Town hall set for Isthmus issue

View of the isthmus in downtown Olympia from the Capitol Campus.  (The Olympian file)
View of the isthmus in downtown Olympia from the Capitol Campus. (The Olympian file) The Olympian

OLYMPIA – Mayor Doug Mah has called a town hall meeting for Monday about his proposal for a $33 million ballot measure for voters to buy an isthmus park and nearby land, a plan that appears increasingly unlikely.

Mah said he called the meeting because an ad-hoc council committee – of Mah, Councilman Joe Hyer and Councilwoman Joan Machlis – couldn’t reach consensus on the issue. He canceled the committee’s meeting for Monday, scheduling the town hall meeting instead. It will begin at 5:30 p.m. in Council Chambers, 900 Plum St. S.E.

It isn’t a City Council meeting; no other council members are required to attend. Also, no more than two are allowed to attend because that would constitute a quorum of the seven-member council, making it an official council meeting. That requires prior notice.

“This is simply a town hall meeting that I’m sponsoring on my own,” Mah said.

He hopes to report the outcome of what to do with the measure at the July 7 council meeting.

Mah’s proposal, which he wants voters to consider on the November ballot, would cost taxpayers up to $33 million over 20 years. It would cost the owner of a $250,000 home about $105 per year.

Here’s how the money would be distributed:

 • $16.5 million would be used to acquire the nine-story Capitol Center and adjacent property, demolish them, and put an isthmus park there. The building is being marketed as Viewpoint Tower, and plans are to turn it into office space if the city doesn’t buy it.

 • $13.5 million would go to rebuild Percival Landing.

 • $3 million would be spent to acquire the rest of the block around the Heritage Park Fountain, demolish buildings and extend the park to the full block.

The proposal doesn’t address property where Triway Enterprises plans to build five- and seven-story mixed-use buildings with 141 condominiums, a move that sparked the debate about an isthmus park to begin with. Mah has said he didn’t include that area because he wants Percival Landing to be funded, and $33 million is about the most it is reasonable to ask of voters.

Critics say $16.5 million is too much to spend right now on the Capitol Center building, and the city should be more focused on acquiring land from Triway. Others don’t want the fountain block in the proposal because there already is a plan to eventually purchase that land with city utility tax revenue.

And there is the overriding concern that a majority of voters wouldn’t approve such a tax increase in the worst economy since the Great Depression.

“You’ve got three problems with the proposal,” said Gerald Reilly, chairman of the Olympia Isthmus Park Association. First, he said, is the uncertainty about the Triway property. Second, there’s concern about what is the right price for the Capitol Center building. And third is the economic climate.

Hyer said the ad-hoc committee was agreeing that acquiring the full fountain block wasn’t essential right now, and that Percival funding was essential – it was just a matter of how much. The sticking point, he said, was the Capitol Center building.

Machlis said more meetings wouldn’t be useful.

“I think that I agree with the mayor’s decision that he really wanted to hear more from the public,” she said.

She favors putting a measure on the ballot that involves buying the Capitol Center building, seeking less money for Percival Landing and seeking no money for the fountain block.

“I would like to give people a chance to vote for it or not,” she said.

Reilly said the city shouldn’t put a funding measure on the ballot until it has polled residents. He recommends waiting a year.

Mah said the city needs to act soon, because the Capitol Center building is available now.

If the city waits, the owner might renovate it, and it will not be available again at the current price.

“It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity at this point,” he said.

The City Council would have to approve a resolution and get it to the Thurston County auditor by Aug. 11 to get the measure on the November ballot.

Jackie Barrett Sharar of the group Olympia 2012, which favors the Triway development, said the group continues to support the mayor’s proposal.

“We were disappointed that we weren’t able to reach consensus,” she said. “To us, this was a very important compromise to being able to open up the view corridor.”

Matt Batcheldor: 360-704-6869