On Saturday morning, months of preparation were finally put into action. A team of graduate planning students, including myself, hosted a public meeting at Port Orchard City Hall to kick off the city’s yearlong comprehensive plan update process. The purpose of the meeting was to present our initial research on the state of the city and gather citizen input on what the future of Port Orchard should look like. And while not nearly on the scale of other public events I’ve been to recently, the occasion offered lessons on becoming a city planner.
The event was hosted by students as part of a contract between the UW Department of Urban Design and Planning and the City of Port Orchard, which is located across the Puget Sound from Seattle and happens to be my hometown. The UW regularly enters into these win-win arrangements, which bring a small army of energetic students to resource-strained towns around the region while offering valuable planning experience for students. This studio class emphasized two important roles of planners: practical research and public participation.
As required by Washington State law, cities must complete a full update of their comprehensive plans every seven to eight years. In the planning profession, comprehensive plans (or master/general plans) are guiding documents for communities and intended for consultation when decisions are being made about land use, the environment, utilities, and other urban elements. The updated Port Orchard Comprehensive Plan due to be adopted in 2016, and the process is starting now because of the extensive research, revisions, and public participation needed. The scope of work with UW requires students to update the Plan’s introduction chapter and land use, housing, and transportation chapters by June 2014.
Starting in January the studio wrote an ‘initial conditions report’ (ICR), which describes the current status of the city’s population, economy, infrastructure, and services. At the same time I joined a sub-team of students to design and promote the public meeting, which is where we would kick off the public role in the update process and present the ICR. Our publicity campaign for the meeting was extensive, and included reaching out to reporters, emailing community stakeholders and organizations, posting flyers on transit and in downtown shops, and handing out flyers to shoppers. As a Port Orchard native I was on point for many of these activities but somehow ended up with my name in the paper.
For a rainy Saturday morning there was a surprisingly good turnout at the meeting, though some arrived late because of confusion in how the event was promoted. We had about 25 people from a wide geographical area and representing a variety of interests. It started out with a presentation on the ICR, and then the participants were broken into three rotating groups for discussions and activities. The sessions were about where to locate future housing, what the city’s identity is, and what kind of architectural and urban designs are preferable.
General sentiments were that Port Orchard should keep its small town feel but work on improving its amenities, especially in the downtown area. For the past decade the downtown, located on a beautiful stretch of waterfront on Sinclair Inlet, has languished as investment hasn’t materialized and buildings have become decrepit (two recent fires haven’t helped either). People want more services like restaurants and general retail in the downtown, and they want to get there easier. Parking lots dominate the shoreline and should be consolidated, while sidewalk and bike routes are needed. Elsewhere, though, people are concerned about the growth of multi-family housing in areas without adequate road and infrastructure services.
During a concluding session residents expressed appreciation for our work and suggested who to contact for invitation for future events. We were taken away by how enthusiastic residents were and their anticipation of staying involved. It was a great introduction to public participation, and I look forward to continuing to work with Port Orchard next quarter. It also reinforces my decision to pursue a career in planning and help developing communities.