State Relations

August 19, 2008

Olympia’s Hot Button Issue — Waterfront Development

Today of course is Tuesday August 19 — primary election day and the unofficial beginning of the state 2008 political season.  You might think the most controversial issue in the state capital would be the impending Gregoire-Rossi rematch for the Governor’s office, or perhaps which of three candidates for State Treasurer will come out ahead today, or maybe even how some close legislative races will play out.  Sorry, none of the above.

The most controversial issue in Olympia today involves the potential development of a thin strip of land (isthmus if you will) that connects Olympia’s downtown with the Fourth Avenue bridge and separates Budd Inlet from Capitol Lake.  In the 20 years I have lived here, the area has remained virtually unchanged, a mix of office buildings, a grocery store, a vacant lot and more recently, a refurbished Olympia Oyster House and a popular fountain that acts like the most powerful kid magnet in the world when the temperature reaches more than 70 degrees.

For the past year or so, the city council has been hotly debating a proposal from a local developer to demolish some of the now vacant and underutilized office buildings on the west side of the isthmus and replace them with market rate condos. The council has tried unsuccessfully for years to encourage more market rate housing development in the downtown area, but with the exception of a few new units for seniors, most downtown housing is low cost rentals.  Now, a local Vietnamese-American named Tri Vo wants to bring in exactly what the city has asked for.  The problem, however, is the location he has chosen is perhaps the most coveted view corridor in the city and opponents have emerged in droves to implore the community to oppose the plan.

You can’t drive anywhere in the neighborhoods near Olympia’s downtown without seeing “Don’t Wall Off the Waterfront” signs with huge skyscrapers looming on either side.  The issue has really divided the community and resulted in near shouting matches at recent council meetings on the issue.  The condos that Tri Vo wants to build are not skyscrapers, but rather five story units that might sell for up to $1 million.  If you know the area, a 10-story office building currently sits empty on the isthmus and used to house the state Department of Corrections.  Even though the Tri Vo development wouldn’t be as tall, it has still earned the enmity of a large and very vocal opposition group that would like the entire area to be turned into a park.

Local legislators, former Governors and mayors and a host of others have been drawn into the controversy.  There are some alternative compromise plans on the table that call for a mix of condos and parks but at this point, it’s anybody’s guess which way the council will vote on the issue later this year.  David Nicandri, director of the Washington State Historical Society penned this column which appeared in Sunday’s Olympian that argues that Walter Wilder and Harry White — the original architects of the Olympia capitol campus actually envisioned multi-story buildings on this site more than 100 years ago.  If you have time, take a look at the posted comments to Nicandri’s piece to get a sense of the different positions on this issue.

So if you are heading down to capital city anytime soon on business or pleasure, fair warning.  Be careful if you bring up this issue with a local resident.  You may get an earful you didn’t bargain for.