BI seeks partner to develop affordable housing downtown

Families, people who work on Bainbridge Island and seniors concerned about becoming displaced now have the hope of getting housing on BI.

The City Council voted Feb. 13 to allow city manager Blair King to seek statements of qualifications to partner with a developer on building affordable housing at the former police station on Winslow Way East.

King said the building should be vacated by the end of next week.

Councilmember Clarence Moriwaki said he’d breathe a sigh of relief when that happens as the building is not safe. “Our community has been playing Russian Roulette with this building,” he said, adding it would be flattened by a major earthquake as it’s on cinder blocks, something he made “bookshelves out of in college.”

Councilmembers expressed concern that the public needs to be more involved, which has been a major theme of late.

This is the topic “people want to talk to me most about,” Mayor Joe Deets said. “Everyone has an opinion. That shows how important the public process is going to be.”

King said an Open House with a question and answer session would likely take place in a month.

“A cookie and lemonade gathering…we need more of that,” Deets said.

Councilmember Kirsten Hytopoulos said the council needs to be there. “We need to take ownership” and show support for the project, she said.

Deputy mayor Jon Quitslund didn’t show the optimism others did. “We can’t understand how difficult this will be,” he said. “It’s not a pretty picture. I hope we’re equal to the task of making wise choices.”

One thing that will make the project harder is outdated city code. Quitslund has been calling for improvements there for years. “It’s so outdated; so far from what it should be,” he said. “It’s been years and years of delay and not paying attention.” He said better code would govern a more appropriate development for the site.

Moriwaki said some of the public have told him the city should sell the land and build affordable housing elsewhere. But if you look at the facts, “This is by far and away the most sensible” thing for BI to do. “Let’s discuss facts,” and not just rely on opinion, he said.

King said it’s a great project because it’s big enough to make financial sense, it’s close to Winslow so people can walk to work, public transit is nearby, services are close by, and it meets tax credit standards. “It’s a once-in-a-generation location.”

He said if the city sold the land a private developer would likely build something similar, but it would be market-rate, rather than affordable. And the city would lose control over it. Since the city would still own the land to retain some control, rents could be kept lower.

The city has a model for the project. “I don’t want to oversell this” because it’s not approved, King said. The selected developer will decide what will work.

But the city envisions a four-story building with below-grade parking. It would be 45 feet tall, so it already meets zoning standards. It would be mixed-use as the ground floor would be commercial, and “that’s area has to pay for itself,” King said.

The chosen developer must have a vision for the site, know how to work with the tax credit program and have a method for engaging with the public, he added.

The city’s model includes 31 studio, 30 one-bedroom, 27 two-bedroom and 12 three-bedroom units; household incomes of $35,000 to $75,000, depending on household size; and up to 8,000- square feet of commercial space fronting Winslow Way.

The city hopes to have a developer selected by mid-year due to deadlines to qualify for the federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit program, which could provide 35% of capital costs. The program meshes with city needs for housing for income levels for the workforce of many BI employers who have said lack of such housing is a challenge in hiring workers.

If the development is not able to tap into the capital raised by the 4% LIHTC for affordable housing, the economics would not work, and the city’s resources to subsidize affordable housing would not extend very far, a city memo says. An affordable housing developer would develop, own and operate the housing, while the city would retain long-term control of the land. The developer would be responsible for the design of the project, securing financing, and building and operating the apartments in compliance with the affordable housing obligations of the city.

Public comments

Related to that discussion, at least three public commenters talked against removing the old police building to build the affordable housing.

The first two are on the city’s Historic Preservation Commission. Eric Kortum said he started a petition against the decision and it is on the internet and being signed in town. Susan Hughes said the city should be standing up for its own historic program. Instead, city leaders have ignored the building’s role in its history and didn’t even consult with the commission about the decision.

John Burns was mostly concerned about the process. “The lack of transparency leaving the public out of it does not show well for us as a community or as a City Council,” he said, adding it is a historic building because many residents passing in and out of the building have stories to tell.

In other news

King talked to the council about highlights of the 2023 report on the Climate Action Plan. He said: 21% of 79 priority actions set in 2020 are done; the city has reduced carbon by 146 tons; 300 people joined the Climate Smart Challenge, showing climate change occurs at the grassroots level with actions of individuals; there are seven organic waste bins downtown; 31% increase on BI ride; tons of material from the new Ted Spearman Justice Center was kept out of landfills; and solid waste management options were made.

Regarding the Sustainable Transportation Plan, King mentioned highlights like: electric vehicle charging stations for the city fleet; an EV sweeper to clean bike lanes; a lowering of the speed limit islandwide; and the Sound to Olympics Trail.

King explained how the city’s insurance premium is going up 44% to $1.167 million from the $418,615 five years ago. That is not due to BI’s risk, but to all 169 members of the risk pool due to “increased jury” decisions.

Deputy city manager Ellen Schroer talked about the 100 projects in the city’s Work Plan. Highlights include the justice center opening and the water-utility rate study.

The council amended the public comment section in city code regarding remote and in-person input. In-person comments will be allowed on any topic. A previous temporary solution to inappropriate comments was to limit items to agenda items only. To make a remote comment, people must let the city clerk know in advance, and show their face and name, ending a temporary ban on online comments due to inappropriate comments.