An owner’s dreams for a burned-out lot

7 years after buying a gutted downtown building, Cliff Lee struggles to remake the space

Staff writerMay 4, 2014 

It’s a Saturday morning in downtown Olympia when the first 911 calls start to come in: Smoke can be seen rising from a building in the 300 block of Fourth Avenue.

More calls are fielded by 911 dispatchers, and soon it’s clear that a major fire is underway.

The Olympia Fire Department responds within minutes, already tipped off because a fire department medic vehicle has just driven through downtown and those aboard have detected smoke.

The Fire Department quickly arrives, bringing 14 personnel, 11 units — engines, trucks and other firefighting equipment — and later will receive support from several other stations inside and outside the county.

Fire crews battle the fire for most of Saturday, beginning at 10:46 a.m. and ending just before 5 p.m.

The structure is a total loss, while other structures next to it also have suffered some fire damage.

The date: July 31, 2004.

The building: Home to Griswold’s Office Supply & Equipment.

The cause of the fire: Undetermined.

And the future …

That’s unknown. The fire is approaching its 10th anniversary, and very little has happened to the burned-out structure, other than attempts to beautify the building while it awaits redevelopment. The facade has a mural, and it recently received a fresh coat of paint, but little else has happened to the building.

In the interim, the building, in its undeveloped state, has become an eyesore for many and has contributed to what others view as one of the most challenging blocks in downtown Olympia.

The former Griswold’s building is on Fourth Avenue, between Franklin and Adams streets, an area that often is a destination for homeless people and street youths.

“It’s not a healthy component of our downtown,” said Keith Stahley, the city’s community, planning and development director.

“Filling that hole in will remedy a lot of problems on that block.”

FROM SILICON VALLEY

The original owner and operators of the building and business — Bill Griswold, the father, and Brad, the son — could not be reached to comment for this story. After the fire, they sold the building as is to Clifford Lee, a former Silicon Valley executive who vacationed in Olympia and eventually moved here.

Lee paid $257,500 for the building in January 2007, public records show. He was interviewed by The Olympian the same month.

“It’s a challenge for me, so I decided to embark on it,” said Lee, then 46. “It’s not my first choice in terms of location, but the feeling I was getting was, ‘How often do you get the chance to make a positive impact?’ I am convinced that if we find the right tenants, this can work. That’s when I decided to go for it.”

His ideas for the property then included condos, wine storage, a coffee shop, a restaurant and a beauty shop. None of that has materialized, but Lee has done some work on the building and updated his vision for the property over the years:

March 2008: The city requires that Lee reinforce the south and north walls of the building because of concerns that they could collapse in an earthquake.

May 2011: Lee announces a plan to stage a performance of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” in the building and a larger plan to turn the building into a “green” incubator, creating jobs and housing.

April 2014: Lee joins a group of city employees and supplies the paint so they can paint the upper facade of the building.

Lee also has responded to those wondering about the building and its future, according to city of Olympia emails, which were made available after a public records request.

Here is one such email in February where Lee sheds light on some of his challenges:

“Quick answer to your question is that we are trying to get the front side of the building to be renovated and occupied this year. Unless the city stops me, I want to make the front side look respectable with a finished look, at least from the street level as soon as possible. Once the current permit submission goes through, we will renovate the front side of the building for occupancy.”

He adds: “I’m losing money as the building is not being utilized, and it is my intention to create a building that adds value to the neighborhood.”

BACK TAXES

Another challenge: Public records shows Lee is behind on his property taxes for 2012, 2013 and the first half of 2014, totaling about $6,700.

It takes three years of unpaid property taxes before the foreclosure process gets underway, said Thurston County Treasurer Shawn Myers. If taxes remain unpaid, the foreclosure process for Lee’s building would begin in June 2015, she said. If nothing is resolved, it would be sold at auction in January 2016.

But Lee, who participated in an interview and showed the building Thursday, remains full of ideas for the property. He wants to complete work on what he calls an Open Green Living Center and has designs, showing a renovated facade, office and retail space in the front third of the building, while the rest is an open courtyard.

More theatrical performances in the courtyard are set for June, Lee said, and he remains hopeful about securing a permit to do work on the facade.

He also said he’s disappointed that the building has been demonized in the community, and that he never intended for it to turn out this way. He acknowledged that redevelopment delays have stemmed from his inexperience, the slow economy and the sometimes confusing nature of city requirements to redevelop.

Lee also, until recently, owned Fuji Teriyaki at State Avenue and Plum Street in Olympia. He said in an email that proceeds from the sale of the Fuji Teriyaki property will go toward his property tax bill.

HANDSHAKE AGREEMENT

After the fire, the Olympia Fire Department conducted an investigation. Details of the investigation also were obtained through a public records request. As part of the investigation, it includes a synopsis of events leading up to the fire.

Griswold’s Office Supply actually went out of business July 30, the day before the fire, in part because of “decreased revenues brought on by an influx of chain operations in the area,” according to the fire investigation report.

The owners, Bill and Brad Griswold, said that they closed without fanfare and had intended to reopen briefly in the near future for a “going-out-of-business sale.”

That same Friday they also met with City Pawn owner J.L. Koch, who was interested in the building for his business. City Pawn was a neighboring business at the time. They met at 4 p.m. and talked until about 5:05 p.m., coming to terms on a handshake agreement for use of the building.

After Koch left, the building was secured in its normal manner: The lights in a back room were turned off and the rear door was secured with a 2-by-4. The front door was locked.

The next morning Brad Griswold, who said he was at Home Depot in Olympia at the time, was notified by a friend about the fire via cellphone. Bill Griswold was at home and was notified by Brad.

Olympia Fire Department Lt. Steve Bradley, who responded to the fire that day and also was part of the investigation team, recalled that it was a hot day — historical weather data show daytime temperatures hit 84 degrees — and that the fire produced a lot of smoke that tended to settle because of a lack of airflow through the downtown core.

It might not have been the biggest fire in the city’s history, but it still required a big response because the burning building was surrounded by other buildings — unlike last summer’s fire at Oyster House, which is in a stand-alone location, Bradley said.

Eight other stations or fire departments responded to the fire, including from as far as Lakewood, he said. Firefighters also made the right call to evacuate the burning building during the fire because the roof eventually collapsed, he said.

The investigation began immediately after the fire, on Aug. 1, and continued until Nov. 19, 2004. The cause of the fire remains unsolved, according to the fire investigation report.

Here’s what investigators wrote in their conclusion:

“There was certainly questions about the timing of the fire so close to closing the business. The scene investigation was not able to allay these questions but it was also not able to corroborate them. No ignition source was found, no point of origin located. Statements from the owners, Bill and Brad Griswold and pawn shop owner J.L. Koch indicate that although the business had closed, there was an agreement for use of the building. The insurance coverage of the business was close to the value of the building and did not appear to indicate a motive for profit. There is insufficient information to conclude that this fire is accidental or arson related. The official result of this investigation is an undetermined cause. If further information is later found concerning the fire, it will be applied to the results of this investigation in order to find a cause.”

Bradley added that the investigation technically is still open, although it is not actively being pursued.

COMMUNITY RENEWAL

Meanwhile, the Olympia City Council is in the middle of its community renewal area planning process, a tool — once the plan is complete and approved by the council — that the city could use to address blight, such as acquiring and selling property in blighted areas.

Community development director Stahley said the council is focused on the vacant buildings on the city’s isthmus, the strip of property between Budd Inlet and Capitol Lake.

But before the community renewal area plan is adopted, likely toward the end of the year, by the council other blighted areas could be added to the plan.

Stahley is confident that addressing the former Griswold’s building will be part of the plan.

“It continues to be a real topic of concern,” he said.

The use of eminent domain also has been included in the working draft of the renewal area plan, and could be applied in certain limited situations, Stahley said, such as a building or property that has been vacant or economically unproductive for five or more years.

City Attorney Tom Morrill said eminent domain generally works like this: The public entity, such as the city, gives the property owner notice about its intentions to acquire property. An appraisal is done, and then the two sides negotiate the appropriate value of the property. If they can’t decide, market value can be determined at trial, he said.

He said the city has used eminent domain to acquire water rights from the former Olympia brewery, but has never had to go to trial.

Lee, asked if he would be open to selling his property to the city, said it would all depend on the price and the city’s plans for it. He said he still believes he can put the building to good use.

“That’s what I’m fighting for,” Lee said.

Rolf Boone: 360-754-5403
rboone@theolympian.com

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