Pullman has hired an urban planning firm to “prepare a master plan for the City’s Central Business District.” The scope is broad. It includes examining “parking; street configurations; circulation; walkability; bicycle access; sidewalks; public art; open space; a river walk; the train trestle; children’s play areas; business mix; a liquid arts district; design standards; connectivity; implementation; elements of the Main Street approach; streetscape design; and cost estimates.”
This is welcome news. After years of seeing our downtown grow aesthetically tired and commercially ineffective, it is nice to see the city commit to a professional effort to examine problems and propose solutions toward a more active and vibrant community.
All is well, but we should also caution against too much focus on the center. As blah as downtown is, the problem does not start there. More ugly and problematic are the conduits leading up to it, including but not limited to Grand Avenue and that chunk of Main Street between Stadium Way and downtown.
We may also expand the scope and look at Davis Way. A major entry into town should not be defined by a form of planning that is neither town nor planning. As sympathetic as we are and should be to the need for affordable housing, placing mobile homes at the outset of town is not the proper way to go. This has nothing to do with whether we like or don’t like mobile homes but everything with the fact that they plop and don’t rise, making them anywhere anything, indeed indifferent to place. Might we be able to rezone that district and introduce functions that better integrate that community with the rest of Pullman?
The request for proposals does hint at the need to look at the links between downtown and the periphery, but does not spell it out. It needs to. If you are a resident at Evolve on Main and you want to walk to buy groceries, not least because you wish for a good exercise, it is hard to imagine doing so without also picturing yourself looking like a vagabond.
Grand Avenue is not merely ugly but dehumanizing, and this because it insists on the supremacy of the car over the human. Even the metal bridge over the Missouri Flat creek is designed not for a gentle and happy walk but for tanks in the middle of war zone. Just look at that thing.
What benches and landscaping there are, they are artless and do not compel participation. A good part of the success of cities is dependent on the degree to which they empower us to develop new relations with them and with each other, find new potential in the way we conduct business, sustain the environment and generally become active citizens.
To activate downtown, we must think of it in tandem with the neighborhoods that feed it. Paths up and down the hills must be recognized and improved, through landscaping, pavers and other elements whose purpose is to integrate the part with the whole, the resident with community. People are not likely to walk as much if their mental picture of the walk is one of aesthetic malaise.
Improving matters could include recognizing the world in which we live, where urban farming, ride sharing and biking are part and parcel of the way we move, see and participate in the world. This could include incentivizing residents to rethink their front and backyards as communal vegetable gardens, the sidewalks as places in which we stop and wait for the bus, the alleys as rooms of social and environmental innovation.
Finally, in both the request and the response to qualifications there was a recognition that Pullman “is the home of Washington State University and Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories” which is true but hardly noticeable. WSU of course does have a presence in downtown through the Visitor Center and the Foundation, both excellent in what they do, but neither represent the academic spine of the university. Neither classroom, lab nor dormitory exist here, only administration.
Schweitzer is completely absent and one can argue not in a neutral way but precisely in an unfortunate way, pulling, much like Walmart and other big box stores, people away from the downtown.
The company is a world unto itself, hosting, feeding and caring for its employees all in one giant spot-planet Schweitzer. Instead of banking on a rush of employees emerging from work and ready to chill on the way home, local bars and restaurants have to scrape by a good part of the year, especially the summer, relying on the drips and drabs of people left behind them.
None of this should mean relocating wholesale either the university or Schweitzer to downtown but designing and building meaningful physical connections. Whether the answer is handsome bike lanes or a gondola system with which to navigate the treacherous up and down of the town, the answers are boundless. We just need to want them.
Ayad Rahmani has been with Washington State University since 1997 and is an associate professor in the School of Design and Construction.