Downtown Walla Walla in short list of top US neighborhoods

The American Planning Association selected the city's center as one of 10 top areas nationwide.

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Top neighborhoods

The nine other American Planning Association’s 2012 Great Neighborhoods:

Garden District, Baton Rouge, La.

Lower Highlands and historic downtown, Fall River, Mass.

Fells Point, Baltimore

Heritage Hill, Grand Rapids, Mich.

Downtown Salisbury, N.C.

Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia

Cooper-Young, Memphis, Tenn.

Fairmont-Sugar House, Salt Lake City

Beacon Hill, Seattle

WALLA WALLA — Downtown Walla Walla, often considered the centerpiece of the community, is being touted on a much larger map as one of the Top 10 Great Neighborhoods for 2012.

The community was selected for the honor — one of two representing Washington — by the American Planning Association’s Great Places in America program, which recognizes exceptional character and highlights the role planning and planners play in adding value to communities.

Downtown Walla Walla was chosen for its revitalized commercial corridor, thriving arts community, ripening wine industry and history, according to the announcement.

“During the past three decades, downtown Walla Walla has staged a remarkable neighborhood comeback involving $50 million in private and public investments, the Valley’s wine industry, and tourism driven by effective planning,” said American Planning Association Chief Executive Officer Paul Farmer in a prepared statement. “I can’t think of a more fitting way to recognize these accomplishments during the city’s 150th anniversary than by naming it a 2012 Great Neighborhood.”

Walla Walla Mayor Jim Barrow lauded public planning as key to the community receiving the recognition.

“Only a fortunate few of us can choose where we live, raise a family and give back to a wonderful community that has shaped us for a better life. I have been so blessed with such a choice,” Barrow said in a prepared statement. “Our home, Walla Walla, has been gently guided by a continuing team of marvelous visionaries we know as ‘urban planners’ who have listened to the citizens, and ensured an orderly, dynamic and planned future for us all. For me, this recognition comes as no surprise for this team.”

The Great Places in American program recognizes streets, neighborhoods and public spaces that feature authentic characteristics evolving from years of thoughtful planning by residents, community leaders and planners.

The American Planning Association first launched the program in 2007. Since then, 60 neighborhoods, 60 streets and 50 public spaces in 50 states and the District of Columbia have made the list. Four other designations in Washington include Spokane’s Browne’s Addition (2009); Point Defiance Park in Tacoma (2011): Percival Landing Boardwalk and Park in Olympia (2010); and Pike Place (2007).

This year, Washington’s other neighborhood recognized is Beacon Hill in Seattle.

The story of downtown’s revitalization is well known in the community. After the opening of the Blue Mountain Mall in the late 1980s, a number of retailers left downtown for the shopping center. Downtown’s vacancy rate rose to 30 percent. Through the Downtown Walla Walla Foundation, created in 1984 by merchants and property owners, the neighborhood jump-started private investment when it initiated a $350,000 facade restoration and streetscape improvement loan fund. Streetscape improvements in 1991 led to new decorative streetlamps, benches, bike racks and paving stones.

Other major contributing projects to revitalization: the relocation of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ $8 million regional headquarters, renovation of the Liberty Theater, rehabilitation of the 1903 Die Brücke Building, reuse of the Whitehouse-Crawford building into a winery and restaurant, and a $35 million renovation of the Marcus Whitman Hotel & Conference Center.

The development of the wine industry, art walks and special events such as Wheelin’ Walla Walla Weekend and Feast Walla Walla bring people to the streets, where 15 architectural styles, National Register structures and more than a dozen pieces of public art line are highlighted between the LED-light-strung trees.

The announcement also highlighted the Walla Walla Symphony, Kirkman House Museum, Whitman College and Power House Theatre. Development guidelines from 2002 governing renovations and new construction and the 2004 master plan were also lauded.

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