Strongest Town 2022, Round 1: University Place, WA vs. White Salmon, WA

STC+1

Entry submitted by: James Feore, Kim Medchill.

What is your favorite thing about your town?

More than anything else, I love that University Place (UP) has embraced a decades-long approach of incremental progress. Unlike so many other towns that strive for instant perfection—building the perfect development, crafting the perfect park, investing in the perfect new downtown—UP has spent the last 25 years making modest but measurable progress towards livability and financial resilience.

When UP became the first city in Washington to adopt a Complete Streets policy, it didn’t tear up miles of road and attempt to rebuild everything from scratch. UP started with nothing, and then added a few sidewalks, the state’s first roundabout, and some bike lanes. We made progress little by little to build out the South Sound’s most robust network of pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure. One step at a time, UP slowly transformed its once dangerous streets with road diets, street trees, and roundabouts into beautiful, walkable boulevards.

This same approach extends to the municipal code too. Where so many towns are fighting incremental development with restrictive zoning or stifling review processes, UP has taken measures to enable it. Duplexes and accessory dwelling units (ADUs) can be built throughout all the town’s residential zoning, and UP’s entire commercial corridor—all 481 acres of it—was rezoned to mixed-use with a form-based code. The high value-per-acre developments that have followed are a testament to the success of this approach.

What is the biggest challenge your town faces, and what are you doing to address it?

UP is part of the Greater Seattle area, and like many other cities in the region, it has seen rapidly escalating housing prices. The rapid shift to remote work brought on by the COVID pandemic only exacerbated this problem, as many Seattle residents looked to buy into cheaper suburbs now that they no longer had a commute to consider.

Despite those problems, UP has positioned itself well to come out ahead. In addition to allowing “missing middle” housing throughout the entire town, large sections of UP were zoned for mixed-use and multi-family housing well in advance of the current crisis. The city’s mixed-use town center, completed only a decade ago, has served as a catalyst to lure more high-value developments into the immediate area. Over 1,000 new, high-density units have either already been built, are in construction, or will be breaking ground shortly as a result of the town’s permissive zoning and active assistance of healthy development.

Perhaps the starkest example of this is the giant, dead strip mall and abandoned movie theater on the town’s north end. Built before the town’s official incorporation, the strip mall was the perfect example of inflexible suburban sprawl. It has been a half-abandoned, blighted sea of asphalt for the last decade, and now, the lure of permissive zoning has attracted a vibrant, 300-unit apartment complex to replace it. So called “suburban retrofit” is more than just a dream in UP.

What transportation options exist in your town for people of varying ages, abilities, and means? How easy is it to live in your town without regular access to a car? What transportation investments has your town recently made or is it in the process of making?

We’ve already bragged about UP’s incremental approach to implementing its Complete Streets policy. Now, we get to brag about how far that’s come.

What started as a car-centric suburb with no sidewalks or bike infrastructure is now a thriving town with over 43 miles of sidewalk and bike lane. A street redesign which boasted the first roundabout in the state has now expanded into a network of eight roundabouts and slow streets that do more than just pay lip-service to “Complete Streets”. The city’s next six-year transportation improvement plan continues that trend by adding another 20+ miles of pedestrian and bike infrastructure, including shared-use paths, pedestrian shortcuts, and even more roundabouts.

UP’s two main arterials, Bridgeport and Grandview, were transformed so thoroughly that they have literally become case studies in effective street redesigns. Bridgeport was featured by the FHWA’s PedBikeInfo for its safety and walkability improvements, and Grandview’s conversion into a healthy street was covered by Blue Zones.

The north end of our town is anchored by a regional transit center, which also provides bus service throughout the city. One of those bus lines is also slated for conversion into a bus rapid transit route by 2027, with light rail to follow. Buses to bus rapid transit to light rail; even the transit is incrementally developed here!

Tell us about your community’s local economy. Who are the key players, big and small, and how do they help your town to be financially strong and resilient? What local businesses are you most proud of?

University Place is a story of financial resilience from the get-go. The town is literally named after a university that was never even built. When that dream died, the community continued to grow anyway, supported by the small bets they had made instead of being saddled by the weight of large, risky gambles.

UP has continued to thrive as its economy has slowly diversified. Perhaps the most prestigious business in the town is the Chambers Bay Golf Course, which helped draw attention to UP when it hosted the 2015 US Open. Much of the town’s other business is grounded on a health-focused retail and services model that complements the active lifestyle that the town’s infrastructure encourages. UP has a near over-abundance of specialty health providers, pet stores, bike shops, and health-conscious grocery stores, like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. These businesses draw their customers from across the entire region, all while avoiding the big box store suburban development model.

Backing all this up is UP’s close proximity to Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM). Many of UP’s residents either work in JBLM or are stationed there, providing a solid and stable base for the local economy. The town also works to make this relationship a mutually beneficial one by partnering with the 16th Combat Aviation Brigade through our Community Connector Program. 

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