Olympia eyes public-private partnership on parks

It should surprise no one that the Olympia City Council finds itself in a new conundrum about public parks. This city loves its parks, and pressure to create new parks has been mounting recently on a variety of fronts.

But the city doesn’t have the financial resources by itself to make good on old promises or consider new ones. And other government funding sources are as equally strapped for cash.

So Olympia is exploring the concept of partnerships with the private sector. That might not sit well with hard-core park advocates, but it’s a strategy with a greater potential for near-term tangible results.

The isthmus properties are prime candidates.

In 2009 and 2011, voters elected an entirely new council opposed to high-rise development on the isthmus and instead promised a park that restored unobstructed views of Budd Inlet from the Capitol Campus.

In better financial times, the council might have moved quickly to deliver on these commitments, which were baked into its 10-year parks plan adopted in 2010. But the Great Recession ate away council’s financial ability to follow through – and even to maintain existing parks.

It also became impossible to justify the expense of developing a park on the isthmus, which a 2009 feasibility study estimated at a whopping $28 million to $32 million.

The situation seemed hopeless. It got worse when the owners of the nine-story Capitol Center building announced they would proceed with plans to convert their property into a hotel. If they succeeded, Olympia would have to abide the so-called “mistake by the lake” for the long-term.

So council has convened a Citizens Advisory Committee to shift the conversation from what we don’t want on the isthmus to what we do want that is financially feasible. After all, while the city purchased two properties for $3.3 million last year, it does not control the entire isthmus.

Council has brought together some the original hard-core park advocates, isthmus property owners and other community leaders, for some reality-based brainstorming. As Mayor Pro-Tem Nathaniel Jones put it, “the magical thinking has left the room.”

The committee is discussing a number of possible scenarios for improving the isthmus, including a mix of park, commercial and residential uses. There’s some excitement around a well-designed library with a spectacular public meeting room on the upper floor. It’s just one of many possibilities being discussed.

But the Olympia Capitol Park Foundation still prefers its original vision of a publicly financed open space, even though Heritage Park already provides that right across the street. That option might be the most likely to be achieved in a reasonable time frame, but the dialogue among such a diverse group could produce more imaginative and practical options.