By Meghan Hall
The city of Langley, located on Washington’s Whidbey Island, is a quintessential northwestern beach community thanks to its slow pace of life and 19th Century charm. When the City of Langley began looking into the redevelopment of Second Street back in 2012, one of the town’s most popular spots among locals, keeping that character was paramount. The Second Street Plaza Project, designed by Seattle-based Framework Cultural Peacemaking in collaboration with KPG, the City of Langley and its residents, rebuilt the 100-year-old infrastructure of an important part of Langley’s downtown. In the fall of 2018, the project was the recipient of the APA Great Places in Washington Award, a reflection of the project’s effective use of public space.
“The project was originally intended to repair the infrastructure of the street, but with that came the opportunity to redesign the street to the more current needs of the community,” said Jeff Arango, an urban planner and designer at Framework. “And Langley, like a lot of small towns and island communities in particular, are attractive because people believe they have found a special place.”
Framework helped to develop the project’s Second Street Plaza, which is connected to pedestrian alleys that link Second Street to First and Third Streets. According to Arango, the decision was made early on to maintain Second Street’s unique character, a character that was distinctly more local and specific to the town’s location on Whidbey Island. Second Street’s charm, said Arango, was a function of how the town developed.
“Langley is a small town, only about 1,000 people,” explained Arango. “It has got a really nice downtown that serves the community. First Street was developed in the early 1900s and has a more consistent design and feel. It is what we would call the ‘postcard street.’”
Second Street evolved at a much slower pace, over a more extended period of time. At the same time, the street became a hub for locals and is lined with local coffee shops and restaurants.
“Second Street developed much more slowly and has a much more organic feel,” added Arango. “It’s the local street, but before the project, the street was in complete disrepair.”
In order to revitalize Second Street, the project team and community had to decide whether or not to replace some of downtown Langley’s already limited parking with additional public space. Framework worked to complete a parking study a year before the project began to help Langley’s residents weigh different design options. With strong public support, Framework’s design eliminated 13 parking spaces in order to create additional community gathering spots.
“One of the main concepts of the project’s design was to really reinforce Second Street as a local street, sort of the outdoor living room or communal kitchen of the town,” said Arango.
Framework’s plans created a plaza for the street as part of an adaptive reuse project of the Former Langley Fire Station, which is now home to Callahans Glass, a local glass art studio and retail shop. The plaza focused on a human-scaled design to encourage locals to linger and hang out. Pavers were arranged in a circular pattern, an ode to Langley’s proximity to the ocean, while way-finding medallions were included as additional function and decoration. Fixed seat walls help to define the plaza while keeping it separate from vehicular traffic lanes and protecting the plaza’s landscaping, designed and maintained by the Langley Main Street Program. The plaza seat wall also has programmable LED lighting. The plaza also features rotating public art installations, moveable furniture and umbrellas. In a unique twist, the design team avoided installing street lights, believing it would help to create a a more casual, less formal look.
“We designed the street to really function as a shared space,” said Arango, who explained that the pavers from the plaza continue across the whole street. “We didn’t want the plaza just to look like ‘Anywhere, U.S.A.,’ so we showed some restraint on the materials and how those were used.”
The plaza is popular throughout all seasons, with a variety of events planned by local organizations and the city occurring year-round. The amount of public space nearly doubled, jumping from 16 percent to around 32 percent, according to Arango.
For its efforts, the design team and community were awarded the American Planning Association’s Great Places in Washington Award for best small gathering space. The award is given to a project that is mostly outdoors and open to the public at least 12 hours a day and. includes design elements that are not only visually interesting, but encourage social activity and contribute to the enjoyment of the space. Projects also must link well to surrounding uses and areas. The award comes nearly five years after the $2.7 million project broke ground in 2014.
“Downtown is really thriving right now and the project has been really well received,” said Arango. “The award really just reiterated how [the project] is the focal point of the community, and I think it really has created a new model for how the town does public engagement.”