Above: The five story RST Cellars Building at 240 Custer Way is part of the planned action land use ordinance passed by the Tumwater City Council on Tuesday evening. Built over a period of years starting in 1966, the industrial building housed large beer cooling tanks and is not historic. It is located near the historic Schmidt House. In promotional materials, Falls Development has marketed it as a possible hotel with retail on the ground floor. Recently, it has been suggested as the location for a craft brewing and distillery center. It could also be a structured parking garage. Falls Development has said that the redevelopment of this building is one of its first priorities. Photo taken April 16, 2016.
By Janine Gates
“We’re on our way, for better or worse,” said City of Tumwater Mayor Pete Kmet, after the Tumwater city council voted 5 – 2 on Tuesday evening in favor of a planned action land use ordinance that includes the site of the Old Brewhouse.
Councilmembers Ed Hildreth and Joan Cathey voted no.
The action concluded a lengthy public hearing and finalized a land use plan three years in the making for the 32 acre area currently owned by developer George Heidgerken and Falls Development LLC. The area is roughly bounded by Custer Way to the south, the Deschutes River to the west, Capitol Lake to the north and the railroad to the east.
Out of three land use alternatives offered by the city, the modified ordinance was a compromise of sorts, landing somewhere between a do-nothing approach and a maximum redevelopment build out.
The council did not give Heidgerken his desired full build-out, instead opting for an alternative that limits a new parking garage to 625 stalls. Parking for a new building, a residential component, would be within that garage.
It also limits any new building within the planned action area to a maximum elevation of 126 feet, which is the ground level in the immediate vicinity of the Schmidt House, to preserve views from the house.
Offering a flexible design, the types of development and square footage of new development may be shifted between land uses, but the total of new PM peak hour vehicle trips can not exceed 306 trips.
The planned action ordinance will be reviewed again in five years by the city’s State Environmental Policy Act official, at which time it could be amended.
On April 5, the City of Tumwater approved a letter of agreement between the city and Falls Development LLC to acquire the six story, historic tower. The acquisition would also include easements to access the property and construct trails.
The tower is currently owned by Heidgerken, who has not yet signed the letter of agreement. He has until April 30 to do so.
During public comment time on Tuesday evening, concern was expressed by a member of the public that Heidgerken may back out and not sign the agreement if the council did not give Heidgerken his desired full build out.
Anthony Hempsted, a new hire of Falls Development LLC, spoke to that concern, saying it has taken partnership and vision to get this far with the city.
“Clearly, the city and Falls Development are in a long term relationship….In no way, shape or form would we walk away from it,” said Hempsted about the letter of agreement.
He praised the council for a transparent website, saying he had reviewed videos of past meetings.
Regarding the ordinance, he said that Falls Development does not think it is perfect and would have preferred a full build out and more parking, but is willing to work with the city in good faith and the ordinance as written.
He said Falls Development will work on the first phase as soon as possible, the RST Cellars building, saying it could be a great craft brewing and distillery center, and would be a natural catalyst for future development.
The second phase would be the historic site.
“We have not done extensive work on what that would look like in the future. Any development would have to fit within the guidelines of the Historic (Preservation) Commission and we will certainly not do anything to infringe upon the historic nature of the four buildings.…”
Redevelopment of the area includes preservation or restoration of the historic buildings within the planned action area, which are the Old Brewhouse, the east and west warehouses, and the keg house.
Several individuals spoke in support of the ordinance.
Michael Cade, executive director of the Thurston Economic Development Council, admitted this was not an easy site, but spoke in support of the planned action and mentioned other successful planned actions he’s been involved with such as the Southwest Everett Environmental Impact Area and the Bellingham Waterfront District.
Mariella Cummings, chair of the Thurston County Chamber of Commerce, also supported the ordinance, saying the Chamber recognizes the importance of the brewhouse property as a critical jewel in our community’s character. She commended the council, as did others, for the creative, deliberative, thoughtful approach the city has used to get this far in the process.
David Nicandri, a member of Tumwater’s Historic Preservation Committee, the group that will ultimately decide whether or not to issue Heidgerken the required Certificate of Appropriateness for his projects, if they are ever submitted, spoke in support of the planned action. Nicandri is also the former longtime director of the Washington State Historical Society.
Speaking at length as he did at the April 5 public hearing in support of the city’s acquisition of the historic tower, Nicandri likened the city’s challenge regarding the Old Brewery to the City of Tacoma’s revitalization of the Old Union Station into a district courthouse.
Explaining that it was a former Superfund site, he said that every development project has its limitations and opportunities. The Union Station had outlived its usefulness as a station and the only way it was going to be saved was if new development filled in around it. Ideas for its purpose were bantered around. He said the city did the necessary planning and was ready to go when the creative energies of the community finally mobilized around the project.
“So it is possible, with solid design criteria… to do significant infill and do it sensitively, as was done in the case of the Tacoma Union Station project.”
Adding that the Old Brewhouse site is not a pristine, environmental preserve, he continued, saying that Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was urban Tacoma. He said this property, when fully built out in 10 to 20 years, could be nationally recognized.
Others expressed concerns or spoke in opposition to the ordinance.
Krag Unsoeld, president of the South Puget Environmental Education Clearinghouse (SPEECH), expressed concerns about sea level rise for this area and that all the environmental impacts of developing the hillside, removal of the artesian springs, and widening of the road to access the site have not been taken into consideration.
He also expressed concern about the city’s questionable business practice of entering into a hefty financial commitment to restore the tower, and asked how the city is going to follow through if it does not get grant money.
He said the situation was like a tragic comedy.
“…There is some belief that none of this (redevelopment) will ever happen….If you believe that Heidgerken is not serious (about his plans)… then don’t rely on him backing out in hopes of getting what you hope to attain. Just draw the line and say no, that’s not appropriate, it’s not environmentally appropriate….”
Ryan Carlson said he supports the idea of redevelopment at the site but that the ordinance went too far in scope and scale. He said that because the brewery is in a historic district, the bar for redevelopment should be set higher, and urged the council to maintain the integrity of the site. Specifically, he said the mitigation plan for the hillside’s stability would require significant re-engineering and the integrity of the site would be lost in the process.
Speaking of diminished integrity, Carlson said he grew up on Tumwater Hill, and noted that the once spectacular Overlook Park, which had allowed for a 360 degree, panoramic view of the city and the region, was reduced to the size of a postage stamp.
Others who spoke in opposition to the ordinance included former Olympia Mayor Bob Jacobs.
“It is ironic that at the same time Olympia is working to eliminate its 'Mistake on the Lake,' Tumwater seems determined to have one of its own,” he said.
The vote was put in the form of a motion by Councilmember Neil McClanahan who said everyone has done their homework. The motion was seconded by Councilmember Tom Oliva.
Councilmember Nicole Hill said that while this was the hardest issue she has considered since she’s been on the council, she was pleased that details have been tightened up in the last few weeks.
Councilmember Joan Cathey expressed concern that the council is not in control of the “sweet spot” – the balance between responsible development and protecting the environment.
Councilmembers were influenced by the thoughtful comments made by the public and all appreciated the high level of civil discourse demonstrated by the public and councilmembers.
Councilmember Tom Oliva, choking up, said the issue was surprisingly hard to talk about, and reminisced how, 20 years ago, he saw the tower, was immediately intrigued by it and wondered why it was dark.
Saying the planned action ordinance was “a little bit overbuilt, in my opinion,” Oliva said he was hopeful and confident that this last opportunity to preserve the buildings will work.
For more photos and information about the planned action, the Old Brewery property and historic tower, George Heidgerken, Falls Development LLC, Tumwater, the brewery district planning efforts and related issues, go to Little Hollywood, www.janineslittlehollywood.blogspot.com.
For more information about the Planned Action from the City of Tumwater, go to www.ci.tumwater.wa.us.