The future of the riverfront

Amnesia is the enemy of urban design. Time and an uncertain economy conspire. The outcome is usually improvised.

Everett’s riverfront can’t afford a lapse in memory. How it grows, who lives there, and who works and shops there will determine Everett’s social and cultural life for the next 70 years.

That a livable, mixed-use community could ever rise from the Simpson mill site and the ashes of the infamous 1984 Everett tire fire is miraculous. The city invested $80 million in environmental clean up and infrastructure, developing a blueprint to ensure a sustainable return on investment. The vision was a pedestrian friendly, diverse, mixed-use development. The plan includes plenty of green amenities, innovative design schemes, a town center with retail, and mixed-income neighborhoods. That plan (with plenty of public input) was enshrined in the development agreement with the original purchaser, Oliver-McMillan. When Oliver-McMillan sold the property to Polygon Northwest in May, the agreement went with it.

A Planned Development Overlay is development-speak for the overarching vision, consistent with what people think of as a master plan. On Dec. 4, the Everett City Council learned details of Polygon’s Planning Commission request to amend the PDO to reduce the variety and number of homes: Fewer than half the housing sites, little design diversity and a sliced-up three-acre park. The concern is twofold: that the original concept could devolve into a garden-variety subdivision of single-family homes; and, two, that the amendment to the PDO marks a slow unraveling, that Polygon will sidestep the commercial component (commercial development is not Polygon’s bailiwick) that would be a revenue generator for the city.

As Everett civic leader and urban planner Reid Shockey notes in a Dec. 18 letter to the Planning Commission, the burden for justifying an amendment rests with the owner.

Shockey also underscores urban growing pains. With the city hunting for buildable land to locate 60,000 more residents by 2040, less density is nonsensical.

“We have a choice. We can hold to the original vision or we can change it,” Shockey writes. “The former may delay development while the market catches up; the latter may speed things up, but could change the brand. It is up to the Commission and the Council to determine the next steps, but the decision should be based on a clear understanding of the effects.”

We need to take the measure of those effects and determine if they’re in the public interest. Polygon is a well-regarded company. They need to work in common cause with the citizens of Everett and the Planning Commission to breathe life into the original riverfront vision.

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