Saturday, July 23, 2022

What a map of taxes-by-acre in Thurston County teaches us about downtown Olympia

This is a map of election results in Thurston County. It shows a fairly typical result by precinct. More liberal candidates (in this case Joel Hanson in last year's port race) doing well in the urban core and more conservative candidates (Amy Evans) doing well in rural areas.

This is a map of property taxes by acre on the parcel level in Thurston County:

Generally speaking, these are the same patterns. The same places that tend to vote for more conservative candidates also pay less property taxes per acre. This isn't exactly a new concept. Strong Towns, for example, pays a lot of attention to this concept of density paying off for local government finances. Their analysis goes even further and connects a simple tax by acre analysis (which I am doing) and brings in the cost of supplying services to low density rural and suburban areas, which is higher than urban, high density neighborhoods.

Here are a few closer looks, to see how the basic property tax by acre phenomena works.

Here is downtown Olympia:


Not only are the vast majority of the parcels blue (relatively high value), there are a lot of dark blue lots (the highest value category). The red areas in downtown Olympia are un-taxed public places like the Port of Olympia, the Capitol Campus and other government owned parcels. They aren't a good counter-example against the phenomena we're exploring here, they are just an illustration of the financial impact of being a state capitol.

Zooming out to Olympia overall now:


Lots of lighter blue, and most of the deeper blue is either newer developments or nodes of density around lower density, single-family neighborhoods. 

Now Lacey:

The thing that stands out here to me is the older core of Lacey is mostly lighter blue. 

Now the big map for me, the Rochester/Grand Mound area:


Even though this portion of Thurston County contains a large swath of suburban development on the way to Lewis County, most of the parcels are fairly low value by acre. According to the analyses I linked to above, these areas are more expensive to maintain, but produce less property taxes.

We're familiar with this concept on a macro scale (donor states and counties), but it is interesting to see how this phenomenon exists on even the micro-neighborhood level. 

And how does this take us back downtown? This is just another example of how the multifamily tax exception is not that bad of an idea, policywise. A little while back, I did a back of the napkin analysis of how in a very short amount of time, the multifamily tax exemption would start paying dividends financially. The logic is that once the exemption is over, the increased value of the taxed parcel would be vastly more than the previously undeveloped version. By my figuring, it would only take seven years for the improved parcel to pay off the money lost in the exemption. And in the long run, it would a massive financial benefit. Allowing the parcel to stay a parking lot would be the actual drain.

What the tax-by-acre parcel map shows is that the talking point of "existing taxpayer subsidizing downtown high-rises" is a falsehood. On any scale, less dense neighborhoods are "paid for" by denser, more productive ones. The majority of existing Olympians (especially the ones that show up to city council to complain about density) live in unproductive single-family neighborhoods. The subsidy goes the other way around. 

Friday, April 15, 2022

In response to "In Defense of Priest Point Park"



In the debate over renaming Priest Point Park to Squaxin Park, David Nicandri has written "In Defense of Priest Point Park." I'm glad David's thoughts were finally posted. I had heard through the grapevine that he had come to a position counter to honoring the wishes of the Squaxin Island Tribe. His long-time work in local and statewide history makes his opinion worth weighing. 

That said, I want to offer some counterweight to his post. 

In the blog post below, I rely on David's own "Olympia's Forgotten Pioneers," a history of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI) in Olympia.

First off, setting the stage for the arrival of the Oblate Father Pascal Ricard in Olympia, Nicandri leaves out important context. First, he says coming to North America from France was against Ricard's wishes. This is true, but because he was in ill health. The OMI was primarily a missionary order, so being sent overseas was not something a member of the OMI order wouldn't expect.

Much of Nicandri's post contextualizes the relationship between the priests in Olympia and the territorial government during the Puget Sound and treaty wars. You would think that, after reading David's post, that the OMI priests were working counter to the government of Isaac Stevens and for the tribes. But, even Nicandri's own book paints a much more complicated picture.

The relationship was more cordial than that. Each side realized the benefit of the other. During the treaty work at Walla Walla, he writes, "The OMI and Stevens were virtually a team; both told the Indians to listen to and obey the other."

At best, the priests were complicit in the work of the territorial and military leaders to force the tribes to sign treaties and move them onto reservations. The work being done by missionaries like the OMI priest made the tribes much more likely to also do the wishes of the secular government. 

Nicandri:
On one occasion, Ricard inscribed "we have always said to the Indians, do not aggravate the Americans and they will not both you. If someone hurts you, complain to the authorities... even to the governor himself, and you will be rendered justice," although he knew the Indians were not receiving it.
Granted, the relationship between the American population and the OMI priest in Olympia was not always cordial. Because of their closeness to the tribes (and likely just plain old anti-foreign, anti-Catholic bigotry), white people in Olympia felt threatened by the priests. But at the end of the day, the American territorial government and the OMI priests were partners in the cultural damage done to the tribes.

Lastly, I want to address the broader thoughts Dave brings up earlier in his piece.
The most grievous was the hubris of cultural superiority, originating in the ethos of his time and civilization. This pattern was so common that Pope Francis is coming to North America this year in recognition of this Truth in the interest of Reconciliation.

Before we judge Ricard too severely, forbid that any of us should be judged for our actions by the standards of some future posterity.

This is exactly how we should be judged. And this is the entire reason I study history. It is cliché to say that thing about repeating history when you don't learn it well enough. And I don't think it's an extreme statement that we still have a lot of divergent ideas about the place of religious minorities in America.

Nicandri's "judged by our current actions by a better future" is a tamed down version of "if we pull these statues down, we'll forget our history." There is a big difference between honoring something by naming a park after it or building a statue and "forgetting history." We don't build statues to assassins, for example, but we do include them in our history. We aren't taking "Olympia's Forgotten Pioneers" out of the library and burning it. We are simply showing that we have a better understanding of history because we no longer want to honor religious colonialism. 

While what could be done to help Indian people in the 1850s may have been morally complex to French priests, we have the luxury of clearer vision. Nicandri in "Olympia's Forgotten Pioneers":

One might cynically suggest that Ricard was a contributor to the deculturalization of a whole people. But he and all the OMI realized the futility of the Indian struggle and tried to temporize the effect of white supremacy as best they could.
Ignoring the impacts of missionary work on deculturalization, we today don't have to see the actual request from an existing sovereign tribal government to rename a park as futile. 

We don't have to temporize the impacts of white supremacy.  We can fight it.

Saturday, March 19, 2022

The easy and actually best way to rename Thurston County


Yeah, in fact, I do think we should rename Thurston County. Or everything named after Samuel Thurston, including Thurston Avenue in Olympia.

Here's a brief update on why Samuel Thurston is not a good namesake. He never lived here, never visited here. His only actual impact here is the worst thing about him. Yes, he did write the Black Exclusion law in the Oregon Territory (which Thurston County was part of back in the day) and he did other things. But the worst thing is that he set our course that we travelled on well after his early death.

The name itself had more to with the politics of the moment in the 1850s. Thurston was a ruthless political operator. Major pieces of our region's racist heritage took root from the Black Exclusion Laws, including:

The common thread through all of these episodes (and more) were that only white people should be allowed to paid labor. Everything else needed to be controlled and discouraged.

But, I don't necessarily think we need to pick a new name. We can keep the Thurston moniker.

This was exactly what King County did when they changed who "King" honors from terrible Vice President Rufus King to really great Martin Luther King Jr. It is just a matter of finding a new Thurston.

The problem with "Thurston" that we didn't have with "King" is that there aren't any giants of politics and culture that we can point at immediately. There are a lot of good Thurstons, not single great one.

For example:

  • Rev. David Thurston of Maine was a pre-Civil War abolitionist minister. He would travel from town to town, preaching against slavery until they kicked him out.

  • Charles Brown Thurston, another New England abolitionist that served in the Civil War but also lived an otherwise quiet live. 

  • Rev. John L. Thurston, of Chicago. He was a fellow traveler of Martin Luther King Jr. and was president of the Chicago chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

  • Baratunde Thurston is a contemporary writer who has been very significant in the anti-racist movement. I mean, if you don't know who this person is, I suggest you give him a look today. 

  • And, why are we so worried about last names? Thurston Moore was lead guitar for Sonic Youth. That's pretty awesome.

  • Lastly, if you look back and deconstruct the name Thurston, you see some evidence that it is a construction of Thor (literally the god of thunder) and stone. As in Thor's Stone. I mean Thor is pretty great, but not literally a Thurston. But, close enough to merit reference.
None of these people or imaginary made up gods are knock-it-out-of-the-park obvious like Martin Luther King Jr., but they all do have one thing in common: they are all better than Samuel Thurston.

So, here is my honest to god (Thor, whoever) answer to what we should with the name Thurston County (Avenue, of wherever). 

We should keep the name Thurston County, but strip it from Samuel Thurston and give it to literally all the good and decent Thurstons (and Thor's Stone) that ever lived. 

I haven't looked all that deeply, but there is no rule that I know of that says you have to keep who you name a place after to one person. 

I also don't have an exhaustive list of Thurstons, but there is no reason that I can see that we can't just open up the list again when we find a new one.

Sunday, March 13, 2022

We should be able to rename Priest Point Park if we feel like it. And Squaxin Park makes perfect sense.


If you wanted to design someone who would be outraged at the prospect of renaming Priest Point Park, you could do much worse than me.

Priest Point Park is probably (outside state-owned parks around the capitol) the jewel of Olympia's park system. More than 300 acres, featuring everything (except athletic fields) you'd want in a park, built first in 1905, it is big, it is old and everyone has been there. Now, the city council is reconsidering renaming it Squaxin Park.

I was born in Olympia. I've lived other places, but this is the place I've always considered home. I have a deeper emotional attachment to this place and the things that are here than anywhere else. And, for people who know me, that is an understatement.

I am also a cradle Catholic. I was raised in Olympia's Catholic community. I went to school at St. Michael's and church there every week for a good portion of my life. I was also born at St. Peter's, but I doubt very much in the 1970s that the Sisters of Providence was what brought my parents to that particular hospital. It was the only game in town. I should also mention that while I was raised Catholic, and I have a latent respect for the faith, I walked away from it in the winter of 2009. But even then, it isn't as if I have a axe to grind against Catholics or Catholic things.

I am also tied to here because of the things that happened here. I am very interested in the history of our community. I've written about it here at this blog and at other places. 

But it is the interest in history, or rather, how my particular taste in history, that drives me to want to  change the name of Priest Point Park. Simply, my interest in history is so I can help our community no understand our past, so we can make our future better.

It is important for us to have an accurate view of what happened, and give honors (like park names and statues) to things that matter, not just whatever we chose back in the day. We are allowed to review our past choices and then move on in a different direction.

But, here are a few good reasons for us to move on.

  1. The Oblate Priests of Mary Immaculate at Priest Point Park were only at Priest Point for 12 years. They showed up in 1848 and then moved on 1860. And, most importantly, they did not have any sort of direct connection to Catholic institutions that came later. St. Martin's College, St. Peter's Hospital, Sacred Heart and St. Michael's were all founded decades later by non-Oblate members of the Church. To draw any connection between Oblate priests travelling west and other Catholic institutions is casual. 

  2. There is already another Priest Point on Puget Sound. Not just in the world, but very nearby here just north of Everett. And the northern one is an actual populated place, which probably makes it more significant. Seems dumb to have two. And if we want to change ours first, then good.

  3. The most important thing the Oblate priests did do is to act as a relay between the tribal communities in the South Sound and the white community during the Puget Sound War. The Puget Sound War was the conflict between the federal and territorial governments immediately following the Steven's Treaties. The Oblate priests had spent a lot of effort trying to convert some of those Indians to Catholicism, so knew people on both sides of the conflict. But even this occurrence points us to the Squaxin Island Tribe, because we need to remember we were at war with them and we turned their namesake island into a prisoner camp. 

  4. Worse, Priest Point Park was where we imprisoned the tribal members who lived around Olympia before we moved them to Squaxin Island. Not a prison camp per se, but on the way to one.

  5. The entire logic behind sending missionaries to the west wasn't to serve Catholics that had moved there, but to convert tribal members who had another religions already to Catholicism. Despite what Catholic historians will lay down later, an attempt at religious colonialism. Continuing to honor that portion of our history, especially given the rest of the context, is a weird decision. (I added this point a few hours after writing this initial post)

  6. The Squaxin Island Tribe asked us to. Their history runs deeper here, and their history is the one we try hard to ignore. Their history is the history we should try to pay closer attention to. The Squaxin Island tribal council passed a resolution on December 10, 2021 requesting the change. 

  7. Lastly, the priests never asked for the honor. They were long gone by the time the city ended up buying the property from the county over a century ago.

Renaming the park doesn't take anything away from Olympia. Catholics still make up a significant portion of our community's religious adherents. The priests didn't front the money to the city in 1905 when the parcels became available from a failed housing development. That was George Mottman. Local lawyer P.M. Troy did the spade work, pulling together the title work to make sure the city got as much of the property as possible, since much of it was already split into lots. But we didn't name the park after those two men. They just went with the inherited name that locals had always called the spot.