Council keeps height limit for buildings on isthmus

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 - The Olympia City Council voted 5-2 Tuesday night to permanently return building-height limits on the downtown isthmus to 35 feet, but in a new zone that bans other uses, such as hotels and light industry.

A final vote on the zoning will happen at next week’s meeting.

The council’s action came after more than an hour of public testimony, mostly in favor of permanently lowering the height limits. Opponents of raised height limits say they would obscure precious views of Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains.

“This vista is the most important in the State of Washington,” said Allen Miller of Olympia, adding that the view of Mount Rainier from the University of Washington is equally important.

The council’s action ends another year of debate on building heights. The council voted 5-2 in January to revert height limits to 35 feet on an interim basis, reversing the council’s decision in 2008 to allow buildings up to 90 feet tall on part of the isthmus. The interim zoning returned the area to the Urban Waterfront zone, which 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 Urban Waterfront Housing 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, which some people say would make multi-story buildings unappealing to developers.

“If this rezone is allowed. you’ll be known as the City Council that doomed downtown, basically,” Olympia resident Charles Valentine said.

The rezoning could affect a proposal to convert into a hotel the 120-foot tower on the isthmus known as Capitol Center or Viewpoint Tower. An application to do that was recently submitted to the city.

Scott Shapiro, one of the owners of the tower, appealed to the council not to rezone the area to Urban Waterfront Housing, which would preclude hotels.

His application might still be valid because it was made during the current zoning, Urban Waterfront. But that may be up to the judiciary to decide.

The initial request for raised building heights on the isthmus about three years ago came from Tri Vo-owned Triway Enterprises, a local developer. It wants to build Larida Passage, a proposed 141-unit condominium mixed-use development in two buildings, one of which would have topped out at 90 feet. Proponents said the high-end condominiums would revitalize downtown; opponents said they would block important views.

Opponents prevailed in the 2009 elections, voting in City Council members who favored lower-rise development. Once seated in 2010, they overturned the raised height limits.

The fate of the condo project is unclear. Triway maintains the project is vested under the raised height limits and can continue. Opponents disagree. Triway’s financial ability to complete the project, given the economic downturn, also is in question.

Keith Stahley, director of community planning and development, said the application for Larida Passage is in process and could appear before the city’s hearing examiner next year. Whether the project is vested is a question for the hearing examiner, he said.

Matt Batcheldor: 360-704-6869 mbatcheldor@theolympian.com