GSAsays neighborhood must go to meet federal needs

Published on Thu, Dec 22, 2005 by ack Kintner

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GSA says neighborhood must go to meet federal needs

By Jack Kintner

“The new Customs and Border Protection building will not touch Peace Arch Park,” said officials from the General Services Administration (GSA). To do this, however, will require vacating most of an adjacent neighborhood where 13 families and individuals now live.

Such news did not sit well with some area residents. “My family’s been living here since 1884,” said an agitated Rod DeMent at a December 8 meeting in Blaine. He pointed out where his grandfather George, Blaine’s first physician, built his house near what is now Peace Arch Park. A large apple tree several feet in circumference sits in his yard just a few feet from Peace Arch Park. “My grandfather and dad planted that tree over 100 years ago,” DeMent said.

But the neighborhood must go, GSA’s Mark Howard said, “to meet our needs for the future. We need between 12 and 15 acres, but this site only gives us three acres to work with.” Since the site is bounded by the bay to the west, Peace Arch Park to the north and Blaine’s only southbound exit from I-5 to the south, “the only way to go is east,” Howard said.

Howard said that building parking underground or going up two or three stories were “too expensive, because based on our soil sampling the engineering would be prohibitive.” The plans do call, however, for elevating the northbound lanes of the freeway over much of the new construction. The roadbed would maintain the elevation it currently has at the D Street overpass, descending to ground level in the vicinity of the public rest rooms on the east side of the highway inside the park. It would rest on concrete cast-in-place retaining walls that the GSA’s documents say “would offer a visual barrier” in terms of people being able to see the Peace Arch monument.

DeMent’s neighbor Bob Deere expressed frustration at being left “in limbo” since the project was first announced in 1999. “No one wants to buy a house that’s in the middle of a government project,” Deere said.

Blaine city manager Gary Tomsic has been working closely with the GSA and state and federal legislators to keep the new construction from further degrading Blaine’s already difficult access for Canadians southbound from customs. Though this goal has evidently been achieved, judging from the three alternative designs the GSA showed at the meeting, Tomsic took Howard to task for using “data on housing that is outdated and inappropriate, much of it from the year 2000.” The concern is that if the GSA buys out the houses in the neighborhood at 2000 prices, finding a house at 2006 prices may be difficult.

The December 8 meeting was for the public to informally comment on GSA’s draft environmental impact statement (EIS), and the conversation was directed toward addressing what Howard called “the effects of a range of possibilities, not specific aspects of the design.” This informal session was followed by an on-the-record public comment on the draft EIS on December 13.

Some specifics were proposed, such as a 10-lane incoming inspection area for southbound traffic that preserves access to Blaine through the current I-5 exit 276. Blaine’s director of public works Steve Banham said that the city has received assurance that should modifications be necessary to that exit to preserve Blaine’s sole freeway off-ramp for southbound traffic, “the money’s in place to get that kind of thing underway.”

The GSA’s historic preservation architect Barbara Campagna said that she’ll begin digging test shovel pits to search for archaeological data as the EIS is revised and approved, hopefully by next March. After that the GSA will begin acquiring and demolishing the houses in the small neighborhood while finishing the final design by December of next year. Construction would then begin in the spring of 2007.