Jon Quitslund is a current member of the Bainbridge City Council, and a former member of the Island’s Planning Commission, giving him a detailed understanding of the current Winslow Subarea Plan guidelines and the opportunities to update them and better support the area’s future growth.
Jon grew up on the Island (BHS Class of ’57), went to Reed College, and spent 36 years teaching in D.C. at George Washington University. In the year 2000, Jon retired from academia and returned to Bainbridge with his wife Toby. After first volunteering on citizen committees dealing with environmental issues and land use policies, he served on the Planning Commission from 2012 through 2021.
Jon was deeply involved with the 2016 update of Bainbridge’s Comprehensive Plan, and in his own words, “spent nine years spotting flaws and gaps in the Municipal Code and providing rationales for recommendations”.
Replacing the 2006 Winslow Master Plan with a New Subarea Plan
by Jon Quitslund
The consultants chosen to draft a new Winslow Subarea Plan have begun their work, supported by a team of top-level City staff members. Members of the team have also met with City Council members in small groups, to share information and obtain our individual perspectives on the project. Fellow Council Member Leslie Schneider and I took our turn on January 6th. I mentioned at the end of our meeting that I planned to follow up the discussion with some further comments on the planning process. This essay makes public those comments, somewhat revised.
I think it’s important that members of the City Council are involved, in effective and appropriate ways, during the planning process, so that we can assume responsibility for acting upon and implementing the Subarea Plan’s findings and recommendations.
Before thinking much about what I wanted to say in this essay, I re-read the first three chapters of the 2006 update of the Winslow Master Plan: an 8-page Introduction and Summary, the 18-page Land Use chapter, and the 3-page Housing chapter. It appears that this update of the 1998 Master Plan grew out of the ‘Winslow Tomorrow’ planning process, and that both efforts were undertaken to implement the 2004 update of the Island’s Comprehensive Plan.
As a member of the Planning Commission I was deeply involved in the 2016 update of the Comprehensive Plan. I remember well that at the end of that process, Joe Tovar (the expert consultant who directed the update) said that to implement the Plan, the City’s first priority should be revision of the Winslow Master Plan. The City Council and administration failed to act on that advice. Now we are finally making progress with a suite of long-range planning exercises (including the Climate Action Plan, the Sustainable Transportation Plan, and the Housing Action Plan), for which the 2024 Comprehensive Plan will be the capstone.
I see the Winslow Subarea Plan as the most challenging, and potentially the most consequential, component in all of those planning efforts. Meeting the challenges won’t be easy.
The 2006 Winslow Master Plan provides some foundation stones for the new Subarea Plan, and I think it also serves as a cautionary example. It does little to imagine a future different from Winslow’s circumstances at that time. Pages 2 and 3 in the WMP present, in a series of twelve bullet points, a Vision statement that had been created during the Winslow Tomorrow process. It begins, “The Island is a complete community: Winslow develops as a sustainable, affordable, diverse, livable and economically vital downtown.” Don’t we wish that was all true today?
I guess that the Island seemed on the way to being ‘complete’ in 2006, but what did that mean? If ‘complete’ meant ‘no more need for growth,’ we are certainly not entitled to think that way now. Also, Winslow may be ‘affordable’ for some people, and perhaps the population is culturally more ‘diverse’ now than in 2006, but don’t we still have a long way to go?
With the benefit of hindsight, it can be said that the creators of the 2006 Winslow Master Plan were naïve in their imagining of the future. They put a positive spin on the planning done during ‘Winslow Tomorrow’ – a contentious process that produced much less than was expected. For instance: “There was agreement on the need for a flexible ‘blueprint’ of what to build, as well as a ‘greenprint’ of what to preserve and the importance of the natural landscape informing urban design. It was agreed that the plan for Winslow should be flexible, allowing the downtown to evolve organically over time rather than promoting immediate wholesale change” (p. 7).
The false dichotomy in that last sentence is telling. I doubt that ‘immediate’ and ‘wholesale’ change was promoted by anyone; perhaps that was imagined as the future that ‘greedy developers’ wanted. Organic evolution is obviously preferable, but as we know from agriculture, ‘organic’ development isn’t easy; it’s based on principles, involves regulations, and requires hard work year after year.
Most of the Master Plan’s active verbs are soft and squishy – words like ‘allow’ and ‘encourage.’ For example: “Recommended policies and projects encourage higher density, a mix of uses, more downtown residences and expanded services to serve the growing island population” (p. 8). Nowhere in the Land Use and Housing chapters of the Master Plan is there a rationale for the specifics of Base and Bonus FAR allowances. In the short Housing chapter, there’s a moment of candor: “It is not certain that new development or redevelopment will be using the maximum densities permitted. Some developers may not wish to participate in the FAR bonusing system or provide additional affordable units” (p. 30).
Planning on Bainbridge has always involved a mixture of laissez-faire and an abundance of caution. We take pride in our ‘special’ place, and a sense of ownership and entitlement seems to come with the territory when you have lived here for a while. In 2006, there was reason to think that Winslow had plenty of room to grow – to the extent that any growth was desirable. The development that has happened, within small-town limits and with nothing mandatory, has to some extent been wasteful of golden opportunities. Winslow’s development over the last twenty-plus years was not exclusive or exclusionary by design, but it has had the inequitable effect of excluding many commercial enterprises, a large portion of the Island’s workforce, and all sorts of people who aren’t already well-off.
Unfortunately, Winslow’s development since 2006 has imposed limits on what can be done now without significant changes in FAR allowances, use regulations, and provisions for more diverse housing in the units-per-acre zones. Within the Town Center and High School Road districts, almost the only opportunities I can see to provide for the future will depend on large-scale re-development. Needless to say, there’s no magic wand to make that happen. Most such development, I imagine, takes ten years to be realized, so the sooner we begin considering what is both feasible and desirable, the better.
Will the new Subarea Plan focus mostly on the districts where development is governed by FAR allowances and use-related standards, or will it also deal in detail with the patchwork of units-per-acre residential zones that surround the Town Center? The broader agenda could be unmanageable in the time available, but we need to begin thinking about the present-day and future dynamics of the urban center in relation to the less-dense zones that surround the center.
In the residential zones within the Winslow Study Area, a small portion is zoned R-14. A few segments, most of them in the High School Road area, are zoned R-8. These are the only units-per-acre zones where multi-family housing is a permitted use; elsewhere, multi-family design (defined as two or more primary housing units under one roof) is a conditional use.
Most of the Winslow Study Area east of Highway 305 is zoned R-2.9 or R-2. On the west side of the Town Center, segments are zoned R-2.9, R-3.5 or R-4.3.
In these zones, and in the additional areas served by Winslow’s water and sewer systems, what development potential remains? Where will it be possible to introduce the more affordable housing types that are urgently called for now, not only by state-level and regional planning guidance but in our current Comprehensive Plan? Whatever is persuasively proposed in the new Winslow Subarea Plan will, I expect, predetermine what will be consolidated in the 2024 Comprehensive Plan, in the Vision statements and Goals and Policies of the Land Use and Housing elements.
“I have been asked what I want to see in Winslow’s Future”
I have been asked what I want to see in Winslow’s future. Since I’m only one member of the Council, and the community engagement process is still in its exploratory and formative phase, I ought to be careful what I wish for. I’m aware of many more questions than answers. In the immediate future, we have a complex planning process to complete. This will call for understanding what’s valuable and what’s problematic in our present circumstances, and trying to imagine what Winslow could become in the next twenty years.
The planning process needs participants who are eager to work together, to learn from one another and from our consultants and Planning staff. Originally, it was expected that the plan would be completed before the end of this year, and I now think it will need another six months.
Look around Winslow today, and you may see things we don’t need more of in Winslow tomorrow. There are also exemplary projects in the works, with others being discussed, that may show us the way forward. Take a tour of the Buxton Center for Bainbridge Performing Arts, as I did recently: what an inspirational community asset that will be! Think about the possibility of expanding the Waterfront Center, adding some senior housing, and bringing more people down to the water. Let’s discuss what would be the highest and best use of the corner property that will be vacated by the Police Department, and let’s talk about redevelopment of properties along the south side of Winslow Way East.
Who doubts that the Island’s workforce needs more opportunities to live here? It’s already been decided that at least 50% of any population growth should be accommodated in Winslow. We can’t know who will show up, but the kinds of housing that the City plans and provides for will determine, to some extent, who is able to settle here and contribute to our community’s continuing vitality. More housing, as I imagine it, means more commercial activity, a healthier service economy, and new businesses, some of which may be home-based.
There are other things on my mind, but I’ve reached a stopping point. I want to emphasize that this essay presents one person’s perspective, not representative of assumptions and objectives in the Council as a whole. I have tried to provide a backdrop for further inquiry and discussion, involving as many people as possible.”
Jon Quitslund can be reached via the phone number and email on his official council member directory page on the COBI website
Note: A version of this essay and more of Jon Quitslund’s perspectives on planning issues also appear on the City website
Images courtesy of Jon Quitslund, City of Bainbridge Island.