Council wise to proceed cautiously on isthmus issues

Any one with an ounce of civic pride views the vacant properties between Capitol Lake and Budd Inlet – commonly known as the isthmus – as a blight on what should be “a jewel of the South Sound befitting a capital city,” as Olympia Mayor Stephen Buxbaum put it this week.

Despite being elected largely with the support of those working for a park on the site, the majority of this council has moved cautiously to acquire the isthmus into public ownership, and appropriately so, in our opinion.

The Vista Park Foundation, Friends of the Waterfront and others have effectively moved the political agenda and, for the most part, public opinion toward the idea of creating an iconic space that not only complements the Capitol Campus but exists as a centerpiece in the link between downtown and West Olympia.

They have not coalesced broad consensus on a vision for the property, nor is that necessarily their mission. Many visions for the isthmus are floating around; some are realistic, some are not so well-considered.

The first step has always been to bring the isthmus into public ownership, historically stormy waters into which the council has finally dipped its toe. The timing is right, and by not falling for a hard-sell tactic on the Capitol Center building, they have brought a calming logic to the process.

Rather than rushing into a ballot measure this fall without any clear plan or solid information about the ultimate costs to create and maintain a park – such as the expense of removing buildings, including the Capitol Center tower – the majority of council preferred to proceed thoughtfully.

In fact, council gave city staff a set of specific directions that will probably comprise the basis of a long-term strategic plan for the whole isthmus, which should replace the woefully vague 2010 park plan.

The city has prioritized the acquisition of the Triway properties, also known as Larida Passage, and owned by developer Tri Vo. It already has a package of city and county funding in place and earmarked for this purchase. State funding has been requested.

Council set a one-year goal for staff to acquire the Larida Passage property and remove the abandoned Thurston County health and housing buildings.

On the other portion of the isthmus occupied by the Capitol Center building, council has directed staff to find other partners for the purchase, and to provide an accurate estimate of the property’s value and the costs to convert it to public space and maintain it over the long-term.

Staff will consider use of the Community Renewal Authority for the property, a program that allows the city to designate an area as blighted and to purchase derelict properties.

Arguably the most far-reaching directive to staff was to pursue alternatives to the demolition of the Capitol Center tower and create a vision for potential public uses of the space.

That sounds like the beginning of a good plan. Acquire Larida once the funds are in hand and clean it up. Gather information on the financial implications of acquiring and cleaning-up the Capitol Center property.

Meanwhile, begin a community conversation about possible uses for all of this new public space, and create a realistic plan. It’s infinitely more complicated than just replacing concrete and pavement with grass and topsoil.

There are many specific considerations that have not been thoroughly vetted, such as traffic patterns. It’s one thing to imagine the isthmus as a connection between Heritage Park and Percival Landing, but it’s another thing entirely how to move people from one to the other across busy streets. Fourth Avenue is practically a throughway from the west side to downtown and into Lacey. Fifth Avenue is nearly as busy.

This vision must also fit with the broader and long-range efforts to improve downtown, which the city has been working on through various initiative.

In all respect to council members Jeaninne Roe and Jim Cooper who made heart-felt pleas to proceed with a fall referendum to purchase the Capitol Center tower, the deal on the table is not a-once-in-a-lifetime offer. Actually, it is already a third-in-a-lifetime offer, and it won’t be the last.

Although the proposal brought to council by the Trust for Public Lands was wisely declined, it has triggered the creation of a specific pathway to public ownership of the isthmus properties.

That was a historic moment, and a milestone achievement for this council.