OLYMPIA - The Olympia City Council will hold another public hearing tonight on isthmus height limits – this time about whether to make permanent a 35-foot interim height limit the council enacted earlier this year.
The council voted 5-2 in January to revert height limits to 35 feet on an interim basis, reversing the council’s 2008 decision to allow buildings up to 90 feet tall on part of the isthmus. The interim zoning returned the affected area to the Urban Waterfront zone, where it had been before the 2008 rezone.
City Manager Steve Hall recommended that the council make the 35-foot limit permanent but zone it Urban Waterfront Housing, the same as the 2008 zoning. The Olympia Planning Commission recommended that zoning because it is more restrictive, not allowing hotels, gas stations for existing uses and parking lots for commercial use, according to a city staff report.
It also essentially requires that any buildings over one story include housing.
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The council may act after the public hearing tonight. It would be the latest chapter in a long-simmering local debate about downtown development.
“It’s another important milestone,” said Gerald Reilly, who opposes taller buildings on the isthmus.
About three years ago, local development group Triway Enterprises requested raising the height limits to allow Larida Passage, a proposed 141-unit condominium mixed-use development in two buildings, one of which would have been 90 feet. Proponents said the high-end condominiums would revitalize downtown; opponents said they would block important views.
Opponents prevailed in the 2009 elections, electing City Council members who favored lower-rise development. Once seated in 2010, they overturned the taller height limits.
The fate of the condo project is uncertain. Triway maintains its project can continue as planned because it’s vested under the taller height limits. Opponents disagree. The financial ability of Triway to complete the project is also in question in the economic downturn.
Keith Stahley, director of community planning and development, said the application for Larida Passage is proceeding and it could go before the city’s hearing examiner next year. He said the hearing examiner would determine whether the project is vested under the taller zoning.
Underlying all this is a larger issue: What should Olympia’s downtown waterfront look like? And should it include housing?
Reilly wants to turn much of the isthmus into an extension of Heritage Park. His vision is to tear down the buildings on the Triway property and the 120-foot Capitol Center building and have green space in its place.
As chairman of the Olympia Capitol Park Foundation, he has raised $100,000 in donations and pledges. The group helped set the isthmus park as a goal in the city’s parks plan, is soliciting government and private support, and is talking with land owners on the isthmus.
“I’m hopeful for movement” next year, he said. “We don’t want to see that area stay the way it is for a protracted period of time.”
But Janine Smith, incoming president of the Olympia Master Builders, questioned whether low-rise mixed-use housing developments would be attractive to developers. The Urban Waterfront Housing zone would require housing in any development more than one story. That could mean one story of office space and two stories of residential units.
“Our question is really why is the City of Olympia looking to downzone 5 acres of its downtown?” she said. “Why, when we all understand that development should occur in the downtown core and that should be housing?”
The housing won’t happen under the Urban Waterfront Housing zone, she said.
“That’s really not their goal,” she said. “The goal is to rezone that area to downzone it so that it is completely inappropriate for viable projects with the hope that at some point that it will turn into a park.”