Revitalizing Downtown Mercer Island
Many people think of Mercer Island as home to rich, snobby, elite, sheltered yuppies. Well, I'm not going to argue about that. Instead I'll talk about some of the wonderful changes to the downtown area. I've been thinking about this for a while and I'm glad it is getting some publicity. These changes are the best thing that has happened to the island in a long time.
The city council, despite the pleas of stubborn citizens, increased the max building height of the downtown area to five stories from the previous limit of two. Until recently the majority of downtown had consisted of large grocery stories and strip malls. Between new regulations and the low interest rates, developers have been spurred to create new mixed-use buildings. There are currently four large projects in the works, which will bring in 900 new apartments and 246 thousand square feet of stores and offices.
Of course, many Mercer Islanders are against anything that might damage their idea of the 'suburban dream'. Jerry Gropp thinks it will destroy the ambience of the downtown area, which leads me to ask, "What ambience?" Having lived there for some 17 years, I'm not sure what he is talking about. Most buildings are one or two stories and there are parking lots everywhere. The downtown usually seems empty (except for cars) and past 21:00 it is practically deserted. There are very few restaurants, and most close fairly early.
From the article: many Islanders think it "will attract crime, increase traffic, harm the reputation of their schools and disrupt their quiet downtown". Crime is not new. In the last year or two we've had a middle schooler bring a gun to school, a little girl get kidnapped, and an immoral drug bust. Crime will come even without this development. I don't believe it will increase traffic, if anything, it will help decrease traffic. If people can live just a short walk from their destination, they don't need to drive. How would this harm the schools? That seems like nonsense. And of course the downtown is quiet... no one is ever there.
I think public opinion can be swayed, especially if this is promoted the right way. Of course, once everything is completed and the benefits are obvious, there will be no need to explain this to anyone, but for now this is my idea. Many Islanders visit Europe and love to tell people about it. Well, just think, they could have a little European-style village in their own backyard. The roads downtown are mostly two lanes and fairly narrow. The main drag is a boulevard with trees in the center lane. If most of the downtown area was converted to four or five story mixed-use buildings, it would have a very intimate feel. The buildings wouldn't dwarf you, but they would provide a nice feeling of protection and frame the roads nicely. Increasing the downtown population would also make the downtown more lively and potentially reduce crime. There would always be people around, so it wouldn't feel deserted, and having watchful eyes discourages crime. The downtown area is almost located in a little valley. Having a number of dense, human-scale buildings at the end of a valley would be a very attractive semi-urban area. Also, Seattle is a few minute drive from downtown (assuming no traffic). However, buses from Seattle and Bellevue stop just a few blocks from downtown. It would be very easy for someone to live downtown, shop and eat at all the new stores, and ride a bus to Seattle when they want to attend an event or movie; and they could do this while rarely using their car. In a decade or two, we will hopefully have light rail to Mercer Island, which will make commuting to and from the city even easier .