Awardee: Downtown Walla Walla Foundation and the City of Walla Walla
City: Walla Walla
The Excellence on Main Award—the top award at each year’s ceremony—is an annual accolade that recognizes outstanding projects and people that reflect an attitude of perseverance and dedication to community revitalization in Washington. Walawála Plaza was named the 2023 recipient of the Excellence on Main Award for the need it addressed, the stakeholders it brought together, and the overall impact it has had upon the downtown Walla Walla community.
When the pandemic closed businesses and made the outdoors the only safe place to socialize in the spring of 2020, Walla Walla was one of the fastest small towns in Washington, if not the nation, to adapt to the need for an outdoor gathering place that would also support suffering restaurants. In only 90 days, the City of Walla Walla and Downtown Walla Walla Foundation came together to close one block of First Avenue in order to create a visually appealing and functional plaza in the heart of downtown. This plaza kept commerce alive and people connected during those difficult days.
Even after businesses reopened, the plaza remained the liveliest block in Walla Walla, becoming the place to meet, host potlucks, conduct business meetings, and play board games. When City Council was deciding whether or not to make the plaza a permanent public fixture, they received 297 public comments—294 of them in favor of keeping the plaza.
With such clear support, the City set out to make the plaza permanent. They convened a group of stakeholders to design the plaza, including Main Street, local architects and business owners, and significant input from the local Tribes. Suggestions from the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute incorporated elements representing the site’s history as a gathering spot of the Cayuse and Walla Walla people. The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation provided technical assistance and guidance on how to design the space to honor their people. The permanent space, completed in May 2023, is called Walawála Plaza, meaning “many small streams” in the indigenous Sahaptin language.
This project is so many things. It is a beautifully designed public space, a boon to businesses throughout the district, not to mention a visionary use of ARPA funds. But above all it is a testament to how much we humans need each other. This exact site has been a gathering place since immemorial. And now it is, once again, a place for people to gather.