The Auburn Gateway Project was to have been a 70-acre development on the site of the former Valley 6 Drive-In Theaters on Auburn’s north end.
An ambitious project, it was to have offered more than $2 million of off-site and infrastructure improvements, including the long-sought extension of I Street Northeast, 1.6 million square feet of office space, 720,000 square feet of retail commercial and big box stores, and 500 multi-family units above ground-floor retail.
That what was the 2011 development agreement between the site’s owners, the California-based Robertson Property Group (RPG), and the city of Auburn spelled out.
Yet, the only claim to activity the site can claim for its years of idleness has been the head scratching it has occasioned among puzzled, disappointed locals.
Now comes word that RPG has lost interest in the site and put it up for sale.
At long last, it appears, something is afoot.
On Monday evening, an interested buyer, Inland Construction, appeared before the City Council to pitch is own development proposal for the tract.
John Fisher, lead developer for Inland Construction, said his company’s project would focus on “amenity-rich living options tailored around a healthy living environment” that provides access to trails and outdoor open space.
The residential component — composed not of market-rate housing but workforce or affordable housing— would provide an opportunity, Fisher said, to build off-site structures, including the extension of I Street Northeast north to 277th.
Its commercial component, the Marketplace, would connect through the center of the development to the 500 apartment units, the same number as the RPG plan, Fisher said. The center, he said, would connect all the components into a cohesive master plan.
“We’re talking about development-ready pads for tenants to come in and plug in and use them. … We would do the heavy lifting (infrastructure construction) and bring in commercial tenants,” said Inland representative Scott Morris.
City Council members loved the plan, especially the proposal to build an outdoor amphitheater, a nod to the site’s many years as the Valley 6. The would-be developers pitched it as a draw for the north end.
But there’s a hitch.
To make any of the aforementioned happen, Fisher said, the city would have to allow amendments to the 2011 development agreement. One of the most important requests would be to remove a stricture that specifies only vertical construction at the site; that is, retail on the ground floor, and residential above.
Inland’s proposal calls for horizontal construction.
“The irony is that as we sit here today, the biggest obstacle or impediment to development is in fact this development,” Morris said of the RPG plan. “It’s massive.”
As originally conceived, Morris noted, that project is also hampered by pending FEMA flood plain designations at the site, which would reduce the amount of developable acreage.
It’s entirely possible, Morris said, that RPG over promised the city back in the day. Witness to that, he said, is that even though the nation has enjoyed one of the most robust economies throughout the years of idleness, nothing has happened at the site.
That RPG wants out now, Morris continued, makes it more difficult to find someone to come to the development as it described in the DA: to plunk down more than $15 million for 70 acres of land; to do $2 million in infrastructure work just to start construction, construction that alone could cost cost more than $100 million, he said; and finally, to hope that there’s a commercial environment out there that can return the money invested in an economy that day by day becomes more about e-commerce.
“I would argue that this development agreement is no longer realistic, if it ever was. It’s now standing in the way of getting a Trader Joe’s, or a restaurant or a fitness center, or a medical clinic to come into the community, things there’d be a demand for if they could come in and develop today. But they are not going to come in and purchase 70 acres and do $2 million in infrastructure improvements just so they can put in a restaurant,” Morris said.
Morris said Inland has to close on the purchase and be in construction by the end of the year as it has a bond allocation from the Washington State Housing and Finance Commission that will go away at the end of the year.
“We are motivated to do this. … If you don’t share our interest, let us know because there’s plenty of work for us out there and we don’t want to waste your time,” Morris said.
Councilmember Largo Wales loved what she was hearing.
“I’m really excited about the idea of four-bedroom (apartments),” said Wales. “A lot of our families have a need for additional space because of our multiple races and ethnicities. Then, some of us don’t have extended families but we have kids that will never leave.”
Wales suggested that the development include a “place where pets could run free.”
Councilmember Yolanda Trout-Manuel was equally enthusiastic.
“We’re in such need of homes for families, and that extra bedroom would really come in handy, instead of having someone sleep in a closet. This is awesome, this is really exciting. Can you start tomorrow?” Trout-Manuel asked.
“We’d love to,” Morris responded.