Purchase of isthmus land laudable – and problematic

June 23, 2013 

The city of Olympia’s decision to close on two blighted properties on the downtown isthmus is both laudable and worrisome. Acquiring the abandoned Thurston County health and housing buildings marks a tangible first step toward resolution of a public controversy that erupted over a proposal to increase allowable building heights on the site. That’s good.

But the city closed the sale without any guarantee of receiving $1 million from the state’s capital budget. That means the city sacrificed other meaningful and planned parks projects to buy the isthmus properties. That’s worrisome.

To complete the transaction, the city raided money set aside for the initial planning efforts for a future swimming beach on Ward Lake, a further cleanup of West Bay Park to enable greater public access and repairing the popular Priest Point Park rose garden shelter used for weddings and family reunions. It will also delay the West Bay Master Planning effort required before starting any of the desired new trails or amenities.

The isthmus purchase price does not include funding to demolish the existing buildings and clean up the site, and turn the property into usable open space or more. There’s a danger of the isthmus becoming a white elephant: a great prize diminished by the magnitude of its ongoing financial impact.

If the state provides $1 million from its capital budget, demolition could begin this year. But if state funding falls through, that could mean other parks and park projects would go on the chopping block.

Demolition and site cleanup are important issues because the city is tackling blight in other areas. If the city expects other property owners to deal with their blighted buildings, the city has an obligation to remove the blight it now owns.

Those who pressed the City Council to acquire the isthmus should assist the city with its ongoing obligations.

We hope the Olympia Capitol Park Foundation, for example, will follow through with its pledge to raise at least $400,000 for the project. That would be helpful for a project and purchase that it pressured City Council to undertake. Unfortunately, the park group has no deadline for raising those funds.

And then there’s the Capital Center building that the park foundation and others want to purchase and tear down. It’s a key element of the long-term plan, but no one has yet identified a funding source.

We urge the Legislature to set aside $1 million for the isthmus cleanup. Advocates of isthmus acquisition have always maintained the property is integral to the Capitol Campus design and view corridor. State legislators should support the site’s cleanup and preservation.

We also urge the park foundation to walk the talk and get its fundraising efforts rolling from an apparent standstill. That would constitute a sign of bona fide community support.

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