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What could Vashon be? UW students imagine the possibilities
A group of University of Washington students has proposed several projects — from facade improvements in Vashon town to a rebirth of the Portage Store — in an effort to strengthen the Island’s economic vitality and protect its historic integrity.
The 13 students, enrolled in the UW’s College of Built Environments, have visited Vashon several times since they held a kickoff open house on the Island March 30. They talked to Island merchants and civic leaders, traversed Vashon and immersed themselves in Island history before putting forward their 14 proposals.
They’re now ready for their second open house — to be held Friday evening and Saturday morning — where Islanders can take a look at what they’ve proposed, discuss their ideas and help them refine the projects. All of the proposals, many of them replete with photographs and schematic drawings, are posted at Movie Magic for preview.
“I think in the end we’ll come up with some things that we’ll be able to implement,” said Julie Koler, preservation officer at King County.
The students are part of a program called Storefront Studio, funded by the UW and a $10,000 King County grant. Now in its 10th year, the program dispatches students to a variety of small communities — from Carnation to Kent — to develop ideas that could strengthen the community, preserve its history, build on its assets and promote economic growth.
Low-interest loan money from a county program will likely be available to help shopkeepers and property owners implement some of the ideas, though the specifics have not yet been determined, Koler said.
“We’re literally in the process of developing a new initiative, called the Downtown Revitalization Initiative,” she said. She hopes such funds will be available later this year.
Students said they’ve enjoyed the process of visiting Vashon and talking to merchants and Island historians such as Bruce Haulman. Initially, they were going to look just at Vashon town, but in the course of their investigation, they said, they realized residents see the whole Island as their community.
“In talking to residents, we realized the town is just one small part of Vashon. It has these pockets,” said Alexander Thomson, one of the students.
“Our goal is not just to improve the downtown streetscape, but to develop the economy, preserve the history and support the community,” he said.
Jim Nicholls, the UW professor who oversees the Storefront Studio, said he and the students came up with themes that they felt defined the Island — Vashon’s farms and forests, its downtown main street, its dockside communities and what he called the crossroads communities, places like Center, where Vashon Allied Arts plans to build a new performing arts center.
“We’ve developed little projects in each of these areas as examples of how stewardship could occur and provide this idea of promoting history, promoting jobs and promoting economic development,” he said.
The students’ proposals are far-ranging — some of them modest, some ambitious.
They’ve suggested, for instance, a welcome sign at the north-end ferry dock that would let visitors know how far they need to go to reach the town. “When arriving at the ferry, there is no indication of where anything is on the Island … (or) where you are relative to downtown,” students wrote in their explanation for the project.
They’ve also called for an extension of the plaza in front of the library, transforming it into what they call a “library concert bowl,” facade improvements on nine town buildings and a trailhead structure that clearly marks the entrance into Island Center Forest at the newly acquired site near Roseballen.
More ambitious projects include a proposal to restore some of the remaining structures at the Beall Greenhouses; once a thriving nursery, today, the students said, “the greenhouses resemble ancient ruins.”
They’ve suggested that VAA reconsider the design of its proposed $16 million performing arts center, adding a porch to the glass-fronted, two-story-high entrance that would create an architectural connection between it and the other buildings at Center.
They’d also like to see VAA salvage a part of McFeeds before tearing it down. While exploring the building, Nicholls said, the students went into the attic and discovered it was built with lattice trusses — beautiful structural beams that are still intact and could be used to support an enlarged structure at the Village Green, something managers of the Farmer Market would like to see.
“We don’t want to get in the way of the growth of the performing arts,” Nicholls said, “but we also don’t want to lose what McFeeds has to offer.”
The students also put forward some ambitious projects for Vashon town, including a proposal to address the 75 feet of windowless facade between James’ Hair Design and Amiad & Associates — “a very static and under-utilized space,” the students wrote. The building, the former site of Island Lumber before it moved to its new location in 2002, is still owned by Island Lumber owner Earl Van Buskirk; he currently uses it as a warehouse.
Students suggested it could be repurposed and made into a restaurant, book store, wine cellar or art collective.
“The Farmers Market is right across the street,” Nicholls noted, adding that it could become a covered market, tapping into the bustling Saturday affair. It’s not enough, he added, to put a mural on the building. “That doesn’t solve the problem,” he said.
Some Vashon merchants say they appreciate the students’ fresh perspective.
“It’s like a gift from the county to have these students take a look with a different set of eyes,” said Priscilla Schleigh, owner of Giraffe. “It’s all positive. I think it’s great.”
Tom Langland, co-owner of the Vashon Pharmacy, said his business is one that will get a proposed facade improvement — and he’s looking forward to it.
“We have a very dated and bland exterior,” he said.
Langland said he’s long thought the town could use a facelift — “not as a way to attract tourism, but for ourselves,” he said.
“I don’t want us to lose this opportunity,” he added.
But Van Buskirk, told of the students’ suggestions for his building, questioned whether any of them would work. He’s not seen the proposal.
The only kind of project he could foresee, he said, was transforming his building into office space; any kind of retail space demands too much parking — more than that stretch of town can accommodate, he said.
“What most people don’t realize is that that building’s been there so long it would probably have to be torn down to reconstruct something,” he added. “It would be hard to turn it into retail space without starting all over.”
The second open house by the Storefront Studio project will take place from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Friday and 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Saturday at Movie Magic. The students, their professor and representatives from King County will be on hand to answer questions.
Islanders, meanwhile, can drop by anytime that Movie Magic is open and look at the proposals. The students’ final presentation to the Island will be June 1.