The Olympia City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to move forward with a Community Renewal Area, which would expand the city’s power to address downtown properties in poor condition.
With the vote, the council adopted a resolution that establishes the CRA and directs city staff to seek partnerships with private property owners in the downtown area.
Potential partnerships will go before the council for final approval in November or December.
The CRA is seen as an economic development tool. Cities that adopt a CRA can increase their eminent domain powers for sites that are declared “blighted,” according to state law, and have the right to acquire properties through condemnation.
The list of high-priority sites for development include vacant properties marred by graffiti, trash and pollutants. Top sites include the Reliable Steel property on West Bay Drive, the Griswold Office Supply building on Fourth Avenue, and two city-owned properties on the downtown isthmus.
The CRA effort has been in the making since 2012. The goal is to generate more interest in downtown development, said Keith Stahley, the city’s director of community planning and development. The CRA gives the city the ability to negotiate or sell real estate for economic development purposes, he said.
“Our plan is that the public will be involved in each step of this process,” he said.
There are 985 parcels in the CRA with 525 property owners, and about 79 percent of those properties measure less than half an acre, according to ECONorthwest, a consultant hired by the city to do a financial analysis on potential projects and identify blighted areas. The CRA also contains more than 160 sites with confirmed or suspected contamination, the consultant reported.
The council’s vote came on the heels of a public hearing that attracted mostly support for the CRA.
Jim Haley, president of Thurston First Bank, said the bank will provide $10 million in loans for projects in the CRA, which Haley called a “proven process” that can help downtown prosper.
“The city has identified a future financial shortfall and cannot proceed with a number of current needs without fundamental change,” Haley said. “We need everyone to use this point in time, and the CRA tool, to buy into the vision of a vibrant Olympia and the huge potential for our community.”
Mayor Pro Tem Nathaniel Jones said that while the CRA grants eminent domain powers, the city plans to exercise that authority with restraint.
“The CRA is not fundamentally the seizure of private property by any means,” Jones said. “The council and staff are not interested in using that authority at this point.”
Police Chief Ronnie Roberts told the council that the CRA can contribute to a more crime-free environment downtown because of less blight. Roberts cited the department’s ongoing effort to address factors such as graffiti, and said that if left untouched, graffiti can encourage more blight and disorderly behavior.