The Pullman downtown master plan study is out. It is long, thorough and full of good suggestions, even if some of its design ideas leave much to be desired; most notably those created to revive life in and around High Street Plaza. There, they are simplistic and downright uninspired. I think we can do better than merely “step” the site and plop a few umbrellas and benches. But let’s leave that criticism aside for now. It is likely that design lies outside the purview of the study.
Two areas in the study stand out.
The first is a statistic showing the degree to which downtown remains less an essential amenity and more a facade we hang onto for nostalgic purposes. No big revelation there, but it is still good to know that “as of 2019, downtown area stores” capture only “about 9 percent of total retail including restaurant sales.” This is a pretty small number, making it clear that should we decide to erase downtown tomorrow not much would suffer except our emotions.
Emotions are of course inextricably linked with place, often influencing where we settle and for how long. They are part of the calculus that determines the nature and meaning of complex relations. But they are also insufficient reason to sustain a desire for a thriving community. You need more. You need a network of interdependencies, between people but also between people and basic provisions.
You need a mix of outfits that could accommodate fundamental needs for things like raising a family, learning new skills, fixing household items. But also seeing a doctor, an accountant and an interior designer, to name only three professionals on whom we regularly rely to live happy and rewarding lives. Woven between public and private spaces, indoor and outdoor environments, they could contribute to a diverse and transparent culture.
Critical mass would of course be necessary for this rich blend of functions to flourish. We would find it by having the two key economic players in the city come down and make themselves present and integrated on Main street. The study repeatedly mentions the importance of WSU and Schweitzer but stops short of insisting that they assimilate themselves into the fabric of downtown.
Both will need to find a way to creatively and meaningfully relocate some of their functions to downtown. Schweitzer could buy out Mimosa and transform that site into an amenity sympathetic to both itself and the community, perhaps locating the science center on the ground floor and, say, the research component of the organization in the floors above. WSU could do something along the same lines, similarly migrating programs whose objective is built around community research and support.
No sooner should this happen, a healthy number of residents will aggregate convincing investors to buy, restore or develop property. Activity begets activity and before too long our hotel and motel stock will improve attracting not just residents but tourists to the area, here to enjoy being part of a healthy and thriving community and not just on football days.
Another highlight of the study is something called the “Design Review program.” A public service program composed of volunteer experts from around the community, its objective is to review plans and offer advice toward a more holistic synthesis between building and place including, but not limited to, aesthetically sound streetscape practices. Some may confuse it for being a descendant of fascists regimes, dictating what we should and should not do. Far from it, it has no veto power, only an interest in building a functionally coherent and visually attractive environment.
Had we had a design review program, we can be assured that the back side of “Evolve on Main” wouldn’t have turned out the way it did. It would have advised more openings, greater integration with upper floors, shops, built-in seating and more. That disaster would have been averted.
There is more to the study that is worthy of analysis than this short commentary can cover. Diagonal parking and two way streets are two topics that we should seriously discuss. In the meantime, let’s use the study to start a healthy and open dialogue about possibilities ahead.
Ayad Rahmani has been with Washington State Universitysince 1997 and is an associate professor in the School of Designand Construction.