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Housing advocate hungry for 15 acres

Carl Florea is looking at a wooded property on New Brooklyn for housing options. - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
Carl Florea is looking at a wooded property on New Brooklyn for housing options.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

HRB Director Carl Florea wants to see 50-100 new units on city land near Winslow.

Carl Florea is hungry for homes.

His tastes aren’t fancy. Basic faire usually hits the spot, and the lower the cost, the better.

Yet the man’s belly growls like a starved wolf when he wanders through the feast of high-priced homes lining island roads. Often, Florea’s appetite for low-cost housing draws him to a wooded spot along New Brooklyn Road.

“This place is our one last big chance to bite a big chunk at once,” he said, eyeing the 15-acres of city owned land, known as the Suzuki property, on Monday. “I’m concerned that we’ll end up with bits and pieces of affordable housing.

“I want to take a significant bite...and fill the gap of people who are missing on Bainbridge Island.”

As director of the Bainbridge Housing Resources Board, Florea is proposing that this parcel at the southeast corner of New Brooklyn and Sportsman Club roads become a smorgasboard of low-cost homes and rentals.

He envisions between 50 and 100 units built with environmentally friendly practices and interspersed with trails and green spaces.

Surrounded by schools and within walking distance of downtown, the site is ideal for people who work on the island but have found Bainbridge an expensive place for house hunting, Florea said.

“Working folks are getting shoved off the island,” he said, noting the high number of teachers, city workers and downtown service employees who commute to Bainbridge from the Kitsap Peninsula and elsewhere. “Here, we have a prime opportunity to turn that around.”

But others – including police and school officials – also see opportunity in the 15 acres of prime real estate.

The Suzuki property was purchased by the city in 2000 for a proposed facility housing both the Bainbridge Island Police Department and the municipal courthouse.

Last week, that option was abandoned in favor of redeveloping the police headquarters’ present site on Winslow Way. City officials have hinted that the property’s sale could help offset construction costs of the new police and courthouse facility.

The Bainbridge Island School District would like to see the property put on the shelf and saved for the possible expansion of the neighboring high school.

“We’ve been interested for years in that property,” said school board president Bruce Weiland. “We haven’t decided on a particular development, but it fits our long-range needs – not 10 to 20 years into the future, but 70 to 100 years, when there’s even more of a limit on land.”

The property’s close proximity to the high school, the district’s maintenance facility, Woodward Middle School and Sakai Intermediate School makes it a logical piece of a wider, mixed educational campus, he added.

With police, school officials and affordable housing advocates circling the property, Mayor Darlene Kordonowy is proposing a new task force to decide the Suzuki property’s fate.

Set for discussion at tonight’s City Council meeting, the short term “Suzuki Task Force” would include representatives from the school district, the HRB and the Kitsap County Consolidated Housing Authority.

The task force may also include members of the city Open Space Commission and island resident Wini Jones, who owns a neighboring eight-acre parcel that she’d like to develop with affordable housing for public employees.

The group would likely convene next month to explore property value appraisals, the condition of an on-site wetland, zoning rules and weigh the public benefits of various land use proposals. Kordonowy is recommending that the city budget up to $50,000 to hire a facilitator to assist with the task force’s duties.

“I’d certainly like to see an affordable housing component in the mix,” said Councilman Bob Scales, who has strongly backed affordable housing initiatives. “The property is so unique that the more use we get out of it the better. I’m hoping we find a away to work with the school district, the Housing Resources Board and open space for the perfect deal.”

School and affordable housing advocates stress that they are not competing for the property.

Both say they seek compromise, possibly with schools sharing the property with low-cost homes. Weiland said increasing the island’s stock of affordable housing is good for the district, which draws about half of its teachers from off-island.

While the different groups hash out the Suzuki property’s future, its present use hints at the economic divide Florea says is growing on Bainbridge Island.

Just beyond the line of slender fir trees along New Brooklyn are a collection of recent camps.

Crumbling lean-tos made of plastic tarps and branches hide old sleeping bags moldering into the mossy ground. Various every day items – pans, boots, bottles, raincoats, sweatshirts and a gas stove lay among least five camp remnants.

Florea’s project likely won’t directly tackle homelessness, but may help those far below the island’s median income of about $75,000, he said.

According to a recent survey conducted by the Bainbridge Island Chamber of Commerce, about 70 percent of the island’s workforce employed by large island businesses live off-island. While many store clerks and restaurant workers hold little hope of renting on the island, even the middle-class is finding it difficult to get a housing foothold.

Another survey showed that nearly 80 percent of commuters to the island said the price of housing is keeping them away.

The daily import of off-island labor has auto traffic-related environmental impacts and can put public safety in peril when many emergency responders live on the other side of the Agate Passage Bridge, Florea said.

Business owners suffer as well, Florea added, as the cost of commuting has made finding good help a challenge for Winslow shop owners.

There’s a social price as well, said Jones, who is working with the HRB to develop affordable housing on the land she owns at the southwest corner of the Sportsman Club-New Brooklyn intersection.

“It’s really important to have the people who are making this island run emotionally invested in the island,” she said. Jones noted her strong desire to have teachers and librarians interacting with the community as neighbors as well as public servants.

“We’re going to end up with an ‘Aspen-ization’ or ‘Carmel-ization’ of Bainbridge Island,” she said, referring to elite communities in Colorado and California where workers find rent and home prices out of range.

“The people working and building our community should have the opportunity to live here too, instead of everyday saying ‘OK, bye, see you later. You can’t stay, but come back tomorrow,’” said Florea. “Not trying to provide space for people to live is not right. It’s not a healthy situation. It’s not a moral situation.”

Florea’s proposal for the Suzuki property includes rental duplex and fourplex units available at rates affordable to families earning $20,000 to $53,000. The property’s supply of homes would be sold to families earning between $33,000 and $79,000. Priority for would be given to people already living on Bainbridge or who work on the island.

The project would rely on a variety of funding sources, including the city, the state, the federal government and private donations, Florea said.

The biggest financial boost would come from the city handing over prime real estate amid a fast-growing town.

“Land is developing all around here,” Florea said, motioning to the expanse of recently built homes to the north. “It’s critical now that we get a chunk of this land. Think of the bite we could take off with this.”

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On the docket

The City Council is scheduled to discuss a proposed task force to develop plans for the 15-acre Suzuki property Wednesday night at City Hall as part of the council’s regular meeting beginning at 7 p.m.

Community Events, April 2014

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