Who's Mistaken on The Lake?
January 2017

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The “Mistake by the Lake” is finally getting what it deserves.  Also known as the Capitol Center Building, that tall, forlorn structure that casts a shadow over Capital Lake and sticks out like a sore thumb from its surroundings, is finally getting its due.  Walking by it recently I noted the building’s face was marred with broken windows and graffiti, like so many black eyes delivered by passersby who feel compelled to give it a whack, finding its very presence offensive.  “It never should have been built in the first place” is a common refrain.  It’s been in a sad state for some time now.  But that’s all about to change.  It’s finally happening: someone has announced their intention to buy the building and… wait for it… fix it up for market rate condos with knock dead views (with a fancy restaurant like a cherry on top no less)!

Oh, that’s not what you thought was going to happen? You thought I was talking about plans to tear it down?  Nope, reports of its demise appear to have been premature.

 

So, what do we make of this ‘development’, as it were, in a long and tortured saga that has beset our community for years now?  The stretch of land this structure sits on – referred to as the isthmus – has   been the cause of much handwringing and arm-twisting by its various stakeholders.  Development of the isthmus and the fate of this building have drawn loud voices from those who wish the land converted from dilapidated buildings to simple sprawling parks void of any view-blocking structures.  Meanwhile, those less vocal interests who prefer to use their backroom voices rather than speaking out in public forums, have sat patiently waiting for the dark clouds of the Great Recession to pass.  They’ve been waiting for the banks to start loosening their desperate grip on capital for major projects like this one.  We’re talking millions in investment dollars coming downtown for the first time in a long time.  All along it’s been a high stakes game of finance and public opinion over a unique stretch of prime land, smack dab in the middle of our state’s capital.  No wonder we’ve all sat for years watching little or no real gains by either side while this stretch of coveted real estate sported a variety of abandoned structures.  The isthmus became a no man’s land of sorts.  A battlefield in a slow war between firmly entrenched camps on either side of a debate over urban renewal.

 

It has also been the proverbial third rail in local politics.  Caught in the middle have been the city leaders: politicians not wanting to appear anti-parks, anti-views or worst of all, anti-public sentiment – a   surefire way to lose your elected position.  They have tried to strike the right tone and not appear dismissive of the tear-it-all-down-and-build-more-parks crowd.  But they also need to address limited tax revenue that prevents them from tackling some of the most pressing challenges facing our city.

 

Downtown Olympia is indeed a gem - perhaps one still in the rough.  It sits in an enviable location with a wonderful blend of sky, water, mountains and rich heritage.  There’s no wonder that a battle rages between differing views on how it should be developed.  Endless community engagement meetings produce exciting shared visions to be sure.  But unless the people can cough up the money to put the vision into place, the legal owners can develop their property as they see fit within the confines of existing regulation.  We live in a country where private property can’t be confiscated by the government without paying the owner a fair price.  “Them's the rules” as they say, and they’re likely to stay that way for some time to come.

 

Was there ever a serious chance the city would dig deep into its purse worn by recession and find enough coins to buy, then destroy, and then seed over the buildings that sat on this prime land, not to mention the loss of potential tax revenue?  Apparently not.  Olympia’s mayor, Cheryl Selby, admitted as much.  In response to those who accuse the city of not listening to the voters, she was quoted as saying, “It’s hard to justify spending that kind of money for something that is going to be a green piece of grass for a long time. We wouldn’t have any money left over to develop it for years.”

As we move forward as a community to address what the rest of the downtown should look like, not to mention the lake that sits rotting nearby and the deep-water port that also must be part of the larger discussion, we will all need to learn to actually talk with each other.  And not just with likeminded community activist but with the quieter guys sitting in the back rooms.  The ones who rarely speak up but talk instead with their money.   You can vilify these folks as greedy developers but they will continue to play a key role in how things will look in the future.  Like so much of America these days, hanging out with only those you agree with and writing off the rest isn’t going to work for collective interests much longer.  It probably can’t hurt to acknowledge their presence, the role they legitimately play in our city planning, and engage with them in a respectful fashion as we move toward a shared vision we can all live with.

 

In a rare moment of public candor for a developer, when Ken Brogan was asked whether he was serious about buying and refurbishing the building we all love to hate into high end condos, his answer was simple: “I’m building it. That’s it.”

 

Sounds like he’s had enough of the stalemate and had it up to here with the bickering.  I think many of us would agree with that general sentiment regardless of whether we’re happy with his purchase.  But this battle will continue.  The stakes are too high on both sides for there not to be a longer fight. What’s going to be our collective next move on the lake, isthmus, Port etc., and more importantly, how are we going to talk about it with each other from now on?

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