. Not so. It recently replaced a defunct and dated restaurant with a building that reinforces the streetscape.
This is a stunning example of how new development need not be feared. In this case, the "after" is far superior in character and quality, anchors the corner in a sophisticated, urbane manner and adds to the liveliness of the town.
Integrating old with new
Finally, a somewhat older development can be found southwest of the town center, along Parfitt Way. The Wharfside was designed by Cutler Anderson Architects for a group of people with separate properties that wanted to cooperate on a joint development.
It incorporates a number of references to the heritage of the island while being completely contemporary in expression. It demonstrates that sensitive designers can refer to the past while rooting their buildings firmly in the present.
The architects designed the exterior walls with a slight inward cant, similar to old boat sheds found along Puget Sound shorelines.
Indeed, the architects' office is in a former boathouse on the property next door. One of the buildings along the street echoes quirky, agrarian structures with its tapered and vertical form.
This, too, is a mixed-use project, incorporating office space and six residential units. The parking is almost invisible from the street. Some of it is surrounded by the buildings, while some of it has been placed underground. This development, together with other nearby condominiums of exceptionally high quality, has transformed this street into a charming neighborhood.
This is a community that has benefited tangibly from smart public policy, enlightened developers and thoughtful design. It is a place that is urbane and richly layered, marked by many hands as well as individual — and sometimes idiosyncratic — entrepreneurial initiatives.
At times, the town center feels like one of those delightful little villages on the outskirts of Paris or Amsterdam. Locals scurry about doing their daily shopping, people converse with friends on the street corners and others lounge about sidewalk cafes. It offers many lessons to other communities seeking to secure livable and lively town centers.
Mark Hinshaw is director of urban design for LMN Architects. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.