Arlington ready to phase in Stilly project

ARLINGTON — A multiyear process that will shape the future of Arlington’s riverfront and old downtown is closer to completion.

With visions of tourists coming in to town to enjoy the natural beauty of the area, dine in waterfront restaurants and stay in new hotels, Arlington’s city council this week adopted its Riverfront master plan.

And then, the theory goes, property owners and developers will work their transformative magic to create a new version of the city.

It won’t happen all at once, though. As far as city planning goes, the riverfront plan approved Monday is one step toward a full comprehensive plan update, which will play out over the next year and a half.

The plan establishes a level of consistency among the city’s various zones along the Stillaguamish River and in the old downtown, bringing various planning documents into accord with each other.

“It will be a continuing, evolving piece of work,” Mayor Barbara Tolbert said.

As the plan was being developed over the past several years, the city conducted surveys with residents, asking what they wanted to see happen with the waterfront.

“Protecting the natural beauty was the dominant answer across the board,” said Bill Blake, the city’s stormwater utility director and natural resources manager.

“They didn’t want to see it overcommercialized,” he said.

In the near term, little will change on the ground. More than half of the area that the plan covers, which includes the areas immediately adjacent to the Stilly and the historic downtown, have already been zoned for commercial or more dense mixed use development.

Whether that development happens, in the residential strip along Burke Avenue, for example, or the mobile home park on Cox Avenue, depends on the property owners.

The city will eventually need to reach out to the business community, to lure in new businesses or real estate investors. But the economy isn’t what it should be, so the city will likely wait until its comprehensive plan is done before starting a marketing push for the area.

“We haven’t returned to pre-recession times,” Tolbert said. “I think the investors are still cautious.”

The city instead has been working on plans to upgrade those properties it owns. Part of Haller Park is being enhanced with new facilities and play equipment.

“Haller Park has always been kind of a diamond in the rough,” said City Councilwoman Marilyn Oertle, who has been involved in the riverfront planning process since the beginning in 2011.

“So many people travel right by Haller Park that it seemed to be the logical place to start,” Oertle said.

The largest parcel in the riverfront area is the former site of the Country Charm dairy farm in the northeast corner of the city. The site remains largely undeveloped, with just a perimeter trail, an off-leash dog area, and a campground that was built by Eagle Scouts, but which hasn’t been opened because there are no restrooms installed.

In many ways, the Country Charm plot is a 138-acre blank slate on which city officials have imagined a number of possible uses. Some common ideas that have been tossed around for the area include more trail connections, access for fishing or wildlife viewing, picnic shelters, a concert venue above the flood line and other low-impact uses.

Bill Blake mentioned that before the city was founded, the bend in the river was a commercial center for the Stillaguamish tribe, who would arrive by canoe before roads were put in. He’d like to see that use of the river return, perhaps with a kayak rental business nearby.

Tolbert, who is a licensed pilot and runs the Arlington Fly-In, dreams in a more upward direction.

“I would like to see a hot air balloon festival,” she said.

Chris Winters: 425-374-4165; cwinters@heraldnet.com.

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