Olympia is creating a Community Renewal Area that would expand the city’s power to address downtown properties that are in poor condition.
City officials say the CRA is a key tool for boosting economic development and making deals with private property owners downtown.
High-priority sites include vacant properties plagued by graffiti, trash, pollutants and more. One of the more controversial sites is the isthmus between West Bay and Capitol Lake, where many community members want the city to build a park and destroy several dilapidated buildings.
Olympia hosted open houses Wednesday and Thursday at City Hall for the public to ask questions and provide feedback on the proposal. Mayor Stephen Buxbaum said the overall goal of the CRA is to enhance downtown Olympia with quality development that strengthens the city’s status as the regional hub.
“We’re looking to invest in ways that complement what we have,” Buxbaum said Wednesday.
Cities that adopt a CRA can increase their eminent domain powers for sites that are declared “blighted,” according to state law, and also have the right to acquire properties through condemnation. The Olympia City Council has discussed using eminent domain under “limited circumstances, but has not taken a formal position on the use of eminent domain,” according to a staff report.
Stacey Arnold, who lives and works in downtown Olympia, said she supports any proposal that can reduce blight. One site on her wish list, she said at Wednesday’s open house, is the vacant Griswold Office Supply building on Fourth Avenue that was gutted by a fire 10 years ago.
“Griswold’s has been empty for so many years,” said Arnold, adding that it doesn’t matter whether the problem is handled through private or public action. “Something has to be done about those empty spaces.”
However, not everyone is sold on the CRA concept. Olympia resident and former mayor Bob Jacobs said he has serious reservations about the proposal, and said the city shoulders more financial risk with public-private partnerships. He also questions the proposal’s legality when it comes to condemnation, for example, or mixing public and private dollars.
“This is getting the city into the role of developer. That’s not what cities do,” he said Wednesday. “If I owned property downtown, I’d be concerned.”
For the next step, the Olympia City Council is expected to pass a resolution in January. The resolution would establish the CRA and “findings of blight,” and also direct city staff to start the search for partnerships with private property owners. The council is expected to approve a final CRA plan by late 2015.
The Community Renewal Area effort has been under way since 2012. In 2013, the council approved $105,000 to spend on consultant ECONorthwest, and last July, the city set aside another $57,500 toward CRA-related work. Other Washington cities such as Bremerton, Vancouver and Shoreline have approved CRA ordinances for redevelopment purposes.
PROPERTIES OF INTEREST
The following properties are located within the proposed Community Renewal Area and are considered prime candidates for redevelopment in downtown Olympia.
• Griswold Office Supply building: Located in the 300 block of Fourth Avenue, the building has been vacant since a fire in 2004. The building is owned by Cliff Lee, who has struggled to finance renovations. The total assessed value is $321,450, according to the city, which reports code violations such as no roof, missing windows, graffiti and more.
• Reliable Steel: Located at 1218 West Bay Drive, the abandoned property is marred by debris, rodents, graffiti and chemical contamination. The property is owned by West Bay Reliable and ranks among the county’s worst in terms of pollution, according to the Department of Ecology. The site is also vulnerable to rising sea levels, according to the city, which reports the total assessed value of the property at $462,900.
• Capitol Center Properties: Located on the isthmus between West Bay and Capitol Lake, these five parcels in the 400 block of Fourth and Fifth avenues are owned by Capitol Center LLC. The city reports the total assessed value at about $4.65 million. Code violations on the property include graffiti, debris, broken windows and holes on exterior walls. All properties on the isthmus are vulnerable to rising sea levels, the city reports.
• City-owned isthmus properties: The city owns two vacant properties on the isthmus at 505 and 529 Fourth Ave. W. The total assessed value of both parcels is about $3.5 million, according to the city, which bought those 2.3 acres for about $3.3 million in 2013. This month, a brigade from Joint Base Lewis-McChord began demolition of the site at 505 Fourth Ave. as part of a training exercise. The city will seek grant funding in 2015 to demolish the other building.
• City-owned buildings at Fourth and Water: The buildings are located at 301 Fourth Ave. W. (site of Little Da Nang restaurant) and 407 Water St. SW (site of Olympia Alano Club). The total assessed values for the properties are $191,500 and $215,000, respectively, and both are vulnerable to flooding from rising sea levels, according to the city. The buildings have had ongoing issues with vandalism, the city reports.
• Vine Street property: Located at 500 Columbia St. NW, the property is owned by Vine Street Investors LLC and has a total assessed value of about $1.85 million. According to the city, “this partially developed property creates a conspicuous hole along Capital Way and is a continuous problem with trash and debris accumulation.” Surrounded by a fence, the property was originally slated for an office complex.
To solicit more public feedback on the CRA, the city is offering an online survey starting Dec. 5 at olyspeaks.org.
Attendees at this week’s open houses also were encouraged to post notes with anonymous comments on a bulletin board. Among the comments posted:
• “The community wants a park on the isthmus. City council elections showed that.”
• “No subsidies to private parties.”
• “City could help developers with sidewalks, sewer and water expansion, street trees - amenities that benefit all citizens.”
• “Keep the center of the isthmus, between Fourth and Fifth (avenues), in public ownership and no more than 35 feet high.”
• “Remove two stories of Capitol Center Building, create art center for community and housing for artists.”
• “The CRA should not be used for the isthmus, which is planned for civic space.”
• “Something more than a park on the isthmus.”
• “No more parks like the artesian well! Market rate condos. More retail.”
• “Focus on the core for now! Table the isthmus until more are at the table.”
• “Why has the city characterized the CRA as a ‘planning tool’ when it is actually an implementation tool?”
• “Demolish the ‘mistake on the lake,’ it is ugly and a poor use of a valuable part of downtown.”
• “Stop listening to those against everything.”