Owners open to isthmus sale

Olympia: Mayor says no offer has been made to buy nine-story building; public vote is needed

May 1, 2009 

OLYMPIA – The owners of the nine-story Viewpoint Tower on the downtown isthmus are offering to sell it to the city of Olympia and demolish it and its annex for $16.5 million so it can be turned into a park.

Seattle developer Jim Potter sent a letter to Mayor Doug Mah on Tuesday saying he and his partners “have agreed to accept the city of Olympia offer to a friendly condemnation” for his two properties on the isthmus, which total 1.32 acres. The city would have to set aside an additional $1.1 million for environmental cleanup.

Mah, who had been in discussions with Potter and his agent, wrote Potter on Thursday that there was no “offer” because neither the city manager nor the mayor have the ability to make one. Rather, Mah said it was a scenario.

One month ago, Mah proposed asking voters whether they would increase their property taxes for the next 20 years to raise more than $33 million for an isthmus park. The money would go to buy the Potter properties and another next to the Heritage Park Fountain, demolish them and turn them into park space. It would also go to rebuild Percival Landing.

He proposed that the offer go on the ballot in August or November, but the full Olympia City Council, which gets the final say, hasn’t decided. The topic will be discussed at its next meeting, 7 p.m. Tuesday at Council Chambers, 900 Plum St. S.E.

Some residents have derided the isthmus high-rise, long known as the Capitol Center building, as the “mistake on the lake” because it blocks some views of Budd Bay and the Olympic Mountains.

Putting a park on the isthmus became a hot topic after the City Council’s controversial decision in December to raise building height limits on the isthmus. Triway Enterprises, a local developer, asked for the new zoning so it could build five- and seven-story mixed-use buildings there with 141 condominiums.

A group of citizens called the Olympia Isthmus Park Association gathered enough signatures to persuade the Olympia City Council to study turning the area into a park. But Mah’s park proposal wouldn’t include the Triway properties.

Gerald Reilly, chairman of the park association, was intrigued but skeptical of Potter’s proposal. He supports the mayor’s proposal as a building block toward obtaining the Triway properties for public use, too.

“The debate has moved from can we build a park to what are the boundaries of the park we’re going to build,” he said.

In an interview, Mah said Potter’s real estate agent, Colliers International, initiated the talks about the property. He called it a “very meaningful and excellent starting point.”

Mah was particularly pleased because Potter’s proposal, as a “friendly condemnation,” means the city wouldn’t have to force a sale of the property.

Potter’s offer is close to the $16.29 million that a study says the cost of acquiring the Potter properties and turning them into a park. Reilly said Potter’s proposal “sounds a little steep.”

In an interview, Potter stopped short of saying he’s a willing seller. “We’re not opposed to it. Let’s put it that way,” he said.

He said he would rather renovate the nine-story building for office space as planned. The building has been gutted and is awaiting renovation, delayed by the bad economy and the uncertain situation of the isthmus, he said.

“We’re reluctant to give it up, but if that’s what people want to do we are not going to stand in their way,” he said.

Potter’s offer comes with a catch – the city must put the matter to voters in August. “If the vote is delayed until November, then we will order an appraisal to substantiate the value of our property,” Potter wrote.

But that means the city would have to pass a resolution by Thurston County’s May 26 deadline to get it on the Aug. 18 primary ballot. That leaves three more scheduled council meetings before the deadline for discussion. The deadline for November’s election is Aug. 11.

Also, it would be difficult to get the turnout necessary to pass such a measure in August, said Councilman Jeff Kingsbury, who favors a November vote. The law requires turnout of 40 percent of the people who voted in the last general election. That would be difficult to meet in a primary, because last year’s presidential election drew so many people to the polls, he said.

Reilly, of the Olympia Isthmus Park Association, said the August vote seemed unreasonable “because the city has to take into account many, many factors before they would decide to go to a public vote.”

Mah said he didn’t have a preference of when to put the matter to voters.

Still, Kingsbury was upbeat about Potter’s proposal: “I think he’s striking while the iron’s hot.”

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