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What's going on at city hall?

Jack Balshaw 4/30/2003


Just when I think an end has come to city hall being involved in Machiavellian goings on, up pops something, out of the blue, about the city buying the Kenilworth property from the school district. WOW!! No public discussion, not to mention involvement, in a major property purchase by the city. No trial balloons about why the city would do this. Just a comment in the Press Democrat that the council will hold a closed session to "discuss" purchasing the property.

I hope that by the time this is printed, the City Council has cancelled its proposed closed session to negotiate the purchase of the School District's land at Kenilworth. I hope this reported action will prove to be nothing more than a maneuver to help the School District get the best price for the land, although that might not be all to the city's benefit.

For more than several years, even before the School District's decision to sell the land, there have been rumors, stories, comments that the city wanted to acquire land in the fairgrounds area to build a new city hall. This was presumably based on the concern that the present city hall was inconvenient for too many citizens to access.

Rumors were that the city would purchase a rural property south of the city and offer it free to the fairground leaseholders in exchange for their terminating their occupancy of the fairgrounds. This would return the fairgrounds, which is owned by the city, back to city control. Again, no indication of any city staff involvement in such discussions.

If the City Council is not making decisions in open session, and the city manager isn't acting on his own, what's going on here?

During the last several years, under prodding from recent councils, city staff has worked closely with the School District to facilitate development of the site as a concept called "The Hub". This would have consolidated the location of many non-profit services and possibly city services in the old Kenilworth school buildings. The remainder of the 38 acres would be developed as multi-family housing with some type of commercial uses.

This would help the School District get the best price for their land and benefit many non-profits. However, other than I think only one presentation to the council by a proposed developer, there has been no city sponsored participation or official response. No discussion of traffic problems on Washington St. No General Plan discussion about the long-term development of the adjacent fairground property. No public evidence that the School District and City staff were even talking to one another about this.

There are so many loose ends that it's difficult to present this in any kind of free flowing manner. Consider this. The underlying zoning for the school property is single family residential. This is what the zoning would revert to once the public entity (School District) left. Would any potential developer pay the School District what they want for this property without assurance from someone that it will be rezoned for the uses they want to develop?

Now, who could give a developer such an assurance if there has been no Planning Commission or City Council open discussion of the matter? I'm getting paranoid again about there being a conspiracy against the public's right to know. Where are the investigative reporters?

If the city helps the School District maximize the price they get for the land, that means the city has to guarantee the prospective developer a higher profit use. If that means more traffic on Washington St, the city and its citizens will pay the price. The School District could at least offer to put some of their sale price into helping get traffic off Washington St. (The first contribution to the Rainier fund)

And speaking of Rainier, how come the city could borrow $25 million from the redevelopment fund to purchase the Kenilworth property, but can't seem to "discover" any such financing for Rainier?

If this is still an issue when you read it, it could turn into a big issue.


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