The city of Olympia must move quickly to purchase and remove the Capitol Center Building, commonly known as the “mistake by the lake.” At its best this building is the wrong building in the wrong place. It sits in the middle of what would otherwise be one of the great vistas in America — the vista around which Washington’s magnificent Capitol Campus was designed to connect to Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains.
Eight years ago, plans were made to compound the original mistake by erecting an additional high-rise building on the isthmus. A citizens’ initiative garnered nearly 5,000 signatures in six weeks, requiring the city council to either conduct a feasibility study of creating a park on the isthmus or put the whole question on the ballot. The council wisely decided to conduct the study that concluded a park was feasible.
In the next council election, several new members were chosen, based in part on their support of removal of the mistake. The newly constituted council reversed the prior council’s zoning decision that would have foreclosed forever the realization of a magnificent civic space and view corridor.
On Nov. 19, we celebrated removal of two low-rise empty buildings on the west portion of the isthmus to make way for the long-planned civic space. This milestone was made possible by the city’s purchase of the land with help from Thurston County and the Olympia Capitol Park Foundation. When people take a look at the emerging openness on the site, they see that we are closer than ever to protecting and perfecting the views to and from America’s most magnificent capitol campus setting. They also see an exciting entrance to Olympia’s revitalizing downtown, and a strong link between Percival Landing and Heritage Park.
Features of the new civic space would be decided by an inclusive public process. Presumably, it could include green space and possibly other public amenities, such as a Native American cultural center, carousel, Olympia history museum and a restaurant, all to be decided by the public process. Any structures must be limited in height, and the land would remain in public ownership.
After all of this progress, another proposal to renovate the Capitol Center building recently surfaced, and we now face the threat that it will be with us for another 50 years. The city should sustain the vision for a great civic space on the isthmus by moving quickly to acquire and take down the Capitol Center building. Poll after poll, both through surveys and election results, show that the overwhelming majority of Olympians want this done. Just this November, over 60 percent voted to create the Metropolitan Park District, and increase their own property taxes to provide additional funds for park maintenance and acquisition. One of the reasons for the success of Proposition 1 was belief that it could lead to the long sought removal of the dilapidated “mistake by the lake” building. These new resources, along with existing bonding capacity, make such a purchase feasible.
Downtown Olympia is beginning to blossom with several attractive market-rate housing developments. Now is the time for our generation to secure the future of this very special place for ourselves and for those who follow.
Jerry Reilly, chair of the Olympia Capitol Park Foundation, may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.