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Real Estate
Architect's leaving an imprint on Bainbridge

Charlie Wenzlau stands outside of Ericksen Cottages, a pocket neighborhood he designed in downtown Bainbridge. The community includes 11 small-footprint cottages situated around a common courtyard (part of which can be seen behind him.)When it comes to influence on the look of Bainbridge Island’s Winslow area, perhaps no one has as much claim as Charlie Wenzlau. The island-based architect has designed 10 projects within a few blocks alone and has had his creative fingers in such downtown landmarks as the San Juan building by the ferry, Madrone Village downtown, and The Winslow mixed-use project at the corner of Winslow Way and Ericksen.

Despite the illusion of a formal Winslow-Wenzlau connection — they have similar pronunciation but are completely unrelated — for Wenzlau, creating such a deep tie with the island was about being in the right place, at the right time.

It all started after he moved to the Northwest in the mid-’90s from San Francisco, where he had worked as an architect for about a decade. Wenzlau’s dream was to start his own firm and design livable neighborhoods, so he headed north to obtain a master’s degree from the University of Washington.

His thesis was a site plan and design for what is now Poulsbo Place, back then still home to World War II housing. The neighborhood envisioned by Wenzlau was a walkable community with a mixture of housing types, parks and shopping. He never got to work on the actual redevelopment (though interestingly enough, years later the master-planned community looks like it’s been inspired by that student project, whether by coincidence or not), but when it came time to open his firm, serendipity brought Wenzlau to Winslow.

Mixed-use projects were just coming on the radar for local developers in the early 2000s. Called “new urbanism,” the concept challenged traditional zoning by changing density and other concepts to provide pedestrian-friendly living mixed in with amenities such as retail shops, and Bainbridge became a pioneer of sorts in Kitsap County.

“(The city) created a mixed-use design plan for Winslow, an innovative concept, and I was the first person in town to be able to do it,” Wenzlau said, adding that his interdisciplinary background including planning, real estate and development gave him a unique advantage in what he saw as an emerging trend.

Bainbridge had the vision. Wenzlau was ready to commit to realizing it, building by building — following his passion for “reinforcing what is good about a place while accommodating the inevitable process of change.”

The mixed-use idea — which he noted was a rediscovery of a concept that existed in the 1920s — has changed how communities address suburban sprawl. For Wenzlau in Winslow, the focus on these types of projects meant keeping busy for quite some time.

“I’ve done so many projects here that they’re starting to change the character of downtown, which is fun for an architect,” he said.

He started as a one-person firm working out of the bedroom of an old farmhouse; Wenzlau Architects eventually grew to eight employees at one point. The company, located on Madison Avenue in the middle of many of his projects, now has three architects on staff along with an office manager.

“It’s been a steady workflow because of many infill projects,” he said.

While mixed use has been a satisfying niche, Wenzlau’s portfolio is much more diverse. The common thread in all his work is the idea of sustainable and livable communities.

Cottage-style pocket neighborhoods are one example. Working in partnership with Linda Pruitt, co-founder of The Cottage Co., Wenzlau designed projects such as the Chico Bay Cottages in Silverdale, which has attracted media attention from around the region. The project also received the grand award from Builder magazine in the “single-family community” category last fall.

Pruitt’s company had pioneered the idea of small-footprint, cottage-style pocket communities — and received national press — nearly two decades ago as an alternative to downsizing. The cottage communities typically feature a small number of homes clustered around a courtyard and lush community garden. The homes themselves are small — as small as 1,000 square feet — and each has a private garden. In the case of Chico Beach, the seven waterfront cottages also have Energy Star and Built-Green 4-Star certification, a commons building and a car-charging station.

“The concept is starting to become more mainstream,” Wenzlau said. “I like the sustainability concept, the small footprint and the community aspect and I think it’s very livable. If you’re going to live in a higher-density situation, this gives you the most livable option because of the focus on the gardens. The gardens are the best part of the project; they’re amazing.”

Having now designed various types of housing and commercial sites, Wenzlau feels that his original dreams are coming true: designing entire neighborhoods and larger-scale projects, not just infill housing.

“It’s really a dream to do all your work in your community, and planning a larger site then coming back to do the buildings is even better,” he said. “I finally can say now that I have the expertise to do any type of housing that would go into that type of a neighborhood… Developers are becoming more interested and willing to mix these housing types together, and it makes for a more authentic neighborhood.”

One of Wenzlau’s new dreams is to take what he learned on Bainbridge and share that with other communities, especially in Kitsap. Already, he’s landed some projects outside of the state. His passion is to show how communities can transform themselves to be less automobile-dependent and implement “Main Street” ideas.

“My goal for the next part of my career is to do work throughout Kitsap and share the lessons from Bainbridge in other areas. Bainbridge is very innovative,” he said.

Even as he continues to venture off island to do his work, he seems to have a soft spot for his community. It’s not just about being surrounded by the results of his work — it’s also about accountability, he said.

“The best part for me is getting feedback from people in the community about the work we’ve done and how it fits well with the community,” he said. “That’s the best payback.”

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