The Buckley City Council is in the midst of a passionate debate over the future of the sleepy community.
After 18 years of planning, it appears someone is finally showing interest in developing part of the Rainier Gateway area of the city; a strip of land that is squared off by state Route 410 on the west side, Wheeler Avenue on the north, River Avenue on the east, and SR 165 to the south.
The Seattle-based developer Tarragon, also known for its apartment complexes in Enumclaw, recently approached the city with a “very rough conceptual” idea, City Administrator Dave Schmidt said in an interview: a three-story, 83-unit apartment complex with roughly 2,400 square feet of retail space split between the north and south ends of the strip of land.
Council members discussed the concept and its larger implications during a July 3 workshop, though there are many hoops the city will have to jump through before the first shovel even comes close to breaking ground.
At the moment, the Council appears split.
Councilwoman Connie Bender opened the discussion after a brief summary of the last two decades of planning.
“It’s a nice plan, but not for that area. There’s other areas it can go in,” Bender said, adding she also wasn’t thrilled with the idea of three-story buildings lining the highway. “What I would like to see there are small retail stores that fit in with Buckley.”
Councilwoman Sandy Burkett noted that the city’s plan for that area — the one Buckley has spent nearly two decades planning for — is different from Taragon’s concept.
“I think that with the vision changing… I think we should have a public meeting, to hear what our constituents, what their views are and what they feel about a three-story apartment complex going into that area,” Burkett said, without commenting on her thoughts about the plan.
Councilman Luke Wilbanks said he’s in favor of the idea, though he wants to make sure the city can control how the development would look, at least from the outside.
Councilman Beau Burkett DC said he’s not completely opposed to an apartment complex, but also agreed with Burkett about bringing this plan to residents’ attention and asking for feedback.
“Obviously, if 80 people show up, we’ll have 80 different opinions and that complicates things, but I think we’re missing a big section of the community that is opposed to this,” Beau Burkett said.
Councilman Ron Smith pointed out there seems to be a large need for affordable housing in the area, especially for people who work in or near Buckley.
“We all got that same memo from the school superintendent, who wanted to know anybody had any leads on apartments, because we’re having a few teachers coming in, and they want to live in the community,” Smith said.
The memo, sent to mayor Pat Johnson on June 12, noted “there are precious few” places in Buckley where incoming teachers would be able to live.
“I love the fact that Buckley is a heritage community, but the reality is, progress is inevitable. We have to be open to progress,” Smith continued.
Mayor Pat Johnson said she views Tarragon’s concept as the perfect opportunity to bring life back to Buckley, though she’d prefer condos over apartments.
“We must start somewhere, if we’re going to have any type of commercial success downtown,” Johnson said. “We have to provide places for people to live, and not everybody wants a single-family home. The trend now is more away from single-family homes… but we don’t have much variety, and not a decent variety.”
Councilman Milt Tremblay said he doesn’t see anything but positives coming out of the plan.
“I’m excited about this, because every urban plan requires a catalyst development,” he said. “I agree, the community needs to be involved in the discussion, but what I see here are the seeds of exactly what our community needs.”
Councilman John Leggett was not present at the meeting.
Schmidt pointed out that the Buckley community has been involved with planning this particular piece of land for 15 years now, and while there will have to be official public hearings if the council decides to move forward with Tarragon’s vision, Schmidt would prefer having a mail-in survey sent to each resident to canvass the community’s thoughts, as opposed to a town hall-styled meeting.
“For 15 years, we’ve had probably 15 or 20 open workshops, public hearings…, breakout groups around tables, people planning a vision for the future of this community,” Schmidt said. “The result if this: 40, 50 people probable, over the years, come in to all workshops and stuff, and I guarantee you, if you hold a public hearing, not one person who was a part of that planning will show up. All the people that didn’t participate will come, and… they don’t want it to change.”
By the end of the hour-and-a-half workshop, the council seemed to agree on sending out a mail-in survey about Tarragon’s proposed development in the near future.
A HISTORY OF THE RAINIER GATEWAY
Despite more than a decade of planning and the enthusiasm of focus groups and marketers, the commercial and residential development of the Rainier Gateway project appeared to have been dead in the water until early 2018.
According to Schmidt, the project started in 2002 when the City Council officially decided to create a development plan for what would eventually be called the Rainier Gateway, which encompasses the strip of land sandwiched between River Avenue and SR 410, from Cemetery Road to SR 165.
In 2003, the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service hosted meetings with Buckley and other cities around the Carbon River to come up with ideas to bring more recreational activities into these communities that are considered national park gateways.
Buckley then partnered with the University of Washington’s Master of Urban Planning class in 2005 to further solidify those ideas, and incorporated them into Buckley’s 2005 Comprehensive Plan.
However, the Rainier Gateway project was put on hold when the recession hit, and other projects — like the Ryan Road/SR 165 realignment (also known as “Malfunction Junction”) in 2016 — needed to be completed before the Rainier Gateway project could be picked back up.
In 2015, Buckley once again partnered with UW to update the Rainier Gateway project for the 2015 Comprehensive Plan.
The city’s plan for the southernmost portion of the Rainier Gateway — the area that Tarragon is proposing to develop — was a mix of retail and mixed-used development. Specifically, the Council wanted buildings with retail on the ground floor and apartments on the second and third.
However, when the Council issued an official Request For Proposals in November 2017, not a single developer answered.
“To me, it speaks volumes that we got no responses,” Johnson said during the July 3 meeting.
All that planning, marketing and patience seemed for naught until Tarragon contacted the city in February 2018, saying they were too busy to respond to the official RFP, but wanted to make a late submission, culminating into the proposal put forth to the Council now.