Saturday, March 21, 2009

Isthmus Forum Brings Community Together

by Janine Gates

Above: About 150 people attended the Olympia Isthmus Park Forum held today at First United Methodist Church on Legion Way.

Concerned community members and elected officials came together today to discuss the fast-moving issue of the isthmus area in downtown Olympia. Former Olympia mayor Bob Jacobs began the forum acknowledging that "it's been kind of crazy" in the last full year since the City of Olympia informed community members about Triway Enterprise's plans to rezone their property and build 141 condos in five to seven story buildings on the isthmus. That meeting, held the day before Easter, gave the community its first look at the big-box scenarios that would generate widespread divisiveness.

Above: Photo taken of the Olympic Mountain range yesterday from the Washington State Law Enforcement Memorial on the Capitol Campus shows that one building on the isthmus is more than enough visual damage.

Elected officials present at today's forum were Senator Karen Fraser, Representative Sam Hunt, Thurston County Commissioner Karen Valenzuela, Olympia Mayor Doug Mah, and Olympia Councilmembers Karen Messmer, Joan Machlis and Rhenda Strub.

The forum was sponsored by several isthmus park proponent groups and included speakers such as Susan Olmsted, who is on the board of directors of the Friends of Seattle's Olmsted Parks. A panel discussion was comprised of Senator Karen Fraser, Mayor Doug Mah and Jerry Reilly, Chair of the Isthmus Park Association.

Above: Susan Olmsted, descendant of the Capitol Campus architect, speaks in favor of the park saying that the "...intended layers, defined gateways and strategic enlistment of views framework the holistic thinking and planning of Olmsted's design for the Capitol Campus. She called the north-south view corridor and visual connection between the Capitol and Budd Inlet to be a "genius of place...."

Mah reiterated his new proposal to take the issue to the people in the form of a $33 million property tax levy to "save and protect Percival Landing, protect views, and create an isthmus park."

"I believe this approach is logical and achieves our desired outcomes. This proposal would allow us to repair what we already have and create a dome to sea is time for us to take the initial steps and let the rest play out...." The "rest" Mah refers to are the parcels currently owned by Triway Enterprises. Others are not willing to wait and see how "the rest plays out."

Senator Karen Fraser, prime sponsor of ESSB 5800, explained her intentions with a Powerpoint presentation and said her bill, if it passes, would retain the status quo, and keep the property on the isthmus at 35 feet.

Jerry Reilly, chair of the Isthmus Park Association said, "...the problem was the process...we were stuck with a process where we had to talk to each other. Now, we are starting to talk with each other...." Reilly said he has concerns with Mah's proposal, saying "it appears to be a heavy lift for this community and the city of Olympia...." Fraser agreed, saying, "We should look around and see what our options might be before we come up with a plan...." and said some large parcels near the Farmer's Market may be available for housing.

Above: Panel members Olympia Mayor Doug Mah, former Olympia Mayor Bob Jacobs, Jerry Reilly, chair of the Olympia Isthmus Park Association and Senator Karen Fraser contribute their thoughts at the Olympia Isthmus Park Forum today.

Audience members addressed the panel and spoke as well, which resulted in a lively discussion.

One man questioned, "What is in the best interest of sustainability and the future of Olympia in terms of its economic vitality? Don't we need a wider view? (Olympia) has to be more than a museum! How about our sons and daughters and our grandchildren?"

The question played right into Mah's perspective, saying, "For some of my colleagues, sustainability meant increasing urban's a trade are taking away some of our ability - increased sustainability...." At this point the audience began saying "No, no, no..." and threw Mah off his train of thought.

Fraser stepped in saying, "I spent years as a local official...this is a case where we need to think of long-term trade-off vs. short-term trade-off. This is our equivalent of the National Mall in D.C. or Central Park..." Reilly agreed with Fraser.

Audience member Marie Cameron spoke next, saying she has been a resident for over 30 years and served on the Olympia Planning Commission for six years in the 1970's and served in a variety of planning positions until her retirement. She now lives in the county, outside the city limits, and feels disenfranchised from the process, and urged the county to step up and be a partner in the portion of property tax it collects.

Thurston County Commissioner Karen Valenzuela thanked Cameron for her productive suggestion. "The problem with Mah's proposal is that there's only one player at the table."

Representative Sam Hunt said, "It is difficult to be in disagreement with the city of Olympia because we live here too. This is an honest disagreement. We are an engaged's not for me, it's not for us, it's for our future."

Senator Karen Fraser's bill, ESSB 5800, will be heard by the House Local Government Committee on Wednesday, March 25, 8:00 a.m., currently scheduled to be held in JLOB Hearing Room E. This room only holds about 50 people and the hearing may be moved to a larger hearing room.

Above: Audience members get to see the historic proclamation against the rezone, signed by six former Washington state governors Rossellini, Lowry, Spellman, Locke, Gardner and Evans, and former Secretary of State Ralph Munro.