Briggs Village an idea worth salvaging

September 12, 2013 

A worker removes concrete forms at the senior housing project at Briggs Village in Olympia last week. The commercial arm of the mixed-use village has lagged because of the inability to secure financing.

TONY OVERMAN/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Twenty years ago, the idea of creating an urban village on the former Briggs Nursery site seemed like a grand alternative to urban sprawl. It promised a self-contained environment to live and work within pedestrian-friendly public spaces. People liked the concept and bought homes in the residential areas of the village, which the developers built first to provide support for a future retail core.

But like urban village proposals elsewhere, the Briggs Village developer has not included the mixed-use buildings required by the City Council would contain banks, restaurants, coffee shops and other services residents needed to reduce their reliance on automobiles. Only a YMCA was built, although a Thriftway grocery store is in the planning stages.

Now the developer is asking City Council to alter the plan. That has angered nearby homeowners who wonder if the concept was merely a pitch to get council approval and sell residential properties. It’s a fair question, although the severe economic recession that occurred shortly after the Briggs ground breaking in 2005 provides a persuasive response.

It’s more likely that the urban village concept – born in England in the early 1980s – was never adaptable to American culture. Unlike our European counterparts, we love our mega-malls and big box stores, and don’t really mind driving across town to shop.

It’s also true that land prices tend to drive density. The more expensive the land, the more likely people will purchase more dense developments. The relatively lower cost of land in rural areas has worked against the concept of creating islands of higher density, whether it’s an urban village or in the heart of downtown Olympia.

Olympia wasn’t the only city in western Washington to embrace the urban village idea, and the Briggs Village developer isn’t the only entrepreneur who couldn’t make it work.

It goes without saying that prospective homebuyers need to pay attention to existing and potential land uses in surrounding areas. But a buyer beware reminder offers little consolation to those who purchased property on the promise of a genuine small town within the city, and some who now fear the creation of a strip mall in their neighborhood.

For the sake of those homeowners, we hope Briggs Village developers salvage something attractive and close to their original concept. A Thriftway store could provide the centerpiece for a smaller version of the original intent.

For that reason, City Council should look favorably on the Briggs Village request.

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