By a 4-3 vote, the Edmonds City Council Tuesday night decided to continue exploring whether the city should acquire the $37 million Landmark 99 property.
The council in June voted to authorize Mayor Mike Nelson to sign an option agreement for the 10-acre Landmark site, located at the southern edge of Edmonds’ Highway 99 neighborhood. The agreement included a refundable deposit of $100,000 to hold the property — home to the Burlington Coat Factory and Antique Mall businesses — for six months, giving the city time to conduct public engagement and further study the idea. Under the agreement approved by the council Tuesday, the $100,000 will no longer be refundable if the city choses after further study to walk away from the project.
Since June, staff and consultants have been gathering public input for ways to use the property, culminating in three possible concepts that were presented Nov. 18 — the second of two public meetings on the topic. A range of possible uses were offered based on public input, from a pedestrian promenade to open green space, a community center to retail stores, a branch library, a police annex, a recreation/aquatics center and apartments.
Tuesday’s vote came after councilmembers heard from about a dozen residents — testifying both in person and remotely — who were evenly split on supporting and opposing the proposal. Comments ranged from those decrying the idea of considering such a large purchase when Edmonds faces considerable budget challenges in 2024, to those urging the city to invest in a long-neglected part of town. Residents of the Highway 99 neighborhood who offered comments were particularly passionate about seeing the project move forward.
One area resident noted that the project “would serve an underserved and underrepresented population,” and added that staff have eagerly listened to the ideas and concerns of neighborhood residents. “Do not let this great work and this great opportunity end tonight,” she said.
The support of Highway 99 residents was also reflected in the results of a citizen-driven survey conducted from Nov. 28-Dec. 4. Commenter Theresa Hollis, who lives off Highway 99 and helped design the online survey, told the council that 873 residents responded, with their locations identified by corresponding U.S. Census tracts. Of those respondents, 9% (75 votes) came from area area east of Highway 99 to the Ballinger neighborhood and 8% (71 votes) came from the neighborhood west of Highway 88 to north Westgate. A total of 72% of survey respondents east of Highway 99 supported the project, while 49% of those west of the highway and north Westgate did. By comparison, only 19% of downtown residents and 26% of those living in the Bowl were in favor. (You can see the complete survey summary here.)
Despite those results, Hollis cautioned that the numbers in her “amateurish” survey don’t necessarily reflect what the majority of the Edmonds residents think about the project — any more than recent city-conducted surveys do. She instead encouraged the council to vote against continuing the Landmark effort and retrieve the city’s $100,000 deposit. “If in 18-20 months from now, if a single admin assistant needs to get laid off from the City of Edmonds because we don’t have the cash for payroll, and we cancel the project and we lost that $100K, you are going to have to reckon with me,” Hollis said.
Citizen comments were followed by a presentation from city staff members taking the lead on the project — Planning and Development Director Susan McLaughlin and Community Services and Economic Development Director Todd Tatum. The two reviewed past information the council has received on the Landmark proposal and also reiterated the idea of possible public/private partnerships for the proposal. They also noted that the city did ask for “expressions of interest” from developers and received four responses from those who suggested a range of uses, from affordable housing to senior housing to commercial, medical office and civic projects.
Tatum then shared that anticipated costs for 2024 were between $245,000 and $290,000, which would include an environmental survey, real estate consulting, preparation of a development agreement, and communication and outreach. There would also be a significant amount of staff time devoted to the project, he said.
McLaughlin said that staff has identified $375,000 to cover those 2024 costs, including a $75,000 grant that the city is negotiating with Snohomish County and $300,000 that is available from the city’s portion of the state’s Affordable and Supportive Housing Sales & Use Tax.
Councilmembers then began asking questions and expressing their opinions on the measure. Speaking in support, Councilmember Jenna Nand said it was important to the Highway 99 community that work continue on the Landmark proposal. Nand said the city has 15 months to decide whether to execute the agreement, and added the city is “in the driver’s seat” in terms of setting conditions for the project. Also speaking in support, Councilmember Susan Paine pointed to those commenters asking for “parity and equity across Edmonds.” Newly-elected Councilmember Chris Eck also indicated her intent to support the measure, describing it as “an opportunity to address many of the community needs that we’ve been hearing for quite a long time.”
Citing concerns about city budget challenges, Councilmembers Vivian Olson and Diane Buckshnis spoke against the measure. Olson mentioned that housing has become a main discussion point for the project — with the Housing Authority of Snohomish County expressing interest in establishing low-income housing on the site — and wondered “why would we (Edmonds) need to be in the middle?”
Councilmember Will Chen said he was grateful that staff had identified funds in 2024 to cover the project costs, thus not impacting the city’s distressed general fund.
Council President Neil Tibbott, who hadn’t yet weighed in, then made a motion to reject the staff recommendation for the mayor to sign the amended option agreement. Tibbott said he was one of the earlier supporters of the project and was open to learning more about possible options for implementing the idea. But when the council traveled to three neighboring cities last Friday to see examples of public/private partnership developments, Tibbott said he was “underimpressed with the development agreements that they had in place” and was concerned about percentage of space taken up by housing.
The council president also said he was worried about the timing of the projects in light of the city’s budget woe’s and the lack of time the city has to build community consensus to support the project. He also suggested that there were other options for Highway 99 improvements — both in terms of locations and ideas — that the city should be exploring.
Councilmember Nand replied that she did not want to see other entities — whether that be the county or private developers — taking the lead on deciding what will be located on the Burlington Coat Factory property. Such a stance “is not forward looking, I don’t think it’s economically wise for our city and I for one am not looking forward to sitting in the back seat and seeing what somebody else with vision and courage decides to do with this property,” Nand said.
Tibbott’s motion to end the city’s work on the Landmark 99 project failed by a 3-4 vote, with Tibbott, Buckshnis and Olson voting yes. Nand then made a motion to approve the amended option agreement and that passed 4-3, with Chen, Eck and Paine joining Nand in supporting the measure.
The proposal approved by the council Tuesday night authorizes the city to sign amendments to the June option agreement, setting in motion several actions to further determine the project’s feasibility. These include:
1. Advertising a request for proposals (RFP) to the development community seeking a partner in the purchase and construction of the site.
2. Selecting a partner, or partners.
3. Continuing to develop a master plan for the site.
4. Negotiating a development agreement that outlines the terms and the public benefits.
5. Negotiating the assignment of a portion of the city’s right to purchase to the developer or developers.
6. Developing and securing approval for, a financing plan based off the items negotiated in the development agreement and any net costs.
In other business, the council decided to move adoption of the 2024-2029 Capital Facilities Plan and Capital Improvement Program to a special meeting that Tibbott said is being scheduled for Monday, Dec. 11.
The council also continued its 2024 budget deliberations, with one amendment from Councilmember Olson approved: reducing a $5,000 interfund transfer to the Edmonds Sister City Commission account, as the commission doesn’t need the funds in 2024.