The financially wobbly Washington Heritage Center project can no longer afford a hillside home overlooking Capitol Lake, and state officials are looking for a new place to build a smaller, cheaper version of the structure.
Secretary of State Sam Reed has picked out a new site on the Capitol Campus, which used to serve as a visitor center. But the site is stirring passionate opposition from Olympia’s South Capitol neighborhood, where residents fear more traffic and other disruptions in a zone beset by other state encroachments.
As outlined by Reed’s office, the combination state library-archives-visitor center and museum display space is being scaled back from a $141 million price tag to about $116 million. It would be built at the corner of Capitol Way and Sid Snyder Way (also known as 14th Avenue), right where traffic from Interstate 5 funnels to the Capitol Campus via a tunnel.
“We view it as a win-win for the visitors. They could use the library, archives and have a very short walk to the Legislative Building,” assistant secretary of state Steven Excell said Monday.
Reed’s agency plans a public meeting at 5:30 p.m. today to explain options and possible sites for the project.
The top alternative sites require costly demolitions, Excell said.
• No. 2 is the Department of General Administration headquarters, which is the original preferred site.
• No. 3 is a block of buildings to the east of the GA site that includes the soon-to-move children’s museum and a parking garage.
Democratic state Sen. Karen Fraser, an early backer with Reed of the Heritage project on the bluff, dislikes Reed’s new preferred site. Fraser says she likes the idea of keeping the center on the north edge of the campus, perhaps where the children’s museum is.
Putting the visitor center there would keep it closer to the city’s commercial areas, providing an economic boost to downtown, she said.
The budget fallout hitting the Heritage project is also separating it from an $80 million executive office building that had been proposed on the GA headquarters site. The executive offices project also is delayed and might be shrunk in size, according to GA spokesman Steve Valandra.
Valandra did say that GA is looking at potential executive office plans that would lop off one-third of its 120,000 square feet of floor space. But Valandra said the list of potential sites to be outlined by Reed’s office today is no more than a wish list, and no decisions have been made on either project.
The top three sites for the executive building include one in the parking lot northwest of the Governor’s Mansion; a reworking or expansion of the Insurance Building to let the insurance commissioner return to the campus; and near the state’s underground archives, east of Capitol Way next to the Highway-Licenses Building.
Ever since the recession blew holes in the $141 million Heritage Center’s financing, Reed has tried to keep the project alive. It once was scheduled to begin construction next year and open to visiting school kids and tourists in 2012.
The change of plans is being driven by the economic slowdown that also slowed the stream of revenue expected to pay for it all. The Heritage project depended on a new $2 fee on real estate recordings at county auditor offices and a $5 incorporation fee for businesses.
The neighborhood association appears ready to fight any effort to use the old visitor center property. GA closed the visitor center July 1 and now rents the property to the Olympia-Lacey- Tumwater Visitor and Convention Bureau.
Greg Klein, president of the neighborhood association, sent a stern letter recently to Reed, urging him to consider a different site and explaining that opposition was unanimous on the board.
“The neighborhood currently faces many challenges that are the direct result of pressures from the presence of state government, and we believe that the Heritage project, as it has been presented to us, will result in significant additional deterioration to the integrity of the neighborhood,” Klein wrote Oct. 16 after meeting with Reed on the topic Aug 31.
In a supplement to the letter, the association went on to say: “The neighborhood is already in a state of deterioration due to the pressures such as unmet demand for parking, unmanaged side street cut-through traffic, people turning historic residential homes into offices and reception halls, and people turning historic backyards into parking lots. The Wheeler Project has displaced more than 100 local visitor stalls that have not yet been replaced. The neighborhood cannot endure any more deterioration to its residential and historic quality.”
Fraser said she and Democratic Rep. Sam Hunt of Olympia spoke against the visitor center site at a September meeting of the Capitol Campus Design Advisory Committee, which advises state policy makers on architectural and design issues on the campus. Architects and planners on the committee saw the visitor center site in a more favorable light, Fraser said.
As part of the cost cuts, the secretary of state is scaling back the building’s features – eliminating a 500-person conference center, getting rid of dedicated space for children and for a visiting museum, while retaining flexible space that could accommodate areas for children and temporary art shows.
That would leave the building’s essentials, including a new state archives, the state library, a visitor area and a small museum or exhibition space. Excell said the library and archives collections would go underground along with the parking, and the building above could be three or four stories tall.
Excell said he understands that South Capitol neighbors have complaints and concerns about campus-related parking spilling into residential streets. But the new proposal would provide 120 to 150 underground parking spaces onsite and is cheaper than the dozen options that state designers have looked at and could be built quicker.
“They all have pluses and minuses. But one of our constraints is cost. Another constraint is time,” he said.
Excell and others in his agency say the children’s museum site has flaws too. It requires higher demolition costs and removal of a parking garage, which creates a new parking problem. That and other sites also could be slower to accomplish, which could raise costs, Excell said.
Any new site needs the blessing of the State Capitol Committee, which includes representatives of the governor, the lieutenant governor, Reed and the state lands commissioner. But Gov. Chris Gregoire’s legislative liaison, Marty Brown, said he had not heard of the new proposal until Monday morning.
Brown said the Heritage project always received more positive comment from lawmakers than did the executive office project. He said the neighborhood group will be listened to, just as it was on the Department of Information Services project that is in full construction east of the campus at Wheeler Avenue.
“The state doesn’t like to do anything without consulting the neighbors in the affected areas,” Brown said. “It’s too hard.”