It is time for the Port to relaunch its planning process for the New Market Industrial Campus

By Helen Wheatley

The November 30 Tumwater City Council hearing and failed negotiation between the city and the port of Olympia is just the latest episode in a long debate on the new market’s industrial campus that has been going on since the beginning of the 2000s. That’s when the warehouse boom began to spill over into Thurston County.

The new century saw Target, Home Depot and Wal-Mart make high-profile moves to Lacey and Tumwater that energized local debates about land use and the future of retail and warehousing in the county . The Port of Tacoma was investing millions of dollars trying to develop a distribution center on Rocky Prairie near Millersylvania Park. Where would all those buildings and sidewalks and trucks go? What would be their impact on the environment and quality of life? Where should local governments draw the line?

In 2006, a number of warehouse developers, including Panattoni, had expressed interest in building large warehouses near the airport. It was around this time that global developer ProLogis set its sights on the New Market campus, proposing a 32-acre project similar to the one Panattoni is currently considering.

A Salmon Creek Basin neighborhood spokesperson, EJ Zita, shared concerns about flooding, loss of trees, traffic, and loss of quality of life in neighborhoods. She said then, as she says now as Harbor Commissioner, “these projects must be considered for their cumulative impacts.”

Its history of use, soils, and hydrology have made the New Market campus a complicated piece of real estate. An environmental appeal against the ProLogis project was dismissed by the hearing reviewer, further shaking the community. Tumwater Town Council has passed an emergency ordinance restricting the size of buildings and traffic.

ProLogis withdraws. The construction boom in Lacey’s Hawk’s Prairie caught the attention of warehouse developers, leaving New Market behind.,

The Friends of Rocky Prairie continued their long battle to save the rare glacial prairie habitat from Tacoma’s harbor development fever, recalling the struggle in the 1960s to keep the precious Nisqually Delta from becoming an extension of the Tacoma Harbor. The Thurston County Commission voted unanimously in 2020 not to dezone, which would have opened the door to a huge logistics center in Rocky Prairie. But even with that door closed, commissioners are now grappling with pressure to rezone farmland to allow for rural industrial warehousing.

What has the Port of Olympia learned from all this? Not much, it seems. Port Manager Gibboney and Harbor Commission Chairman Joe Downing seem determined to see history repeat itself in a cycle of battles between community members and outside developers over the scale of the development, the appropriate zoning and the environmental impacts.

It doesn’t have to be that way. After the withdrawal of ProLogis years ago, the port of Olympia has almost succeeded. Recognizing that resolving issues with the property first would help provide certainty of attracting the right kind of development, the port set out to revise its old plan for properties in the New Market and Tumwater town centre. The new draft Real Estate Master Plan, which provided a guide to where development could go with appropriate buffers and environmental impact mitigation, was completed in 2018.

This plan can still be found on the Thurston Regional Planning Council website (TRPC.org). But it only exists in cyberspace. But the Harbor Commission never acted on its implementation. The next step in turning development plans into action would have been to do the environmental impact analysis, and the Commission would not be faced with that. It is no coincidence that the ongoing negotiations between the Port and the Town of Tumwater have also stumbled over the Port’s refusal to take into account the environmental realities of the site.

Without an updated strategic plan that can address the impacts using the entire New Market property, developers must carry out all environmental mitigation work themselves, on the site they wish to develop. It takes deep pockets. It was not worth it for ProLogis. This is why Panattoni has still not presented a single project proposal for New Market. And developer reluctance over these costs is why Tumwater City Council gave up and told the port it could not accept so many unknowns.

With a real estate master plan, the entire campus can be used to combine industrial development at an appropriate scale with environmental mitigation measures, while meeting other community needs. For example, low-impact stormwater design can be compatible with recreational use and the preservation of groves of mature trees. And it goes without saying that developers would prefer to meet environmental criteria outside of the property on which they want to build.

In addition, there is another problem with putting the Nouveau Marché real estate plan on the back burner and letting developers choose their projects solely on the basis of profitability. When an individual project is built, it will strain the system and create a bigger hurdle for the next project. After one or two plum spots are built, the rest of the site can become nearly impossible to market anyway.

The public has already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of public commentary on the new market’s real estate master plan. Yet the Port ignored everything. The latest proposal for a weird, tense, and unworkable interlocal deal is no substitute for rational campus-wide design.

It’s time for the Port of Olympia to pay attention to its own vision statement, written at the same time as it created the strategic plan for the new market: “A port that contributes to a more resilient community”. Resilience stems from the equal and integrated balance of economic opportunity, environmental stewardship and support of community assets. It’s time to finish the job and implement a better strategic plan for the Campus Industriel Nouveau Marché.

Helen Wheatley currently sits on the Thurston Conservation District Board of Supervisors. In 2019, she unsuccessfully presented herself at the headquarters of the Olympia Harbor Commission held by Commissioner Joe Downing. His opinions are his own and not necessarily those of The JOLT’s staff or board of directors.

Correction: 12/7/21 – We have clarified Wheatley’s old application.

Louisa R. Loomis