Friday, March 7, 2014

Downtown Business Owners, Residents Discuss New Building Proposal

Above: The parking lot adjacent to several downtown Olympia businesses is the proposed site for a new, mixed-use, seven story building with 138 market-rate residential units.

By Janine Unsoeld

Over 30 downtown business owners, employees and residents attended a city sponsored neighborhood meeting last night at Olympia City Hall to discuss the permitting process and proposed plans for a new, mixed-use, seven story building with 138 market-rate residential units in downtown Olympia.
The proposed building address is 123 4th Avenue West and borders Columbia Street, Capitol Way, 4th Avenue, and 5th Avenue.

The applicant, Columbia Heights Partners, LLC, of Seattle, is planning 7,600 square feet of commercial space on the ground floor and structured parking for 121 vehicles. It is uncertain if the applicant will allow the public to park in their garage.

The space is currently a parking lot, next to the New Moon Cooperative Café, and the former Ken Schoenfeld’s furniture store on the corner of 4th Avenue West and Capitol Way, and Olympia Federal Savings, which is on the corner of 5th Avenue and Capitol Way.
The lot was sold by the city in 2002 to the Colpitts Development Company who intended to build residential units. The permitting process was approved by the city, and then the applicant went bankrupt.
Steve Friddle, lead city planner for the project, convened the informational meeting to explain the new proposed project and answer questions and concerns. Some questions went unanswered until more is learned from the applicant. There are several known differences between the previous application for this site and the current one.
The commercial element is new and there are more residential units, but with a smaller square footage per unit. Because of the commercial element, and the proposed building is in a historic area of downtown, the city’s Heritage Commission will also be involved.
This morning, the city issued a revised, second notice of application for the project with several new dates. The first notice of application was issued February 18 with several errors.
A second neighborhood information meeting will be held March 26, 6:30 p.m., at Olympia City Hall, and an extended comment period will end at 5:00 p.m. on March 28.
The city’s site planning review meeting for the proposed project is now scheduled for April 2, 9:00 a.m., at Olympia City Hall.
However, a city Design Review Board meeting for the proposed project has not been changed. It is still scheduled for March 13, 6:00 p.m., at Olympia City Hall.
Friddle said that the proposed project is expected to get underway in May, and estimated that construction will last for about 14 – 18 months, which will include a loss of parking on Columbia Street, pile-driving, noise, and emissions related to construction.
Several people expressed concern about the financial viability of the applicant, and named other projects that were begun before the recession, but not completed, such as the barely-begun eyesore on Capitol Way near the Olympia Farmer’s Market and other proposed high-end residential projects that were never begun, such as the residential and mixed use Larida Passage project proposed for the isthmus in downtown Olympia.
Simon Gorbaty, one of 14 owners of the New Moon Cooperative Café, which is located adjacent to the project, is concerned that the original public notice contained incorrect information and does not give citizens adequate time to comment. The city received the application during the week of February 13 - February 18.

Late tonight, Gorbaty says he is aware of the revised land use application, but is still upset that the date of the Design Review Board has not been changed.

“The Design Review Board meeting date applies to the previous notification which was in error and doesn’t allow the public enough time to find out about the project and comment on it.”

Gorbaty says that as of 4:30 pm today, over 130 Olympians, employees, and/or owners of several downtown businesses, including Bamboo Garden, New Moon Cooperative Cafe, The Spar, Spider Monkey Tattoo, Last Word Books, Café Love, Rainy Day, Dumpster Values, Danger Room, Earth Magic, Hannah’s, Chopsticks, Saigon Rendezvous, and G. Miller have signed on to a petition expressing concerns about inconsistencies in the application process of the project.

It asks, in part, that the city postpone both the Design Review Board and Site Planning Review meetings to allow downtown residents, workers, local property and business owners time to assess the impact and understand the implications of the project.

“Basically, I went down to City Hall and started to review some of the documents for this project and it seems to me that they are using proposal information from 2008, including the traffic impact analysis, and may be taking short cuts on some important environmental regulations. It's hard for me to read through all of these documents but some obvious red flags are coming up,” Gorbaty told Little Hollywood several days ago.

At last night’s meeting, Micheal Snow, another owner of the New Moon Cooperative Café, said, “We’ve been doing very well since opening, but we still owe $70,000 on our loan, and we pay $1,500 a month….We can’t sustain a loss in business….If our sales drop just three percent, we’ll go under.”

David Scherer Water, vice president of operations at Deskoba Inc., a commercial property development and management firm, has lived in a building on the corner of 5th and Washington for the last fourteen years, and supports the proposed Columbia Heights project. At last night’s meeting, he urged some creative thinking and suggested that the New Moon Cooperative Café owners contact the Columbia Heights applicant directly to start a conversation.
In a letter provided to Little Hollywood today, Scherer Water says that less than four percent of Olympia’s population lives downtown.

“This is the lowest this ratio has been in the city’s history. A hundred years ago more than half the population of Olympia lived downtown. Fifty years ago it was about ten percent. Today 96 percent of our population comes downtown to visit, to shop, to party and they leave. I believe this is the source of most if not all of the complaints commonly made about downtown. We need more people to live downtown. Downtown Olympia will be a better place for everyone when there are more people who go to sleep and wake up here, and downtown will be less reliant on paid staff and police.

“I think the forested areas around Olympia are beautiful. By comparison, I think downtown Olympia is ugly and the perfect place for big buildings. I love the idea of big apartments going up in downtown Olympia, it represents less land that gets cleared for developments. As far as I’m concerned, you can wall off the waterfront. I could care less about blocking the view. If the Columbia Heights project caters to rich people, I say great, we could use some rich people. As far as I can tell, there aren’t any living here now. So, bring them downtown, put some high-density McMansions downtown -- safely away from forested areas.”

Scherer Water understands that small businesses will suffer during the construction of the proposed Columbia Heights project.

“I encourage all concerned shops, restaurants and property owners to reach out to Columbia Heights LLC. I suspect that they'll want to have good neighbors, that they'll want to avoid negative public relations, that they'll want to get this building up without incident and are willing to help. Why? Because there's more profit in being good neighbors. That's just a fact. They're going to spend millions putting this thing in the ground. They'll want a return on their investment. Having the support of one's neighbors and helping neighbors remain whole during a construction is a smart investment that pays back over time.

“If I'm wrong about this last point, if they reject a request for help, then they don't know Olympia and this project will die from the negative public relations like so many others have. But, if I'm right, everyone will come out of this ahead, including them….There’s a consensus, based on a simple thing that seems self-evident, but it has been tested and it has been proven successful by numerous urban planning studies: the best way to improve a downtown area is to get more people to live there. And, the best people are all people, a mix of rich and poor.”

Skeptics and optimists for downtown projects abound: If built and occupied, the units would boast views of the state Capitol Building to the south, and Budd Inlet and the Olympic Mountains to the north. Even after an eventual sea-level rise takes over, the top floors may still have a view, unless liquefaction from the Big One brings it down first.

For more information about the proposed project, contact Steve Friddle, Principal Planner, Community Planning and Development, City of Olympia, (360) 753-8591 or

Written comments about the project are due by 5:00 p.m. on March 28, 2014 and should be directed to Steve Friddle, City of Olympia, Community Planning and Development, 601 4th Avenue E., P.O. Box 1967, Olympia, Washington 98501-1967. The proposed Columbia Heights project file number is 14-0015.
The City of Olympia website address is
To learn more about the New Moon Cooperative Café, go to the Summer 2013 issue of the South Sound Green Pages, “Cooperative Model,” at
Above: Steve Friddle, principal planner for the City of Olympia, explains the proposed Columbia Heights land use application last night at Olympia City Hall.