Cleanup likely on Unocal property

After years of sitting vacant, the contaminated former gas station property at Winslow Way and Highway 305 may finally be cleaned up and put to use.

Property owner Union Oil Company of California (Unocal), which operated a Union 76 station on the site, is studying the site, and looking at ways to remedy the contamination to the satisfaction of the state Department of Ecology.

That, in turn, would allow the property to be sold for development.

“This is a change in management philosophy,” said Carl Kellar, Unocal real estate specialist. “We have roughly 150 old sites in the Puget Sound area, and we’re looking at ways to get rid of them.”

One possibility being advanced by local architect Bill Isley would see a public park on the corner, a small mixed-use building further down Olympic Drive and public ownership of much of the Winslow Ravine.

In exchange, an adjacent landowner wants to add 200 ferry parking spots on the southeast side of Olympic, on land zoned for high-density residential development.

The gas station shut off its pumps in 1989 – the victim, ironically, of too much traffic, which blocked station access during ferry discharges and peak loading hours.

While Unocal removed some 6,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil and replaced it with clean fill, it stopped before the whole job was done.

Soil laced with unacceptably high levels of petroleum byproducts like benzene remained, but it was buried too deep for economical cleanup.

The contaminants were not migrating off site, though, so Unocal was under no legal obligation to remove them. Instead, the company adopted a policy of benign neglect for more than a decade, fencing off the land to limit access and possible exposure to the carcinogenic pollutants.

That philosophy has changed, Kellar says.

“We are actively looking at the situation now, doing exploratory drilling to determine where the contaminants are, and we will go to the Department of Ecology with various plans,” he said.

Kellar said those plans could be developed and presented over the summer.

“Our top priorities are those sites that are actively endangering the neighbors, and this is not one of those,” he said, “but we are trying to make progress.”

One possibility, which Kellar said “sheds new light on this,” is a cooperative development plan that would involve Unocal, the city, a private purchaser of the gas station site, and the Griffith Trust.

The trust owns three-plus acres of land between the Unocal site and Eagle Harbor, straddling both sides of Harborview Drive – the road that leads to the Harborview condominiums and the ferry maintenance yard – as well as the Diamond parking lot at the ferry terminal.

The trust, also known as Winslow Marine Associates, is the remnant of the Hall Brothers interests, which once owned much of the land on the north shore of Eagle Harbor.

It has offered to let Unocal do its remediation from trust land, which can be accessed from Harborview Drive, simplifying the cleanup work.

“That could make remediation much easier,” Kellar said. “While the property is in the middle of everything, it’s actually not very accessible to us.”

The trust would also sell a piece of its land to a potential buyer of the Unocal property, allowing him in turn to sell the corner piece to the city for a park and still put a small mixed-use development on the property.

And the trust would deed its interests in the Winslow ravine to the city. Those interests include not only the portion from Eagle Harbor north to Winslow Way, but the portion continuing past Highway 305 to John Nelson Park, excluding the segment immediately north of Winslow Way owned by Larry Stutsman.

The trust will also give up enough land to allow a pedestrian trail on the west side of the Unocal property linking Winslow Way with the existing waterfront trail.

But what the trust wants in return is permission from the city to turn its land along Harborview Drive into 200 more ferry-parking stalls, breaking the Comprehensive Plan’s cap on the number of parking places in the ferry district, a cap imposed to encourage mass transit.

Isley says it’s a good trade for several reasons.

The cap did not take into account growth in population and demand, and a number of spaces called for in the Comp Plan have been lost.

He also said that ferry riders who can’t find a space in the existing lots are parking in Winslow or the surrounding neighborhoods.

“We’re seeing an attrition of parking spaces,” he said. “I don’t think adding 200 spaces would decrease transit demand, but I think it would reduce ferry parking in Winslow.”

The Chamber of Commerce, which has been concerned about the shortage of on-street parking in downtown Winslow, strongly supports the concept.

“If we can put some parking there, we can do some good things to preserve parking downtown,” said Chamber executive director Kevin Dwyer.

Dwyer also said development of the Unocal lot into a public park “can create a wonderful asset for the community.”

The Chamber board of directors voted unanimously to support the plan, he said.

While the plan would increase ferry parking, it would, at least for the nonce, remove land that could hold up to 80 condominiums atop underground parking, further jeopardizing the Comp Plan goal of accommodating half of the island’s growth in Winslow.

Isley acknowledges the trade-off, but says the Comp Plan goal is unrealistic in the current economic environment, where land values are not yet high enough to support high-density uses envisioned for Winslow.

“Bainbridge is a suburban area,” he said. “The Comp Plan is trying to make Winslow into something else, but the economics aren’t there right now,” he said.

“This plan does not preclude future high-density uses, but gives us design improvements in the meantime.”

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