Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Part Two: Fast Tracking a Vision for Downtown Olympia under a Community Renewal Area Plan

On May 15, there will be another group meeting that will include property owners to “review and fine tune” the results of the April 5 and April 16 workshops.

Above: A birds-eye view of downtown Olympia from West Bay yesterday afternoon. Many of the properties seen above are under review by a potential city Community Renewal Area plan.
By Janine Unsoeld

An active visioning process for downtown Olympia is well underway and almost nobody knows about it. The results of this vision for downtown Olympia could seriously influence the built environment of downtown Olympia.
The city council-driven Community and Economic Revitalization Committee (CERC) was created to deal with downtown blight through a community renewal area plan.

A citizen advisory committee was selected to advise the committee. The 30 plus member group has been meeting on a regular basis, fast-tracking a vision for downtown Olympia’s isthmus area, meeting several times in the past couple months.
The public is not scheduled to be included in the process until this coming July, when the community will be invited to comment on just two possible downtown and isthmus-area scenarios.

Above: The ultimate vision of blight - the vacant, nine story Capitol Center Building on 5th Avenue depicted in its own shards of glass on the sidewalk, earlier this spring.

Participant Perspective

Local land use and shoreline management attorney Allen Miller is a participant in the city’s citizen advisory committee for developing a potential Community Renewal Area (CRA). He is optimistic about dealing with the monstrosity everyone asks and wonders about: the nine-story Capitol Center Building, best known as The Mistake on the Lake.
“I think we are very close to correcting the greatest land use error in the history of Olympia which was allowing the Capitol Center Building to be built in 1965 in the historic view corridor of the Wilder and White and Olmsted Brothers plans for the State Capitol Campus. The plan for the State Capitol Campus is recognized around the country as the greatest example of City Beautiful Movement architecture in the world.
“The current partnership among city, county, state, tribe, and private philanthropy is leading to the purchase of the Capitol Center Building and taking it down.  In 1956, Governor Arthur Langlie and Mayor Amanda Smith came up with a “Fifty Year Plan for Olympia and the Capitol,” which planned the isthmus as a great civic area.  We are finally implementing that plan over 50 years later.” 

Miller provided links to videos about the vision of downtown Olympia without the Capitol Center Building: and
Parking at Capitol Center Building/The Views on 5th Avenue/Mistake on the Lake

While the urban design workshops held on April 5 and April 16 encouraged free thinking, many participants seemed willing to outright ignore actual comprehensive plan values, zoning, and current and ongoing legal restrictions governing our unique shoreline features.
For example, a hard-won July 2013 hearing officer decision definitively precludes use of the parking lot on the Capitol Center block for any purpose related to the building. The decision has a long and complicated history.

In 2011, the City of Olympia issued a notice of land use approval and SEPA determination of non-significance allowing The Views to continue with its conversion of the nine-story Capital Center Building on Fifth Avenue from an office building into a hotel.
(To read these and other isthmus-related stories at – December 2, 2010 and February 16, 2011 type keywords into search button such as “hotel” and “isthmus.”)

Miller successfully represented former Governor Dan Evans and others in two years of litigation that followed, related to the Shoreline Management Act (SMA). The Capitol Center project site actually consists of two different land use parcels involving two parking lots located within 200 feet of Budd Inlet, thus falling under shoreline management regulation. In response to the threat of SMA regulation, building owners elected to detach one parking lot from the site.
Calling it a “classic piecemealing” maneuver, the city hearing examiners and the county’s Superior Court judges saw this as the owner’s way of getting around the constraints the SMA would impose.

The decision by Mark Scheibmeir, City of Olympia hearing examiner, said that the hotel or any commercial use on the project site shall be prohibited from using the adjoining parking lots or any property within the shoreline jurisdiction unless the owner of the property has complied with all applicable permitting requirements of the Shoreline Management Act.
Keep that in mind as you read the next design workshop group visioning process on April 16.

Above: From left to right - Jim Randall, Keith Stahley, Rob Richards, Stuart Drebick, Renee Sundee, and Olympia Mayor Stephen Buxbaum participate at the April 16 urban design workshop.

April 16: Sample Table Discussion/Visioning Process

Another downtown visioning opportunity was offered to the Community Economic Revitalization Committee, citizen advisory committee members and property owners on April 16 in Olympia City Hall chambers to contribute their design vision for downtown Olympia.

This was billed as a make-up session for those who could not attend the workshop on April 5. There were two tables of participants.

One table was composed of Rob Richards, Capital Recovery Center; Stuart Drebick, West Olympia Business Association member, contractor, and downtown property owner; Keith Stahley, city planning manager; Jim Randall, attorney and past president of the West Olympia Business Association; Mayor Stephen Buxbaum; and Renee Sunde of the Thurston County Economic Development Council.
As I did for the April 5 workshop, I listened to the visioning rationale of one full conversation. This table conversation was largely dominated by Drebick, who immediately asked Leonard Bauer, deputy director of the city planning and community development department, at the outset of the workshop, “Are we stuck with 35 feet?”

Bauer responded, “As you look at things, note that it’s a consensus by the group, considering the atmosphere and place that we’re at right now.” 
“So is this something that will really be built or is it pie in the sky? The worse thing that this space can be is a park,” he told his table group.

“Keep in mind, as housing gets built, it will bring people downtown,” said Renee Sundee, referring to the proposed seven story Columbia Heights project.
“I haven’t seen any dirt turned yet,” responded Drebick.

“It’ll get done,” said Buxbaum.

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” replied Drebick.
“People stop at Storman’s before they go home…a park is nice during the summer months, but during the winter months, there’s nothing to keep people downtown. If there was a hotel or a small convention center, that would do it. Whether or not that can happen politically is another question,” said Drebick.

“Structured parking someplace is key,” said Stahley.
“The Cherry Street building looks nice, all the parking is inside the building, but they had the height to do it,” said Drebick.

“We’ve estimated that each stall in this area would be $40,000 - $45,000,” said Stahley.
“That’s expensive,” said Drebick.

“It will take the city pencil to make it happen, otherwise it won’t pencil out,” said Drebick.
Discussing the building that Traditions is currently located on Water Street, someone suggested that if it is made housing, we need parking.

“That street is not critical – we could consider two story parking. All those buildings are knockdowns, and we can reorient them,” said Buxbaum.
“If Kolb keeps redeveloping his properties to include housing over the next three to four years, that’s a lot of housing,” mused Drebick.

“Is there demand for it?” someone asked.

“Yes,” said Buxbaum.

Skeptical, Debrick said, “I’ll wait to see them rented.”

“A four story building is economical to build. Beyond that, you get into other issues,” said Drebick.
“In your honest opinion, Mayor, about the Capitol Center Building, are the Bob Jacobs' of the world going to allow it to be built? Hotel or housing, that’s it for me,” said Drebick, loudly.

Former Olympia mayor Bob Jacobs was standing nearby, overseeing the conversation and activities at the other table, composed of Councilmember Julie Hankins; Connie Phegley, owner of Old School Pizza; Paul Knox, executive director of the local United Way; Kevin Stormans, owner of Bayview grocery store; and Leo Rancour, of the Olympia Yacht Club.

Dodging the question, Buxbaum asked Richards, who hadn’t yet spoken, “What do you think?”

“We don’t want to get a neighborhood that’s dead at 6 p.m.,” said Richards.
“I think a boutique hotel could be very appealing. This could be a prime area,” said Sundee, who also did not speak up much.

“If the city openly encouraged it, the hoteliers will come. Right now, it has stink on it,” said Drebick.
Stahley said that in 2007-08, residential was explored for the building, but no exterior balconies could be built on it based on the way it’s constructed.

Moving to the Olympia Yacht Club, it was discussed that the club is interested in getting off the water.
“We could have high-end housing over the Yacht Club, but condos don’t sell in this town – they have a stigma in Olympia for some reason…I don’t know….,” said Drebick.

Stahley introduced the dilemma on Percival Landing.
“Right now, it hangs out there. It’s protection for sea level rise and storm surge. That allows the city to save an incredible amount of money in concrete for a seawall…” Stahley explained that the state Department of Natural Resources leases its land behind Bayview to the Yacht Club.

“They park trailers and stuff there.”
Sundee encouraged a retail, storefront experience along Fourth Avenue.

“Yes, that’s what we want,” said Stahley.
“I’d love to encourage something like that,” said Buxbaum, as he proceeded to place red-colored chips representing retail along the backside of Bayview.

“You mean reorientation?” asked Stahley.
There’s your park,” said Drebick, as he plopped a green colored park chip onto the ImageSource building, formerly the Kentucky Fried Chicken. “That guy said he’s not attached to the building,” Debrick said, referring to building owner Vicktor Zvirzdys.

“Connect Percival Landing, because there’s not a lot of places for people to watch the salmon…I think that’s just dynamite!” said Drebick.
“What about a mid-rise building?” asked Sundee.

“Thirty five feet is not mid-rise,” said Drebick.
Stahley said, “Well, a park needs parking,” and rearranged the red chips.

Drebick, who was still talking about the extension of Percival Landing and being near the water, continued, “It’s good to go smell it, feel life and death….”
Buxbaum put down some green space.

Sharp-eyed Drebick said, “Is that more park?”
Yea,” replied Buxbaum.

Buxbaum started encroaching on the current street between the Capitol Center Building and the Heritage Park fountain block, saying, “Don’t restrict yourselves to the gridlines.”
“It’s very expensive to develop unless you get density,” protested Drebick. “There’s too much bad dirt. The Westside has good dirt.”

Stahley said that back in the 80s it was suggested that Storman’s raise the height of their building.
“They didn’t have a color that says hotel?” Sundee asked Drebick, as he cut up a piece of yellow paper, wrote HOTEL on it, and plopped it down.

Drebick laughed. “Yea, what does that say to you?”
So, using a bit of rock, paper, scissors psychology, Drebick single-handedly converted the nine story Capitol Center Building, aka, the Mistake on the Lake, into a hotel.

And there it sat until time for the evening’s project was drawing to a close, and Buxbaum could stand it no longer.

Above: Stuart Drebick created his vision for a hotel on the isthmus, and there it sat until Mayor Stephen Buxbaum could stand it no longer, and suggested that the building, in some form, be the location for a new library. 
The discussion finally turned to the hotel/Mistake on the Lake and a suggestion was made by Buxbaum that the building, in some form, be the location for a new library. The idea was instantly rejected by Drebick.

“People who go to the library are not people with money, to be blunt. Do we not all carry a library in our pockets?” as he pulled out his smartphone.
“The library has some of the best programming in town,” retorted Stahley.

“It’s the only place for a library and it would require a community compromise,” continued Buxbaum. “I can see taking down the building and putting up a four story building…it’s a building past its useful life. It’s dysfunctional.”
“A library isn’t a revenue producer,” said Sundee.

“Where the library is now is underused,” said Buxbaum.
Drebick did not think it belonged downtown.

“A library creates foot traffic – it’s a big plus because it’s a self-supporting facility. Make it a civic center that’s exquisitely beautiful,” said Buxbaum.
“Who pays for it?” someone said.

“A coalition between those who want to get rid of it and those who want a library. It’s a large number of people,” responded Buxbaum.
“OK, well, that’s the politics of this town,” sniffed Drebick.

“If you combine retail and commercial, and some amenities….” someone said.
“I can’t climb on that boat,” said Drebick.

Randall said that the downtown library is creepy.
“What about something like a Powell’s bookstore?” offered Sundee, referring to the awesome Portland shop.

“You have to think of highest and best use, where you’re getting true financial benefit,” said Randall.
“A library gives families three things: someplace to take the kids, a place to go out to eat and shop, get groceries, exercise and entertain, all within the space,” said Buxbaum, motioning to the general area.

“It would take you more than 10 years to pull together a plan for a library,” said Drebick.
“I don’t know,” responded Buxbaum.

Drebick began to estimate the costs to get rid of the building and redevelop it into a library. Estimates started at $20 million.
“That’s conservative,” said Randall.

Discussion ensued about creating the top three floors into condos, with the library underneath.
“I don’t think people would like living above a library,” said Sundee.

Buxbaum explained that the City of White Center created just such a project and that it appears to be a successful model.
Drebick said that he sat on a committee in 1987 for housing and not a lot has changed. “Same issues: Does it pencil? Can you rent it? Will it make money?”

Wrapping up the April 16 workshop, Buxbaum concluded, “There are choices to make, options with very little public investment, explain to the public what a return on investment means, test the feasibility and come up with a range of options worthy of consideration.”
Discussion by the Community and Economic Revitalization Committee

The CERC committee met on April 21 to discuss the results of the two design workshops and figure out next steps.

“Property ownership, financing, developers, and the community - how does this all fit together so it’s achievable? Just because there’s property ownership does not mean there’s development,” began Stahley.
Jones said that out of the isthmus discussions and workshops, sea level rise was not discussed.

“Regarding its impact to the isthmus, I think we need something of a reality check….blowing up bladders, creating berms, I have no idea of the magnitude. Bringing it into the discussions sooner makes sense….putting Percival Landing - millions of dollars - over the water doesn’t make sense,” said Jones.”
Stahley agreed. Discussing the Oyster House, Stahley said that there’s not too much the city can do to protect it.

“It’s one of the most challenging areas, how to protect it.”
Stahley said that addressing the issues of Percival Landing and sea level rise issues are currently underfunded.

Next Steps
Economic feasibility involving fiscal issues, revenues, property taxes, and costs associated with the design workshop ideas is scheduled to be presented to the group in May.

The consultant will soon be distilling the visions created by the eight tables of participants and creating a computer model to refine common themes and areas of disagreement.
On May 15, there will be another group meeting that will include property owners, says Stahley, to “review and fine tune” the results of the April 5 and April 16 workshops.

On May 29, the Community and Economic Revitalization Committee (CERC) will meet to discuss this input and the scenarios developed. Also at the May 29 meeting, the CERC will consider next steps and develop a recommendation for the full city council to consider on June 10.
Next: Part Three: Fast Tracking a Vision for Downtown Olympia under a Community Renewal Area Plan - More Participant Perspectives

Above: Amongst broken glass, graffiti, and discarded toilet paper, two daffodils try their best to keep up appearances outside the vacant Capitol Center Building on 5th Avenue in downtown Olympia earlier this spring.


  1. A couple of issues: You use the word Fast Track a lot.

    This started I think June of last year.

    I think it started with a desired goal of working for a CRA of the isthmus, but was brought to the community under the pretense of looking at all of Olympia. That quickly faded to only the isthmus.

    Frankly the Council does no know what to do with the property that they bought without proper public process or comment. And they tied their hands by taking county conservation money, “for a park” there is not a need for another park there. With the fountain and the state park on the lake across the street. That is a lot of park.

    What you missed in my discussion is the opportunity that the capital center building presents, what I think is the only way the isthmus will get developed, without it being a municipal project, using tax payer dollars.

    To make it work there has to be a draw to get people there. And as I argued that 35’ is not tall enough. That allowing and encouraging the cap center building to be that draw, could then make the 35’ surrounding buildings passably work.

    The city is trying to fix a blighted area that they own 60% of. If they turn it into a park it will not help the surrounding properties develop.

    Yes in the utopian world of money flows freely for any project, then yes a beautiful library and amphitheater and all the other public amenities would be great. But the reality is the city can’t even fund proper street maintenance.

    I do not like to waste my time on visioning things that are not based in reality. If it does not pencil to be economically viable. It will not be built.

    Personally I think this will be another waste of time and not much will come of it.

    Stuart Drebick

  2. Jefferson B. ShorelanderMay 16, 2014 at 11:27 AM

    First of all, thank you. I found your articles objectively reported, comprehensive, informative and well written.

    It also occurred to me that they’d be great source material for a TV situation comedy script populated with characters like ... a fuss-budget mayor who governs a city with severe budget shortfalls who proposes a new $20,000,000+ library at a time when new, personal technologies are rapidly replacing old, heavy carbon footprint forms of communication such as newspapers, magazines and books … an attorney who, in a career-long pursuit to get elected to high office (like a judgeship or the city council) belongs to every committee the febrile imaginations of city bureaucrats and community activists can come up with, and whose grand idea for the revitalization of a city suffering from an advanced case of urban rot is a merry-go-round spinning next to the mayor’s monolithic library (who secretly fancies it'll be named after him) … to be continued...

  3. Jefferson B. ShorelanderMay 16, 2014 at 11:29 AM

    ...the bulky, plain-talking general contractor arguing for more buildings and less park, labeling the pie-in-the-sky ideas that keep cropping up around him as having “stink” on them, or cynically telling articulate bureaucrats that he wouldn’t even consider “jumping in that boat" … the busy-body ex-mayor turned community watch-dog hustling from table to table to keep tabs on everything and everybody just in case he needs to do something about it, which, of course, he inevitably will … the smooth-talking city planner who manipulates the process by determining the who, what and why of meetings and committees … well, you get the point.

    And who did this wonderful Oz of Oly leave out of the committee loop? The financiers who can speak to the funding possibilities, or improbabilities of various ideas; and the entrepreneurs, like successful restauranteurs or barkeeps or apartment developers or … well, again, you get my point.

    I’m not sure what will come of all these meetings and all of the money spent on them, but I suspect they’ll end up in the city’s archives, right next to similar tomes from each and every decade that preceded this one. It’s tragic because I love Oly and want good things to happen to downtown.

    If I sound bitter or cynical, it’s simply because after about thirty years of serving on and observing committees such as that convened for the isthmus, I think the fellow had it right who said, “To get something done a committee should consist of no more than three people, two of whom are absent.”

    But please don’t think that I’m impugning the motives or intentions of those serving on the committee. I’m not. I do believe they feel they’re doing the right thing for downtown too … but there is the outside possibility that one or two of them truly don't expect something to get anything substantive done.

    After all such groups make politicians, bureaucrats and consultants look like they’re doing something, in spite of decades of evidence to the contrary.