‘Langley Lift’ elevator gets soft OK from city council

Paul Schell, owner of Inn at Langley, presents his idea for an elevator connecting Cascade Avenue to the South Whidbey Harbor.  - Ben Watanabe/ The Record
Paul Schell, owner of Inn at Langley, presents his idea for an elevator connecting Cascade Avenue to the South Whidbey Harbor.
— image credit: Ben Watanabe/ The Record

First the funicular, now the Langley Lift.

Getting people from South Whidbey Harbor up to the city’s business hub is Langley’s next big project. The city seems to have a willing partner in Paul Schell, owner of the Inn at Langley, who is interested in having the elevator installed on his property.

“We really need a partner for the project,” said Director of Community Planning Jeff Arango during the city council meeting Monday. “We don’t have a place to land.”

“It serves a really important need,” he added.

But various proposals have been discussed. Early on, Schell pitched an idea for a bridge-and-elevator mode of transportation from Cascade Avenue down to the waterfront, where he owns property that would get a city easement from the landing to the water.

The city also proposed the much-talked-about and more eye-catching proposal of a funicular, a tram-style lift that cranked up the hillside’s slope on a track. City leaders appeared ready at the meeting to take a different tack on the mode of transportation for people from the waterfront up to the commercial core. A funicular, council members said, could put too much stress on the bluff, would cost too much and may not have enough space in the car, as compared to an elevator.

Before the Port of South Whidbey, which recently completed a major expansion of the marina in Langley, can proceed to its next phase, the port and city need a parking plan. Boat trailers and the trucks that tow them use space, lots of it, and the bottom of Wharf Street has little available to accommodate a projected increase in vehicle traffic.

The elevator presents a possible solution. It allows boaters to get from an established parking lot at the Island Church of Whidbey, also located on Cascade Avenue, to the elevator. Despite early plans for a single elevator that took people from Cascade to an expansion of the Boatyard Inn, which is a partner in the project, Schell opted for separate elevators for customer comfort. The one in the expansion would only service the three-story building, not Cascade Avenue. 

Building the Langley Lift would create a public elevator like one at Pike Place Market. The main elevator would be distinct from one used by guests at the inn expansion and restaurant, tentatively named the Langley Dock Cafe. Out of the deal, Schell gets a way for the inn’s patrons to easily reach Langley. He also joked that he got an easier way for him to get up to the city rather than the arduous walk up Wharf Street.

One of the major concerns for the city is the physical limitation of Wharf Street’s slope: far too steep for a comfortable walk with a cart commonly used by boaters to transport items from their car or a supply store to their boat.

Schell and designer Eric Richmond of Flat Rock Productions presented designs to the city council. Those mockups show a tall tower that rises from the bottom of the bluff, just behind Schell’s new inn, straight up about 100 feet. A bridge walkway would connect to the elevator shaft tower and Cascade Avenue.

“Dare to be different,” Schell said of his proposal, noting that he’d like the structure to stand out and become a landmark and an icon.

Of the handful of image slides shared during the nearly hour-long presentation, none depicted what it would look like from Cascade Avenue or from the water.

That was a major concern for Langley resident Sharon Emerson, who cautioned the city council about overcommitting. She raised questions about annual maintenance costs, how it would be used, hours of operation, and view impacts.

“The council should not decide without having enough information,” Emerson said.

Arango agreed that he would look into maintenance costs and security before making a recommendation to the council. But he disagreed with the notion that the visual impact would be great, and said he would have a design for the council to review soon.

“You’d have to stand right in front of it for it to block your view,” Arango said, referring to the sweeping view of the marina and Saratoga Passage from the sidewalk along Cascade Avenue’s bluff.

Later, Arango noted the elevator’s strengths: “This is providing access and a view, and it’s fully public.”

A silver lining for the city was Schell making a statement about knowing the budget constraints. He said the city would be in it for the $500,000 — set aside for years from the Island County Council of Governments — and that he and any possible partners would absorb cost overruns.

According to Mayor Fred McCarthy, the city should move forward with the project within two months or risk lose the funding, as the council of governments has indicated that the money won’t be available indefinitely.

Port of South Whidbey Commissioner Ed Halloran was present for the discussion, and said the port was “very interested” in the elevator, but would not be able to chip in toward the cost until there was an approved project for them to find grant funding.

Eric Richmond, Flat Rock Productions | A view from the side of the Langley Lift elevator and bridge and the Boatyard Inn expansion.

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