A lot is at stake for Olympia with the Views on Fifth renovation project on the city isthmus. An investment of $30 million is planned to convert a dilapidated former office tower into a complex of high-end living units, shops and a restaurant.
There is little doubt that architect Ron Thomas’ designs for the project look far, far better than the Capitol Center building that stands in ruins a short distance from Capitol Lake. And proponents have completed the city's process to secure construction permits.
But an influential group of powerful people – including former governors, a former state senator, a former secretary of state, a former Olympia mayor and local park advocates – has challenged the validity of city permits.
The legal fight feels late in the game, but opponents had to exhaust their options with the city hearings examiner. Fortunately, the case is in court where issues can be addressed with finality.
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One issue is whether an office tower left vacant for a decade can be revamped at its full nine-story height, or whether 35-foot height limits on isthmus development should be invoked. Other issues are whether a full environmental impact study should have been required and whether a shorelines permit was needed.
Opponents would rather see the city buy the land for a park expansion. But they should not use the courts to simply delay the project in a bid to wear down its financial backers.
Two project owners, developer Ken Brogan and his wife Julie Brogan, have invested at least $7 million so far to buy the site and design the project. They have two California-based investors, Emil Khodorkovsky and Alex Gorban, whom a Brogan spokesman said are Russian.
As proposed, the project covers nearly a full city block, adds two new buildings and overall provides 138 residences. Also planned is a street-level restaurant facing Capitol Lake with views of the Capitol Campus in the distance.
To his credit, the architect is proposing a pedestrian walkway between the buildings and a few architectural features to echo design elements in the downtown.
Brogan’s team speaks confidently of moving forward. Their crews recently knocked down the one-story structure that blighted the land around the tower. But the controversial tower – which most agree should never have been built in the first place – remains an essential part of the renovation plan.
Perhaps it was an error in hindsight that the city did not push the developer to include a potential public feature such as a viewing deck or restaurant on top. But Brogan and his design team told The Olympian Editorial Board last year that giving the public access to the roof area of the structure – say, for a restaurant – was cost-prohibitive.
That is because it would have required a second elevator for the public that was separate from the one serving private residences. This would have eliminated units needed to make the project work, they said.
Similarly, the project would not pencil out unless the tower is used for residences.
Critics are right that removing the tower would enhance views of Budd Inlet from the Capitol Campus that overlooks Capitol Lake and Puget Sound. Removal also could improve the open feel around the lake.
But at what cost to the public? Millions of dollars would be needed to acquire the land and even more to knock it down. All for a site already surrounded by parks.
In fact, the city has begun work on the first piece of Capitol Vista Park next door to Views on Fifth.
Park backers once had six former governors and a former secretary of state on board in opposition to high-rise development on the isthmus. A 2011 video featured these important figures.
But the City Council never showed much interest in buying the tower property, despite voter approval of a parks bond that listed the isthmus park among potential projects. Similarly the Legislature was uninterested in forking over millions to buy and demolish the tower.
Three of the ex-governors have died since the video was made.
Superior Court Judge Carol Murphy declined a request by park advocates to block the project until legal issues are settled.
But Murphy reminded the parties on April 13 that moving ahead to build a project that is under legal challenge carries risks.
Whichever way the judge rules, a clear and lasting decision is needed – and soon. This means that a trial date should be set as soon as possible.