Signs look good for revitalization of Olympia isthmus

The OlympianApril 28, 2013 

Proponents of turning two blighted properties on the isthmus from eyesores into attractive additions to the Capitol Campus vista are understandably encouraged by this week’s Olympia City Council action. It’s a confirmation of the political force they have mustered to move the city’s agenda and public opinion toward creating an iconic space between Capitol Lake and Budd Inlet.

The council’s approval of an agreement to purchase two parcels formerly known as Larida Passage also takes the community one step closer to closure on a once-divisive downtown development issue.

The 2008 City Council badly misjudged the strength of public opinion about a Triway Enterprises proposal to build two high-rise mixed-use buildings on the site. In a well-intentioned effort to create market-rate housing in the downtown area and perhaps trigger other economic development, the council raised building heights on the isthmus to 90 feet.

That action motivated a broad coalition of voters – led by the Olympia Capitol Park Foundation – and former governors determined to protect and perfect the grand vision of Wilder and White, architects of the 1911 plan for the Capitol Campus. They created a political movement to elect council members who shared their vision. Not one of those 2008 council members remains in office today.

This week’s approval to buy the Larida Passage parcels is less surprising than it is a thoughtful implementation of instructions that the council gave to city staff last summer.

Faced with an unattractive option in July to purchase the Capitol Center building, informally known as the “mistake by the lake,” council wisely declined. Instead, it decided to focus on the two Triway properties, owned by Tri Vo, and set a one-year goal for staff to acquire and remove the abandoned Thurston County health and housing buildings.

Credit City of Olympia staff with putting this deal together and fulfilling council’s wishes. Jay Burney and Tom Morrill took the lead with help from Linda Oestreich and others. They created a working relationship with Jerry Reilly and the park foundation and negotiated at length with Tri Vo, who was often out of the country.

The attention now turns to the state Legislature, because the city’s purchase agreement is contingent on receiving $1 million in this year’s capital budget. The Senate version has no money allocated, while the House has included only $386,000 for the project.

Let’s hope the project doesn’t get lost in last-minute budget negotiations or sacrificed in a special session.

State lawmakers should fund this project. Six former governors – Rosellini, Evans, Spellman, Gardner, Lowry and Locke – have supported turning the isthmus into Capitol Olympic Vista Park. The Behind the Badge Foundation – the group responsible for the Law Enforcement Memorial on the bluff behind the Temple of Justice over looking Capitol Lake – is also on board.

If state funding comes through and the city closes on the Triway deal by June 15, then a community conversation can begin about what to do with the property.

The Olympia Capitol Park Foundation wants to create a park, but there is no broad consensus or formal plan for the isthmus, including how to fund its clean up, development and ongoing maintenance. The city’s 2010 park plan is woefully vague. And acquiring Larida Passage does not include the Capital Center building, arguably the key element in everybody’s long-term vision.

On that score, council instructed city staff to find other partners for its purchase, and to work up comparative estimates for redevelopment options, including complete removal.

There are further challenges ahead, far beyond the $1 million needed from the state capital budget. But the project is approaching the tipping point. With state capital funds to close the Larida passage agreement, an isthmus revitalization could quickly gain momentum.

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