When architect David Pelletier moved to Washington fourteen years ago, the town of Stanwood, a gateway to Puget Sound’s Camano Island, was a sleepy hamlet. Since then, the small community halfway between Seattle and Bellingham has doubled in size as families flee metropolitan areas for a more rural, slow-paced lifestyle.
Pelletier and his business partner, Pearl Schaar, worried as they watched strip malls and fast-food outlets set up shop on the town’s outskirts. Would unbridled growth suck the life out of a downtown situated in a flood plain? Could sprawl be avoided? How could Stanwood retain its identity?
“If you want to make a difference, you have to take action,” Pelletier declares. The partners discovered an American Institute of Architects process called Design Assistance Team (DAT), a grassroots approach to community development that provides a platform for citizen and community leader input. They presented the idea to the Stanwood community in October 2002. Thirty-five residents signed on to help implement the team, with Pelletier and Schaar assuming leadership roles on the steering committee.
On April 25, 2003, a multidisciplinary team of architects, urban planners, landscapers, engineers, transportation specialists, and economists set up shop in Stanwood, donating $100,000 in pro bono services. For three days they toured the community, interviewed residents, and held public forums. The result: Design Stanwood, a comprehensive vision for the community that was quickly adopted by city planners.
“Our small community was on the verge of being swallowed up by malls, but our team leveraged against that,” says Pelletier. “Our grassroots effort told developers, ‘Don’t destroy what’s here. There’s plenty of room for a variety of projects.’”
A year later, the volunteers remain at work on implementation committees. Design Stanwood, a nonprofit organization, has been formed to carry through the concepts and suggestions in the DAT final document. Both Pelletier and Schaar sit on its board of directors (she’s president; he’s vice president) and oversee committees such as landscaping, parks, gateways, signage, and commons.
“Using the DAT as a blueprint, we can now develop a real identity for the town,” says Schaar. “The city has implemented most of the initial guidelines, but now the real work begins.” For instance, the DAT recommended drawing east and west Stanwood together via a Central Commons. As a result, both city hall and the library will remain downtown, linked to green space and perhaps a community center. A unified street-sign program that reinforces the area’s historic heritage is up and running, and landscaping teams are “working like nuts,” adds Schaar, who also holds a position on the Stanwood Planning Commission.
Pelletier, the current Stanwood Chamber of Commerce president, concludes: “Pearl and I always knew Stanwood had a bright future. We just didn’t want it to get lost.”