Housing an encouraging sign

Slowly and with little fanfare, market rate apartment units are cropping up in the heart of downtown Olympia.

It is a welcome and encouraging sign to see downtown property owners making significant investments in the buildings they own to convert unused commercial office space into housing in the city core area.

More people living downtown in market rate housing increases the health of the central business district. Olympia doesn’t have the population or density of Portland or Seattle — two communities where living downtown is commonplace. But the urban scene in Olympia is diverse and rich enough to attract downtown residents, if they have comfortable, well-attended apartments to settle into.

Most would agree that when people live downtown the economic, cultural and social elements of a thriving city come to life. When the number of people living downtown increases, so does the sense of a livable, secure community at all hours of the day and night. Shops, restaurants and theaters stay open longer. The streetscapes and urban pocket parks take on a new pride of ownership. They become gathering places for conversation and places to nurture new friendships.

A city can redefine itself and strive for a better future when it gains a reputation as an attractive place to live, not just loiter. It’s easier to take on the challenges of homelessness and vagrancy when the downtown area is occupied at night by professionals, senior citizens, students, artists and others from all walks of life. They share a common bond, a sense of place.

There are at least three private business projects — two completed in the past year and another on its way — which will add 40 units of market rate housing downtown. City officials say it’s the most housing market activity downtown since the Boardwalk Apartments were built on the port peninsula in the 1990s. They include 11 apartments developed in the Cunningham Building by Walker John and 22 units developed or under development by Olympia developer Bryan Kolb and his sons in converted Legion Way office buildings that they own.

So a surplus of downtown commercial office space is lending itself to a new use as remodeled apartment units.

It’s private enterprise leading the way to what could be a brighter downtown future.