Councilmember Jon Quitslund Views

  1. September 18, 2023
  2. May 1, 2023
  3. March 1, 2023
  4. February 27, 2023
  5. January 27, 2023
  6. January 3, 2023
  7. December 14, 2022
  8. December 5, 2022
  9. October 3, 2022
  10. September 16, 2022
  11. September 9, 2022
  12. August 8, 2022
  13. July 12, 2022
  14. June 30, 2022
  15. May 31, 2022
  16. April 28, 2022
  17. April 12, 2022
  18. March 28, 2022
  19. March 10, 2022
  20. March 7, 2022

What Have We Learned Since Completion of Our First Comprehensive Plan?

September 18, 2023

It has been quite a while since I posted anything in Councilmember Views.  I’ve been thinking a lot, talking with many people, and reading widely.  Everything in my life has felt incomplete, nothing has been coherent enough to share with others in written form.  Recently, though, a book came in the mail that has gotten me excited and offered clarification of some big issues.

Despite its title, New Visions for Metropolitan America is not a new book: it was published in 1994.  (In case you don’t remember, 1994 is when Bainbridge Island’s first Comprehensive Plan was completed – almost thirty years ago.)    The author of New Visions, Anthony Downs (1930-2021), was an economist, associated with the Brookings Institution in Washington, D C, for much of his career.  His ideas on housing policies, urban planning, and traffic management began to take shape in the 1970s.

What this book provides is a description and a critique of the “dominant vision” throughout metropolitan America in the last decades of the 20th century, in places where regional and local plans were developed to manage population growth and the built environment.  Downs understood, with extraordinary clarity, the values on which such planning was based, and the biases implicit in those values.  His book can help us to understand the assumptions and guiding principles involved in the creation of Bainbridge Island’s first Comprehensive Plan, and some of the issues that ought to be addressed as we update the Plan, with our future as well as decades past in mind.

Reflecting on American life since the end of World War II, Downs begins New Visions with this statement: “For half a century America has had one dominant vision of how its metropolitan areas ought to grow and develop. It is best described as low-density sprawl.”  He identifies five elements of this vision: 

1) Ownership of detached single-family homes on spacious lots; 

2) Ownership of automotive vehicles; 

3) Working in low-rise workplaces – offices or industrial buildings or shopping centers – that provide free parking for the commuter’s car; 

4) Residence in small communities with strong local governments; 

5) An environment free from the signs of poverty.   

Of the last element, he observes, “Unlike the other four, this element is not acknowledged or even consciously desired. But it inevitably results from two conditions for housing production: no construction of ‘substandard’ housing and few housing subsidies for low-income households” (p. 6).

These elements of a rationale for the good life must sound familiar to almost everyone on Bainbridge Island, even to people much younger than I am.  These are fundamental features of the world I grew up in, that my parents, coming home to the Island in 1945, generously devoted their lives to.  Now, as we approach the thirtieth anniversary of our first Comprehensive Plan, we ought to regard its Guiding Principles with a good measure of respect, while we are alert to problems that have emerged in recent years.  Let’s recognize that some of the implementing Policy statements attached to the Guiding Principles have never been acted upon.

Anthony Downs’ book describes how, in the prosperity that came after the end of World War II, cities expanded into large metropolitan areas; suburbs developed as autonomous communities, absorbing rural landscapes.  This process was driven by population pressures, profit motives, and transformative changes in regional economies.  Diverse segments of the population were sorted and segregated; opportunities were not equitably distributed.  Of course, planning for such dynamic and systemic changes always lags behind the reality that’s on the ground and in the wind.  

Washington State’s Growth Management Act, established in 1990, was an attempt to catch up with events, and to get ahead of them where it might be possible.  The G.M.A. has been updated periodically by the legislature, modifying what is required locally in subsequent Comprehensive Plan updates.

Our creation of a City was simultaneous and consistent with the statewide and regional planning efforts. What was undertaken here over the course of the 1990s was forward-looking, but it was also essentially conservative: an effort to constrain development and population growth, and first and foremost to “Preserve the special character of the Island.”  Our Municipal Code created a pattern of residential zoning that was, and remains, low-density to the nth degree.

Within the central Puget Sound metropolitan area, Bainbridge Island functions as a suburb – a bedroom community in relation to the Seattle area and, to a lesser extent, to workplaces and other attractions on the west side of the Sound.   Many years ago, I heard Bainbridge described by the Planning director as “rural, becoming suburban.”  I didn’t like the sound of that, because in my mind, any suburb is bound to be ordinary and inferior.  

If upscale suburban-style residential development becomes the Island-wide norm, that could violate what I have experienced, through all of my life here, as a robust, invaluable, and indelible sense of place.  But is there a viable alternative to the low-density status quo?  Our detached single-family homes on spacious lots are becoming more and more valuable, and accessible to an ever-smaller segment of the economic spectrum.  The Island’s demographic mix is skewed in favor of wealth and privilege.  Twenty years from now, what will the population look like?  The decisions we make now, or fail to make, won’t entirely determine that future, but they will make a difference.  

We must try to imagine a better future.  I believe that a more open and equitable community will be better for all of us.   Let’s put behind us the notion that Bainbridge Island is “a City in name only.”  We shouldn’t ignore the metropolitan matrix that surrounds us; we have to acknowledge that we are umbilically connected to it.  Many forces are at work, both creative and destructive, redefining what is possible in our region, so let’s consider the best that we can do in our special part of it.

 Parts of the Island have changed, and more change will come, but Bainbridge should always remain more than the sum of its parts.  In the course of my lifetime, the Island has gone beyond being a quaint podunk place, sparsely populated and next door to nowhere; it has become a distinctive and complex metropolitan culture.  I worry, however, that the foundation and flourishing of that culture involved unexamined biases and blind spots.  Unless we achieve an open-minded understanding of that history, we may fail to come to terms with the realities of Bainbridge Island today and the likelihood of larger problems in the future.

In the five elements that constitute Downs’ dominant vision of a metropolitan community, an essential characteristic of our identity remains to be articulated.   The last and most problematic element in his account is “An environment free from the signs of poverty.”  Economic distress is a fact of life for many households on Bainbridge Island, but it has been, for all practical purposes, out of sight and out of mind for the dominant culture here.  

The shared awareness of our environment has nothing to do with economic disparities: they are not invisible, but we have other priorities.  The “environment” here is our natural resources, it’s our shorelines and the waters of Puget Sound, it’s forests and trails, it’s tracts of land devoted in perpetuity to parks and conservation.  

Actually, our everyday quality of life depends more on characteristics of the built environment than on our natural surroundings, but for decades, the dominant culture here has tended to prioritize preservation and protection of the natural environment, and to neglect planning and providing for an inclusive built environment.  This bias has had both intended and unintended consequences.



Anthony Downs’ book can help us to understand our predicament.  We are properly proud of our position in the middle of Puget Sound, and we hold true, as we should, to our belief in self-government.   Downs, however, is very critical of growth management as it is practiced in small towns and in suburban jurisdictions.   “Although many local governments try to deal with them in isolation, growth-related problems are regional rather than local in nature” (p. 26).  Further, “No jurisdiction is an island. Every suburb is linked to its central city and to other suburbs” (p. 58).  

Fortunately, community planning is not as decentralized now as it was thirty years ago; in Washington, Oregon, and many other states, local governments operate within a system of checks and balances.  Nowadays, our local planning and development procedures are expected to be consistent with goals and policies established at the state, regional, and county levels.  Our local priorities can still be, as Downs puts it, “extremely parochial,” controlled by small-scale and short-term considerations, but if that’s the case, the road not taken will be well-defined.

Since low-density sprawl has made possible so much that we value on Bainbridge Island, it’s difficult to imagine any acceptable alternative outside of Winslow.   I think it is generally accepted that we should plan for more residential development in Winslow, and make that possible by increases in FAR allowances.  As we anticipate gradual increases in the Island’s population, we will be deciding how important it is to provide housing for a large portion of the income spectrum, ranging from very low to moderate incomes.

Plans for new development and re-development in Winslow are taking shape and will emerge for public discussion and decision-making in the coming days and weeks.  Adjustments to the current development standards will eventually be brought together in an updated Winslow Subarea Plan, which will provide reference points for Island-wide planning in the Comprehensive Plan.

In a few more paragraphs, I will try to describe how small-scale increases in the density of residential development might be distributed beyond the urban core of Winslow.  Most of the Island’s buildable lands are outside of Winslow, and we need to provide housing for couples and families who have been shut out of the real estate market, so we ought to develop context-sensitive alternatives to upscale single-family houses in the zones where units per acre are now strictly limited.

Anthony Downs describes two alternatives to the low-density vision of “nearly universal ownership of single-family detached houses.”  The shorelines of Bainbridge Island absolutely determine our urban growth boundary.  For that reason, only one of Downs’ alternatives is feasible: “Low density as the dominant pattern, but interspersed with higher density housing, both single-family and multifamily.  This pattern would permit average densities in new-growth areas substantially higher than those prevailing in most U.S. metropolitan areas, without abandoning the dominance of single-family dwellings” (pp. 125-26).

The interspersed density that Downs goes on to describe is greater than what I expect to see on any part of the Island, but I believe the basic pattern is worthy of careful consideration.  How could a greater variety of housing types be introduced – here and there, certainly not everywhere – outside of Winslow?  I imagine nothing taller than two stories, and no footprint with more square footage than is common in recently built single-family homes.  What I’m thinking of are some, not all, of the “missing middle” housing types: duplexes, cottages, stacked flats.  

Without conforming to the broad brush approach of HB 1110, we could honor the objectives of that legislation – to redefine “density,” lower the per-unit cost of housing, and meet the needs of an economically diverse population.

I don’t propose undoing, with this interspersed housing, what has been achieved in the lowest-density zoning (R-2, R-1, and R-0.4) across most of the island’s acreage.  We must maintain the environmental protections for critical areas, tree canopy, and the soils that support vegetation and aquifer recharge.  We also have to recognize that septic system requirements limit the density of development in most parts of the Island.  However, I believe we can build greener, with less environmental impact, while making more efficient use of our buildable lands.  

By accommodating more housing units than the zoning code now permits, we will reduce the per-unit cost of the land and some of the per-unit expenses of development prior to permitting.  Necessarily and advantageously, such housing will be smaller, built at a lower cost for materials.  The Housing element in our current Comprehensive Plan calls for this diversification of housing types, and steps have already been taken in this direction.  I will look to implementation of the Housing Action Plan and development of the 2024 Comprehensive Plan to carry us further.