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City of Gig Harbor Downtown Planning 2013

Three conditions significantly affect the health of Gig Harbor's downtown. Here's Condition One.

Visioning for the future in downtown Gig Harbor is currently focused on preserving the working waterfront, preserving the integrity of historic neighborhoods, and realizing downtown amenities that appeal to residents, visitors and boaters.  These are laudable goals.

A current notion that is being publicly discussed proposes that flexible zoning development agreements - reached through mostly private discussion between property owners and city appointed and elected officials - might be a good way to reach these objectives.  Perhaps. 

It remains completely unclear what city officials are trying to develop in the downtown because there is no physical description of an idealized physical downtown future.  The city seems to be considering a “we’ll-show-you-the-future-once-we’ve-arranged-it" process.  No successful city has ever functioned in such a manner.  Ever. Probably even on other planets.

As the city ponders what kind of governance it will provide its citizens, perhaps it should ponder a few 21st Century conditions that affect the downtown.

Condition One involves the fact that downtown Gig Harbor zoning relies on zero lot line development (no setbacks), one of the most intense zoning devices in any downtown.  Strangely and inconsistently, given a zero lot line zoning criterion, the restriction on downtown building size is only slightly largely than the building size allotment in the city’s most restrictive, least intensive, residential/business zone.  This inconsistency detracts from investment and renewal in the downtown.  If zero lot line development is a real intention, then zone to use it.  All this has an impact on city sales tax revenues and on the quality and development of buildings. 

The last time the city analyzed downtown city sales tax revenue as a percentage of overall jurisdiction sales tax was 2001.  This task was almost impossible given the obscure way sales receipts are reported to the state.

At that point, there was no significant sales tax increase from the Gig Harbor North or Uptown areas and the downtown portion of the sales tax was less than 5%. (Sales tax revenue at the time was $3 million; now, it is $4.9 million.  Back then, one-time construction sales tax receipts were 25% of sales tax revenue; now construction sales tax revenue is about 15%.)  So, it is reasonable to estimate that the downtown contributes less than 3% of current sales tax revenue received by the city.

Of that less-than-3%, maritime visitors contribute significantly less than one third, or less than 1% of sales tax in the City of Gig Harbor - probably a lot less.     

So, the downtown zone should be re-configured to encourage productive investment and service-oriented retail commerce.  Or, the city should reconcile the zone to conform to what the zone has become – bedroom and office space with a few high quality amenities and hobby businesses.  The latter case would be unfortunate in my view.  I agree with Mr. Gair that the downtown should principally be a place where residents can have a mix of services to enjoy and to have some fun; guests too, including boaters.  But, is the downtown economy dependent on boaters and will it be in the future?  No and no. The city brand might be dependent on boaters in part, but not the economy.  

Whatever the City Council does, the zoning (and its consequences) should be transparent to the public.

I'll write about downtown conditions two and three next.

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