A vision for the Edmonds waterfront

By DJ Wilson | Apr 08, 2010
The community of Edmonds is at a very unique crossroads regarding developing a vision for the area between downtown and the waterfront. 

A confluence of efforts, interests, and projects have produced a special time where it is possible we might be able to imagine – and then implement – a new, engaging and vital public space there.

Council President Bernheim, Councilmember Diane Buckshnis, and I have been tasked by the full Council to explore options in the area.  Together, we are each bringing an open-minded flexibility with an interest in creating a special place for the community.

There are three properties which are specifically at the center of attention:  the Skipper’s property at Sunset and Main, the parking lot immediately south owned by the Department of Transportation, and the Harbor Square properties just south along the railroad tracks.  Skipper’s is currently held by a bank, and Harbor Square is owned by the Port of Edmonds, a public agency with five elected commissioners.

Here’s what’s in play.  The Department of Transportation is looking to trade their parking lot to a party interested in building a pedestrian overpass from the ferry across the railroad tracks. 

The bank is looking to deal on the Skipper’s property, because after all, they are not in the property management business. 

The Port is looking to redevelop Harbor Square, which after having purchased both the land and the buildings has proven a significant burden with its low occupancy. 

As Harbor Square stands now, it’s a considerable drain on public dollars, and the Port is not interested in raising taxes to manage a property, which should be able to be a net contributor to the tax rolls, if developed properly.

The City of Edmonds has a considerable interest and role here. 

First, we want to make sure “no harm is done” down there.  A parking lot and a vacant fast food joint are just about as bad as it gets as a gateway to our city – but we don’t want to take a chance that it could indeed get worse. 

Second, some on the Council would like to see a vibrant, engaging public space there.  Such a space could further integrate our downtown with our waterfront, fostering increased traffic in our community and further economic activity. 

Getting that kind of public space means redevelopment of the parking lot and the Skipper’s.  And, redevelopment of that space means it must make financial sense.

Now, for a developer, “financial sense” includes a reasonable profit of at least 20 percent. 

For the City, we don’t need a profit.  In fact, we are excluded by law from doing things that generate profit or revenue for the City that doesn’t meet a clear and specific public use. 

It would be hard for us, in other words, to develop that area and rent some of it out to offset the costs.

However, the Port of Edmonds is a different story.  Ports are specifically created under state law to promote economic development.  They can make a profit for the citizens they represent in developments like this. 

When you talk to elected Port Commissioners, though, what they tell you is exactly what you’d hope to hear.  “We don’t need to make money.  We just want to break even, and maybe not even that.  But it’s important that what we do along the waterfront creates a positive experience for the public at large.  There is a social return on investment that we are very interested in seeing.”

Which brings me to another key item: the citizens. 
A group of well-regarded folks, who have largely been absent from city engagement, have decided now is the time to get involved. 
Their group, “Imagine Edmonds,” is trying to organize a community visioning process around this waterfront area that would run in parallel to any government activity. 
The idea would be that if the public, through its elected officials, could secure the ability to develop some of these parcels at very little cost to the citizens, this process would offer a framework for determining what that project could look like.
We are at a fork in the road.  As a community, we have all the pieces we need to make something special happen between our downtown and the waterfront. 
We need only to have open minds, respectful dialog, and a reasoned approach to crafting a vision for our community.  That is what the full Council has tasked us with, and that is what Council members Bernheim, Buckshnis and I are endeavoring to do.

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