The Kent City Council voted 5-2 on Tuesday night to sell the Riverbend par 3 golf course property for $10.5 million to a developer who plans to build a mixed-use project with 500 apartments.
But what had appeared to be a smooth transition over the last several months to sell the 20 acres turned controversial when council members Dennis Higgins and Dana Ralph voted against the sale of the city-owned course.
Higgins and Ralph pursued a last-minute proposal to get King County involved to potentially keep the property in its natural habitat rather than to allow more apartments to be built.
“A viable option has been presented,” Ralph said prior to the vote. “Granted, it was in the 11th hour. It’s been literally in the last two weeks that our regional partners have come together to support the maintenance of this open space. It would not stay a golf course. It would be habitat preservation, flood storage and recreational space.
“Once we cover that ground, we take away all of the things that it provides, it’s not going to come back,” Ralph said. “As a body and administration we refused to look at this option in detail. That process was not allowed to go forward. I just think it’s important that our residents know there was an opportunity to save this property and we did not look at it.”
Auburn-based FNW Inc./Landmark Development Group plans to build 500 apartments as well as restaurant and retail space in place of the par 3 course just south of West Meeker Street along the Green River Trail with views of Mount Rainier. Once the property sale closes, construction could start in July, said City Attorney Tom Brubaker who helped negotiate the purchase and sale agreement.
The council approved trying to sell the property in 2014 to help eliminate the city’s enterprise golf fund debt of nearly $3 million and allow for about $6 million in capital improvements to the 18-hole course across the street from the par 3 as a way to draw more players to boost revenue.
The Riverbend Golf Complex operates at a deficit of about $300,000 per year.
Council President Bill Boyce said he would have voted to sell the property to a developer even if there had been a formal proposal to keep the land in its natural habitat with possibly a couple of ball fields. He compared Tuesday’s vote by the council to controversial votes by councils in the early 2000s to approve the Kent Station shopping center and the ShoWare Center. Both projects were built on city property that once had ballfields. He congratulated fellow Councilman Les Thomas for his votes in favor of those projects.
“If you look at Kent today, you look at Kent Station and ShoWare, without those two things I don’t know where we would be,” Boyce said. “So here we are today faced with another tough decision. I want years down the road for someone to mention my name by making that tough decision. There’s no doubt that this is the right project for us. We will be without a par 3, but we will have a better (18-hole) golf course.
“And to me it’s all about economic development. There are two ways to grow this city to generate revenue. We can tax the heck out of everybody or we can find projects to generate revenue for this city. Every year we pay out of the general fund to the golf course. Without this project, you’re looking at losing property tax, sales tax and B&O tax, potential revenue for the city.”
Council members Jim Berrios, Tina Budell, Brenda Fincher and Thomas agreed with Boyce to approve the development to be known as Marquee on Meeker.
Mayor Suzette Cooke also supported the sale to Landmark Development and helped shut down the proposal by Higgins and Ralph to keep the property in its natural state.
The two council members approached King County Councilman Dave Upthegrove, whose District 5 includes parts of Kent, about whether the county could find funds to purchase the par 3 course.
Upthegrove had his staff looking into whether the County Council or the King County Flood Control District might be able to come up with the money.
“It would be a heavy political lift for something on short notice that would require significant funding,” Upthegrove said in a phone interview on Wednesday. “And the council and mayor would need to be on the same page. I heard from the mayor that she did not want to be pulling the plug on the current plans.”
Once Cooke told Upthegrove her stance, he decided it wasn’t possible to pursue any county funds without an united city government.
Cooke said in a phone interview on Wednesday that she had multiple reasons against a sale to the county and that she was “taken aback” when Ralph and Higgins approached her about 10 days ago about not selling to the developer after going through the proposal process to find a developer since 2014.
“It would really damage the city’s reputation with quality developers to in the last minute change course,” Cooke said. “My concern was we would have a repeat of Pine Tree Park (when the council backed out of a sale to a developer). But that came from public pressure to change course. In this case there was no public pressure but two council members who want no additional apartments in Kent.”
Cooke said she supports the development because the city faces a housing squeeze and these high-end apartments would help relieve pressure on other apartment complexes. She also said the proposal to sell the land to the county had no solid backing.
The mayor also opposed a natural habitat as being the gateway to Kent and prefers to have the property developed to contribute taxes to a city that needs more revenue sources.
Higgins said he wished an alternative to developing the property could have been found sooner, and if the current open-space option had come up a few years ago he would have been against putting the par 3 up for sale.
“Back in 2014 we had no viable plan for help from the region,” he said. “Now it looks like we do have a viable plan but in order to proceed it would require a unified effort and it doesn’t appear we can put that together. But it doesn’t change there is a viable alternative. … In 20 years from now there may be a very, very nice development on that site, one that I would be proud to live in potentially. But I think we would be more proud if we were able to keep it as open space.”