City council considers next steps for two city-owned properties

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Blaine city councilmembers recently had a discussion about what to do with two city-owned properties located in downtown Blaine.

On February 24, councilmembers participated in a study session exploring next steps for the city properties located at 665 Peace Portal Drive and 344 H Street. The former is vacant land that was transferred to the city after the city incurred costs to demolish a dangerous building there and placed a lien on the property owner. The latter is Blaine’s old city hall and adjacent fire station.

344 H Street

At the study session, city manager Michael Jones explained the recent history of 344 H Street. He said that in 2018, council established a subcommittee to prepare a request for proposals (RFP) and evaluate the feasibility of selling old city hall and the adjacent fire station for development. At the time, council’s goal was to “jump-start” the construction of residential units, with public or commercial use on the ground floor.

Council’s focus soon shifted to selling the property outright. City staff surplused the property pursuant to Resolution 1761-19, and later developed an RFP that was released last autumn. The RFP laid out a variety of different parameters guiding potential buyers’ plans. However, the city did not receive any responses to the RFP.

More recently, council has been considering a more traditional sale process, involving hiring a real estate agent, determining an asking price and offering the property for sale. A future purchase and sale agreement could put some conditions on the sale, such as requiring development within a certain timeframe, but would not contain the “laundry list” of items that were included in last year’s RFP. “The person wouldn’t need to develop an entire proposal before they bought the property,” said Jones.

The study session followed comments by some councilmembers reconsidering whether the property should be sold. Despite the resolution having already been enacted, Jones wanted to revisit the matter, “just to be sure we’re headed in the right direction,” he said. At the study session, several councilmembers reiterated their desire to see the city retain the property for future public use.

“From my standpoint, the city’s been here for 130, 140 years,” said councilmember Charlie Hawkins. “We had a lot of land, the airport and all that. We’re down to not having much stuff. This core down here, we have nothing else … We need to think about what’s for the future in this city. The city’s not going to get smaller, and there’s no comparative need that I can see to sell this property. After thinking about it, we need to lay off trying to sell it. We don’t need to sell it. Why do we want to sell it, just to sell it?”

Councilmember Garth Baldwin seemed to agree. “We’ve got that property, connected to the police department, by the library and the skate park, and those are all our properties,” he said. “If there’s something we need to do, again, whatever it might be, just having that core intact is important. That’s my two cents’.”

Councilmember Mary Lou Steward said that she would be open to considering the right proposal from a private developer. “My feeling is if someone came to us with a very good proposal to buy it, I would be in favor of selling it, depending on what it is,” she said. “If it is something that would benefit downtown development, that would be one thing. Just selling it for selling it, I agree that we should hold onto it. But if someone came along with a proposal to put something in on the ground floor that would bring people downtown, and then have housing up on the second floor to add units that we need, I would say that we should take a serious look at it and not just discard it.”

Mayor Bonnie Onyon said that she is in favor of holding onto the property, and suggested that it could be used for a new senior center. “For years there’s been talk about bringing the senior center downtown,” she said. “This could be a spot where it could go. There would have to be a fair amount of parking for that facility, and my dream is to have senior housing above it. That would just be the coolest thing. Maybe we could have a public-private partnership with someone at that point in time.”

Councilmember Eric Davidson said that the property, if retained by the city, could eventually be used for police department expansion. “I don’t see a reason to get rid of it at the moment,” he said. “Financially, it’s [worth about] $400,000 but that can go away quickly – the cost of getting new land to a build a police department, that would go away like that. I’m in favor of just sitting on it for now and contemplating what it would cost to put a new addition to the police department there.”

Indeed, Jones said that part of the property will be used to build a police station annex, which will contain a new evidence room and other needs like a meeting room and training space. He said that city staff will soon be developing different cost estimates for the annex. If more space is reserved and a second floor is needed, it could significantly increase costs due to the need for an elevator, he said.

What is certain, he said, is that the entire structure will first be demolished by the city. “We do presume that we are going to tear down the fire station and old city hall, the whole thing,” he said. “The evidence room will be moved to a temporary facility and then ultimately to the new facility.” Regarding the land next to the future police department annex, the city could potentially install public parking or a green space with benches, he said.

665 Peace Portal Drive

The study session then shifted to the vacant land at 665 Peace Portal Drive. “We got it kind of by default because we invested so much money in the teardown of the building that was there, that in order to settle that debt, the property owners said, ‘We’ll just give you the land,’” said Jones. “This is a prime piece of property with water views on our main commercial street. To have it not be developed is inconsistent with our downtown redevelopment strategy and plan.”

Jones said that he believes the property should be sold, but noted that it hasn’t yet been surplused, and that the option still existed for it to be retained for some future public use or investment.

Councilmember Richard May suggested that the property could be used for a multi-story parking facility. “The city could … purposely put in some nice parking there,” he said. “A lot of small towns will have a parking lot so people can do commerce.”

However, councilmember Davidson suggested that downtown Blaine has ample parking already. “I don’t know how bad parking is downtown,” he said. “I never seem to have an issue of finding parking.” Jones also mentioned that the city has some other sites where it could develop additional parking.

“I think the property on Peace Portal is pretty valuable to put a big lot on, frankly,” said mayor Bonnie Onyon, adding that she prefers a sale.

In response to councilmember input, Jones said that city staff will bring forward a resolution surplusing the property at 665 Peace Portal Drive. “We’ll work on an appraisal and on finding an agent to market it for us,” he said. “We’ll also have a discussion about what restrictions to impose, such as timing restrictions” on development, with the property reverting back to the city if certain timelines are not met, he said.

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