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Hospital breaks ground on parking garage

First phase of project ushers in ‘start of our new downtown,’ declares Mayor Lewis

Dirt for the groundbreaking had to be hauled in and dumped on concrete where the Auburn Police Station once was on North Division and First streets. But nobody doubted the importance of that mound of soil – it meant that Auburn Regional Medical Center’s parking garage is finally underway.

Groundbreaking on the 3 1/2-story, 97,000-square-foot garage just north of City Hall took place Friday under a blazing August sun with sweating representatives from the hospital, the city, the Muckleshoot Tribe and others doing the golden shovel duties.

City officials heralded the garage as a catalyst project for other downtown development projects.

“This is the day it starts, this is the day we start to move forward, this is the day we start construction of our new downtown,” declared Auburn Mayor Pete Lewis.

Of immediate import, ARMC’s project should allow developer Jeff Oliphant to start within weeks on the redevelopment of the nearby Tavern Block. As that project, anchored by Key Bank on the east, is to feature a City Hall annex, Oliphant could not move forward until he was assured parking for the city employees would be there.

The 300-stall garage represents a partnership between the city and ARMC that calls for the city and hospital to share parking. Under the conditions of the hospital’s purchase of the property from the city in 2005, the city is to be allowed use of 150 of those stalls.

Steve Patonai, chief executive officer and managing director for Auburn Regional Medical Center, described the garage as the latest in a series of projects in the last 10 years that have allowed the hospital to expand its services, from the patient tower, to the recently opened, 10 bed, in-patient rehabilitation unit, to the wound center with its three hyperbaric chambers.

ARMC’s parking garage is the first phase of a two-phase project. The latter phase calls for a multi-story, medical office building anchored by a comprehensive cancer center. It is still in the planning stages but will be built on the north half of the same block, contiguous with the garage.

“A significant vision for the hospital is to be the hospital of choice for Auburn, for the surrounding communities and for this corner of King County,” Patonai said. “And a big part of that is growing with the community.”

“You’ll see the garage go up first, but the medical office building will catch up, so the goal is to have them completed at the same time,” said Doug Brimhall of Ensemble Real Estate Services. Ensemble is developing the project on behalf of ARMC’s parent company, Universal Health Services. The builder of the parking garage and the medical facility will be Seattle-based BN Builders, Inc.

Lewis said the decline in the downtown began in the 1960s and accelerated in the following decades with the loss of such key stores as JC Penney. One of the seedier aspects of that downturn, he said, was the conversion of sports bars into drug-ridden taverns, from which boxes of needles were being taken out every week.

“There was a line of shot glasses along the surface of the (Mecca Tavern) bar every morning at 10 with cheap wine so that the alcoholics trying to get their first drink wouldn’t have to raise the glass to their lips but could just lean it over the edge of the bar,” Lewis recalled.

That was what the downtown had become by 2003, Lewis said, and that how things stood when the City Council decided to take action. It began by putting the city-owned block north of City Hall and west of the hospital up for sale, inviting requests for development proposals.

Only ARMC responded, proposing a parking garage the city could share, and a medical building of at least 25,000 square feet.

That was to be the beginning of the start of the remodeling and resurgence of the downtown. About that time the city also began assembling land in the downtown, working with more than 14 different owners to amass six blocks for future development.

What ARMC could not have known as they were signing the contracts with the city was that Hurricane Katrina could take such a toll on UHS’s other facilities along the Gulf Coast, delaying the Auburn project for years.

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