It’s official. The City of Walla Walla selected a design submitted by a Seattle-based engineering firm for a permanent pedestrian plaza in its downtown.
City Council voted unanimously on Wednesday, Dec. 15, to approve the concept created by PBS Engineering and Environmental for First Avenue Plaza, as well as a new name for the space: Walawàla Plaza, which means “many small waters.”
The stretch of First Avenue between Alder and Main streets, previously a road between the two main downtown corridors, was closed and turned into outdoor meeting space at the start of the pandemic to support businesses and restaurants whose interior capacity is suddenly limited.
PBS was contracted by the city for design work in September. After the city issued a Request for Qualifications in July and received four applications, a committee of three city staff and the executive director of the Downtown Walla Walla Foundation reviewed each application and selected PBS Engineering as the winning team. more qualified.
That contract provided for payment of up to $166,450 for design costs paid through the American Rescue Plan Act, a federal coronavirus program.
PBS held four stakeholder meetings in October and November to review three different design concepts and receive feedback. After a final design was selected, an open house was held earlier this month so residents could meet engineers and provide feedback.
Sandwiched between two water features, the open concept will feature a curved path that winds between seating areas and moving landscaping features. It is intended to provide an adaptable gathering space for residents and tourists in Walla Walla.
Two overhanging installations of metal bars are meant to provide shade, while the landscaping and patterns inlaid into the grounds will showcase the arrow-leaved balsamroot, a plant important to the indigenous peoples of the area.
The conceptual design also includes plans to alter the street paving where Main Street abuts the square in a way that will calm traffic by encouraging vehicles to slow down in this area.
The design was the subject of criticism in the days leading up to its final approval by the city council. In a December 14 letter, local architect Jon Campbell criticized elements of the design and the process by which it was chosen, arguing that the public had not been properly involved in a project that would help define the center -city of Walla Walla for years to come.
“Creating a ‘public square’ in the heart of our community, one that is already heavily used and a popular gathering place, should allow the public ample input into determining its appearance,” Campbell wrote. “The design process that led to the current plan only provided a glimpse of the project to the public.”
Campbell also questioned whether PBS was the right company for the design of the place, writing that the group was “a talented and extremely capable company” but lacked the kind of specialization needed to “create a place “.
“There is no other place in the community that will have an equal impact on how we collectively see ourselves and want to be seen than this site,” he wrote.
Finally, he questioned whether naming the site Walawàla Plaza and prominently displaying the balsam tree iconography sufficiently honored the region’s Indigenous communities and educated visitors about Indigenous connections to the area.
City officials were not immediately available for comment.
Shortly before council voted to approve the design, Mayor Tom Scribner acknowledged that council had received letters raising concerns about the project and said he appreciated the feedback. However, he also said the process was at the eleventh hour and required final approval.
“It’s worth getting there early,” he said.
With the approval of the conceptual design, PBS is now responsible for creating technical designs for the construction of the site.
This design is expected to be completed in early 2022, with construction slated for the spring. If construction and design are on schedule, the new permanent plaza could be completed by mid-summer 2022.