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Discussion of surplus First Hill property begins

While neighbors showed up distraught, confused and ready to speak, city leaders assured First Hill residents gathered at last week’s Council meeting that they were listening and following proper procedure.

Around 70 neighborhood residents from First Hill attended the City Council meeting last Monday, with 20 citizens making public comments regarding the vacant city-owned lot on the corner of S.E. 32nd Street and 74th Avenue S.E.

Many First Hill residents have been enraged lately that the idea of building high-density, affordable housing on the .7-acre lot came up during a Council planning session. Accusations of wrongdoing have been circulating ever since. Mayor Jim Pearman asserted that the local government had been open and acted in good faith.

“Those who have come with the opinion that a decision has been made are absolutely wrong,” Pearman said during the meeting.

Deputy mayor El Jahncke later replied that nothing “nefarious” had been done, and all Council meetings regarding any decision are always open to the public.

During the meeting on Monday, the Council established a lengthy public input process for determining the outcome of the First Hill property. The motion put forth by Councilmember Dan Grausz, who lives on First Hill within blocks of the vacant property, calls for the city to develop a revised public process for the lot to include three steps. The city will determine and evaluate its options after obtaining public input from the entire Island.

The city will host two public meetings, tentatively scheduled for May 7 and June 3 at the community center. City leaders hope to gather public comments concerning the surplus land. The Council will not make a decision on the property until the evaluation and analysis are complete.

The $900,000 property has been owned by the city for nearly 50 years. The home was demolished about two years ago, and the property has remained an open space as a possible site for emergency water storage. Last summer, the city’s utility board unanimously recommended that the Council declare the property a surplus and sell it. Councilmember Grausz said he wanted the city to stay clear of a binary focus on building affordable housing or not.

“I want the city to look at all the feasible alternatives and judge them equally,” Grausz said. “We shouldn’t focus on a demonstration project or not. I want every possibility weighed and on the table.”

Prior to the Council discussion, many citizens charged the city with wrongdoing for not disclosing all meetings and e-mails regarding the Council’s decision to amend the city’s comprehensive plan in 2005. The addition to the plan calls for a demonstrative alternative housing development on the Island. Some First Hill residents suggested that the surplus property be used for a pilot project of alternative housing and invited city leaders and neighbors to attend a meeting. During that meeting, which city manager Rich Conrad attended, a model depicting nine units was shown and has caused concern.

“The meeting held at my house was to have an open meeting to encourage the city to have a public process,” said resident Anne Fox. “The schematic shown was done by an architect, and the number of units shown were purely schematic.”

Matt Leibsohn said he was concerned that the public process was side-stepped when the city amended its comprehensive plan in 2005. Jahncke said the revisions were made as general statements without any specific property discussed.

Other residents were concerned that cottage housing would diminish the character of the neighborhood.

“We purchased our [First Hill] property because it is a true neighborhood,” said Anne Johnston. “I am concerned of a loss of value.”

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