What Happens to a Town When Its Reason For Existence Changes?

Today’s guest post is by Marlene Druker, a Strong Towns member living in Gig Harbor, Washington. In 2018, we profiled Druker’s successful grassroots campaign to defeat a local transportation funding measure which would have reserved funds for automobile use only. Today she offers a broader perspective on the history of her town, and how that history informs its current growth and transportation challenges.

Every city needs a reason to exist. Humans come together where geographic conditions are favorable to particular enterprises. But over time, places change as their reasons for existence change. That is the story of every city—mine included.

Our small town of Gig Harbor, Washington, has gone through big changes: most notably, the decline of the industries that the city was founded upon, and the influx of residents who work in neighboring cities or moved here after retiring from jobs elsewhere. Over time, many seem to have come to think of our town as what Strong Towns calls "a bad party"—a place where new residents can only make life worse for those who were already here. Part of our city council now sees their mandate as "shutting the door."

Their preferred tool: restrictive zoning policies that effectively outlaw affordable housing and mixed use neighborhoods. I am dismayed by these policies, and my hope is that in looking at our history as an independent working class community, we can return to welcoming newcomers of all socioeconomic groups and be truly deserving of praise as a great small town.

Where Did We Come From?

Gig Harbor, Washington has been named in some lists of best small towns in America. Today is a particularly beautiful winter day in this southern corner of Puget Sound. If you photoshopped out the telephone pole, the view from my window could be the cover of a tourist guide—clear skies, water, trees, islands and mountains in the distance.

The first people who lived here didn't come for the scenery, though. For the local tribe and American pioneers, waterways were transportation and food sources. Trees were material for houses and boats. Our downtown's first name was Millville. A hundred years ago, this city was known for its shipyard, and 70 years ago it was the center for commercial fishing on the west coast.

The Harbor History Museum in Gig Harbor captures the city’s commercial fishing past. (Photo: Michael& Sherry Martin via Flickr.)

We look back at the period when commercial fishing was the heart of this town with nostalgia. We tend to under-appreciate the town's self-sufficiency as central to its success.  Everyone who lived in the area was connected to local businesses. The downtown was along the water because the boats were there. Boatyards, fuel, skilled labor, stores, restaurants and hotels located near the docks. Fishing families also lived close to the docks, in many cases, just upland from them. This was "mixed use" by necessity. The fishing community was made up of immigrants and they were not rich.  The local economy was dependent upon successful fishing. In the early days, connection to Seattle and Tacoma, cities with ports and railroads, was primarily by private ferry and for most residents these trips were infrequent. Today, every downtown, including ours, bills itself as being a great place to "live, work and play". In its heyday, Gig Harbor had organically achieved that ideal.

A lot has changed since then. Some net sheds on docks remain, and some of the grandchildren and great grandchildren of those founding fishing families still make a living "harvesting the sea". I married one of them. Small family commercial fishing has struggled with some of the same problems that have plagued small family farming; increased regulation, competition from larger companies, and difficulties passing businesses to the next generation. We've got sculptures, historical plaques, and a section of our history museum dedicated to commercial fishing, but fewer and fewer people who live here know anyone who fishes.

Similarly, while there are still commercial fishing concerns in Seattle, it has been a long time since Seattle was thought of as a fishing village. Boeing was the first large manufacturer to make its home in Seattle, and now even the aerospace business is overshadowed by tech companies.

Waterfront homes in Gig Harbor (Photo by Tom Collins via Flickr)

Increased opportunities in Seattle impacted the entire region. Beginning in the '50s, people on the Kitsap Peninsula, where Gig Harbor is located, could drive over the Tacoma Narrows Bridge to Tacoma and beyond. Land on the peninsula was less expensive than on the other side of the bridge. People began to build houses in areas that had been farms and primitive vacation cabins. The state route leading to the bridge was improved, and eventually another bridge was built. As Seattle and Tacoma boomed, our area was populated by people whose livelihood was based in larger cities, but who could not afford to or chose not to live in those cities. Many retirees also moved here, some following children who found employment in our region, and others willing to put up with rainy weather in exchange for more affordability than the states they spent their working lives in.

Washington State's Growth Management Act (GMA), passed in 1990, included developing efficient urban areas and protecting the environment among its lofty and admirable goals. For Gig Harbor, this meant establishing an "urban growth boundary" around the city and contiguous land expected to be annexed, and incorporating projected housing and job numbers into the city's comprehensive plan. Two decades ago, town leaders, concerned about changes to the downtown waterfront if it absorbed its share of the required growth, opted to plan for development on the city's northern boundary.

Trees were cleared for a four lane road connected to the highway. The town welcomed several big box stores, despite having recently opposed a Wal-Mart near another highway exit. Housing, much of it by national development companies, was built as allowed by "Planned Residential Development" zoning. A hospital and a YMCA were built, and a new elementary school and a large public outdoor sports complex are planned for the area. Money coming into the city helped fund a multi million dollar waterfront park for the city's rowing and paddling club and a dock for commercial fishing.

This rush of growth came with some significant downsides. The stores in Gig Harbor North are all surrounded by large parking lots, and the housing is suburban cul-de-sac style. Predictably, traffic has become a major annoyance and there are calls for more roads, along with laments for lost natural land. The pharmacy, the grocery and the hardware store in the most walkable part of the city closed, forcing downtown residents into their cars. It is perhaps an understatement that despite creating the number of housing units prescribed, the GMA's stated intentions have not been legislated into existence.

Where Are We Going?

Our town's purpose is still tied to its geography and resources, but driven by concerns about traffic, we are becoming increasingly exclusionary. Because we are within commuting distance of larger commercial centers, people have chosen to pay the price of commuting in order to live a toll bridge away from "urban" problems. While we talk of preserving the historic uses of the bay, those uses are noisy and messy and conflict with more lucrative ventures—luxury homes and tourism.

Many of our subdivisions were built after the last recession, and there are several new ones in the works. Our most recent city council election had four out of seven seats open and the major up for re-election. The incumbent was accused of being in the pocket of developers, and every council candidate promised to  "preserve what matters" and "manage growth". The new council and mayor imposed an emergency moratorium on new residential plats. We are fully in the throes of the "bad party" syndrome, where many residents see every reason to oppose an influx of newcomers near them.

Land use rules could have been altered to shape productive development, but instead, zoning changes have been focused on lowering density. The moratorium is over, but what has been proposed—restrictions on the number of units per acre, minimum lot sizes, new taxes for road construction, increased off-street parking requirements, increasing traffic impact fees—will raise the cost of living here. The perceived problem is overcrowding, but because the proposed solutions are tied to the assumption that there are no alternatives to car dependency, they burden existing residents and exclude newcomers, especially those with lower incomes.

Gig Harbor’s waterfront today is a popular destination for tourists and locals alike. (Image: Google)

Despite this, there are some hopeful signs. Entrepreneurs who live here opened local businesses. The most visible are related to alcohol—we've got three breweries and a distillery. Several tech businesses, a branch of a clinic that makes prosthetic limbs, a manufacturer of wood doors, and many artists make their homes here. Stores and restaurants serve both tourists and locals. People who grew up here remember getting around by bike and on foot, and while it's not as crowded as the highway, our shared use trail is used as both recreation and transportation. We care about the environment and may be willing to make walking and biking viable transportation options. Some "missing middle" housing built in the city center prior to zoning remains and illustrates affordability that is not disruptive to the character of the city. Our past was strong and our future could be again.

Or not. It is also possible that people here will decide that Gig Harbor's new purpose is to be a scenic enclave for the rich, and they will shape policy accordingly. Places change. My husband and children have never called anywhere else home, but there may come a time when it makes sense for us to leave.

For now, I will try to convince my neighbors that we were a good party in the past and that our best hope for the future lies not in raising the price of entry, but in sending invitations to those who will make the party better.

(Cover photo: Wikimedia Commons)