The Harbor Commons

Featured in the November 2017 Issue of Gig Harbor Living Local

By Brett Marlo DeSantis

Yes, Gig Harbor, there could be such a place! Would it look exactly like this flexible community space called the Harbor Commons? Maybe….maybe not. These studio projects open our minds to what the future of our built urban environment could be. You may remember, approximately four years ago, University of Washington Professor Jim Nichols led a small team of graduate and undergraduate students through this same process focusing on the main streets in downtown Gig Harbor. The results from that project informed some of what you see today! Specifically, ideas, conversations and renderings spurred the exterior improvements to the Finholm Market as well as the patio at Anthony’s.

This year a smaller group of students participated, again led by Professor Jim Nichols, and focused on the sites between Judson, Pioneer and Harborview. And just like last time, they followed Jim’s recipe for success. The goal of the storefront studio process is to study main streets in small communities and respond with creative ideas for architectural improvements; goals that aim to enhance resilience, inclusivity and authenticity of the existing community.

The process begins with a tour and interviews. It continues with community group panels called town hall meetings and open-house style presentations which share their collective information gathering and emerging design solutions. At the end of the studio, the students wrap up with their vision (based on our vision for our community) in the form of a final open-house presentation, group discussion and publishing a book.

It did not take long for them to learn of our community goals: save mature trees and significant/historic buildings, support existing community connections, improve pedestrian opportunities, provide flexible community spaces, be inclusive, sustainable, support our local businesses, preserve and create views, increase parking, activate spaces between buildings and oh, we love porches! We spoke, they listened. When they spoke, this is what they recommended. We can add more open public space via boardwalks, sidewalks, plazas and play areas. We can follow our existing net-shed type of buildings which are small in scale and perpendicular to the waterfront.

These small-scale buildings preserve views while allowing for unique and innovative cottage industries and provide opportunities to work where you live. We can use our natural topography to create solutions and enhance our connection to the water. We can provide more decks, more water features and more opportunities to view and connect with our harbor. We can provide more parking.

Their solution of deck surface parking uses the natural grade. It is not underground so it is not as expensive as other potential solutions and provides a practical, flexible, long-term solution that allows for changing uses over time. Are you curious to learn more?

Check out both of the Gig Harbor Storefront Studio books, 2013 and 2017, to see more of these great ideas with your own eyes! The books are available to view as no-cost PDFs, or to purchase, through the Downtown Waterfront Alliance’s website. So how can we begin to craft our built environment based off some the Harbor Commons concepts? According to Nichols, incremental implementation is the key. He recommends we create a series of meetings to continue this conversation and call it the porch dialogues to celebrate our love of porches and push forward on our goals for and with our community.

We can focus on small manageable moves to encourage activity. Seasonal or temporary events, activating existing public spaces or building off existing infrastructure are good first steps. Let’s take them together.