A portion of downtown would be declared a blighted area under a state community renewal law, allowing the city to purchase derelict properties and sell them for redevelopment, under a proposal the Olympia City Council is considering.
Tonight, the council is scheduled to discuss the new approach to revitalizing downtown, championed by Councilman Stephen Buxbaum. City staff members envision a yearlong, consultant-led public process that would culminate in defining a particular area of downtown that needs renewal.
Buxbaum said that getting the renewal designation would give the city redevelopment powers it doesn’t now have.
“Typically a city can only purchase property for very specific public uses, not for resale to the private sector,” he said. “By virtue of having a renewal area, we can actually help in the development of a piece of property with the intent of selling that property to the private sector for a private use.”
The council will consider whether to take the first step tonight: putting out a request for qualifications for consultants who could help put together a plan. A city staff report estimates a consultant would cost between $100,000 and $200,000. It could be funded from $78,000 in council discretionary money or from federal Community Development Block Grant funds or both.
Keith Stahley, the city’s director of community planning and development, said hiring a consultant is necessary because the city’s staff is too busy and does not have all the expertise needed. City planners are in the midst of updating the city’s shoreline management and comprehensive plans.
Stahley said he doesn’t know that the state community renewal law has ever been used in Olympia, but Buxbaum said that it has been successful in revitalizing downtowns in Bremerton and Vancouver, Wash.
The idea rose to the city’s priorities at the 2011 City Council retreat, when the council does its annual goal-setting. Buxbaum suggested using the renewal law as part of the city’s 2011 priorities, which include increasing commerce downtown and identifying and prioritizing blighted buildings for removal and remediation.
The state law defines a blighted area as an area that “substantially impairs or arrests the sound growth of the municipality” or “retards the provision of housing accommodations or constitutes an economic or social liability, and/or is detrimental or constitutes a menace, to the public health, safety, welfare and morals in its present condition and use.”
To Stahley, “blight” is buildings like the old Griswold’s office equipment store in the 300 block of Fourth Avenue that was gutted by fire in 2004 and has been vacant since. He also mentioned the Department of Fish and Wildlife properties between Capitol Way and Washington Street near the Olympia Farmers Market, “or any vacant building or any building, for that matter, that’s not being properly maintained.”
Buxbaum demurred when asked to name blighted buildings.
Stahley said Olympia’s community renewal area could include the downtown isthmus and Fourth Avenue.
“It requires you to focus on your downtown and focus on areas of blight,” he said. “It forces you to plan for that and to have a specific plan with specific projects in mind.”
Stahley said the renewal area designation would also help the city get grants to improve the area. Buxbaum said the renewal area could complement $2 million in federal low-interest loans available for community development in Olympia.
He is particularly concerned about a number of state office buildings that are becoming vacant as offices are consolidated in the new Wheeler building.
“I think this could give us the opportunity to target some of those properties for private redevelopment and reuse,” he said.
The community renewal law includes the potential for the city to use condemnation as a means of obtaining properties. But Buxbaum said the public process will help inform the city about how the public wants the city to use the law and what renewal plans would work for property owners.
“I see this as potentially another tool in our toolbox for working proactively to redevelop downtown,” he said.
Matt Batcheldor: 360-704-6869