UW News

November 6, 2003

Students help town control destiny

Thirty picket-wielding protesters shouted at the loggers cutting down a forest of mature spruce trees.

Seventeen UW students looked on with great interest — this was the very site for which they were supposed to be devising an eco-friendly plan for a new town center.

Welcome to The Real World.

Nancy Rottle and her graduate landscape-architecture studio class had traveled all the way to Alaska to advise the citizens of Homer, Pop. 5,000, on how to preserve the town’s low-key, funky flavor in the face of a big-box store proposed for this site in the heart of town.

Prospects for community consensus looked grim. But the students’ work, which began last spring, has helped lead Homer to a set of choices to control its own destiny.

“The students’ work not only provided our leaders with the information and vision they needed to move forward and make decisions,” wrote Chamber of Commerce director Derotha Ferraro, “but they brought into a dialogue community players who had seemed to be speaking foreign languages to each other.”

So favorable was the students’ impact that the Planning Association of Washington recently presented its 2003 Student Honor Award to the class and the UW landscape architecture department.

But how did a bunch of landscape-architecture students make such a difference in that faraway place?

Picturesque Homer bills itself as “The End of the Road,” but is, more specifically, four scenic-highway hours southeast of Anchorage. Into the middle of this remote tourist town, retailer Fred Meyer had proposed putting an 85,000-square-foot store.

Some residents feared an operation like that would overwhelm and endanger the existing mix of small, homegrown shops that give the town its artsy character. The fears provoked rumblings of possible restrictions on land clearing and development, which prompted the landowner to cut trees before such a thing could happen.

Enter Rottle’s landscape-architecture students. They spent six days last April interviewing hundreds of locals, taking pictures of buildings and seascapes and taking inventory of the unique characteristics of this haven for halibut fishers and nonconformists.

The more challenging job awaited them upon returning to Seattle, where Rottle’s class — formally known as LARCH 503: Community Design Studio — launched into research on how a dozen other tourist-oriented small towns, from Taos, N.M., to Bainbridge Island, are coping with similar big-box invasions.

The students discovered that many towns coexist with big stores through the use of planning techniques that range from size caps to design guidelines.

These became the “tools” that three of Rottle’s students brought back to Alaska in May, when they made a pub-lic presentation described by Ferraro as “one of the largest non-social gatherings ever seen in Homer.” The students demonstrated how to apply these tools in six alternative designs they had developed for the town center site.

The impact of all this has been gradual but profound, Rottle said. Civic debates continued through the summer, when the City Council decided to temporarily limit the size of box stores. Homer established its first planning department. A commission to propel the Town Center project into reality is basing its work on the students’ design alternatives.

“At a time when the big picture was being lost in dispute, the UW students entered with case studies, planning tools and community designs that helped refocus the discussion,” wrote Barbara Seaman, executive director of the Kachemak Heritage Land Trust and a key player in the project.

Now, other towns have access to the research that Rottle’s students collected, making the project potentially useful far beyond Homer.

“Through engaging the public in real problems like those we tackled in Homer,” Rottle said, “landscape-architecture students can make a significant difference in helping communities to determine their own destinies.”