Many newcomers to Anacortes wonder about the vacant land between R Avenue and Fidalgo Bay. "Why hasn't it been developed?", they ask. Then the conversation leads to what "we" think that "they" should do with the land.
A Guest Commentary
Those who know more of the history are aware that the land owned by MJB (Merlino Jones Brothers) has a long record of development, first as a residential area early in the last century, then for several manufacturing businesses over the years. But in the 24 years since MJB purchased the land (aprx. 60 acres of uplands plus adjacent tidelands), they have built no buildings on this prime property that is zoned for industry. The only construction in that time has been a recently completed new boat ramp for their boat repair and storage business.
It's not that they haven't tried. In the mid-90's they presented a conceptual plan that would have completely redeveloped this property, re-zoning it from Industrial to other residential and commercial uses. It was a grand vision, including about 300 residential condo units, a grocery store, movie theater, marina, and various other uses. The City Council turned down their proposal (after a negative advisory vote by the citizens).
Subsequently, every few years MJB has presented a slightly different proposal. The most recent was a 2013 request to re-zone 11 acres to commercial zoning and allow a larger retail store. Each request was turned down by the Council after extensive citizen input. Although there were a variety of factors, the primary issue each time was the loss of industrial-zoned land which is important to the economy of our city.
It's quite clear that it doesn't matter what the landowners want to do with their property, if the City is not willing to change the zoning to accommodate that vision, it can't happen. And the converse is also true: It doesn't matter what the City zoning allows - if a property owner chooses not to build those things, nothing will happen. It's only by aligning the wishes of the community with those of the landowners that progress is possible.
Now the City of Anacortes is involved in its once-a-decade update of the city's Comprehensive Plan. The Comp Plan's goals and policies provide the framework for how our neighborhoods, commercial districts and industrial areas will develop in the coming years. Is it finally time to re-zone some of this land for other uses? If so, what uses should go where?
This issue is so important to our future that the City and MJB are jointly sponsoring a community planning workshop on Tuesday, August 26th (6:00 pm at City Hall) focusing specifically on the MJB properties. We will be able to hear from the property owners what their thoughts are regarding development, and they will be able to hear from citizens about their preferences and concerns.
This will be the first time in over two decades when the property owners and citizens have sat down together in a collaborative atmosphere, so it is a unique opportunity to have some open communication that could potentially lead to agreement on how this key property will develop in the years to come.
Cynthia Richardson is an architect and artist who served for 17 years on the Anacortes City Council and Planning Commission and is a member of the Community Advisory Council for the Comprehensive Plan update. She writes an occasional guest commentary for AnacortesNow on issues of community interest.