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.
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: