Developer gets the green light on north-end property

Council OKs revisions in deal with Inland Construction to build on former outdoor theater site

Its residential component — composed of workforce or affordable housing — will provide an opportunity to build off-site structures, including the extension of I Street Northeast north to 277th.

Its commercial component, the Marketplace, is to connect through the center of the development to 500 apartment units, tying everything into one cohesive master plan.

On Monday after a rare, late-afternoon public hearing, the Auburn City Council gave Inland Construction the go-ahead to make the whole shebang happen at the site of the former Valley 6 Drive-In Theaters just south of the the city’s northern boundary.

That is, city leaders accepted adjustments that Inland’s principals had asked for to the strict development standards in the ambitious, original development agreement (DA) the city had entered into with the Robertson Property Group for the Auburn Gateway Project in 2011, and to add supplemental items.

Without those adjustments, Inland Group of Spokane told the City Council in April, it would have had no choice but to withdraw the purchase offer it had made to the RPG. After that meeting, city staff got to work on Inland’s suggested adjustments to the standards.

“We’re very excited to be entering the Auburn community,” Scott Morris, one of the principals of Inland said after council approval.

Morris noted that the Washington State Finance Commission has awarded the project housing finance credit that requires construction to start by the close of 2019. Also, in 2020, with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) expecting to increase the map boundaries for flood plains in the project area, it is crucial for Inland to show progress .

“We expect to have shovels in the ground by the end of the year, and we expect a 21-23 month construction schedule,” Morris said.

State law allows development agreements between cities and developers, permitting developers to do something more, more intense, or more well defined than what a zoning code allows, and at the same time, allows the city to ask that more be done than what it typically would have the authority to request.

Robertson’s original plan called for a 70-acre development, offering more than $2 million worth of off-site and infrastructure improvements, among them, 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.

But eight seasons came and went with little to show, and locals lost patience with a project that appeared to be a giant fizzle. What the public didn’t know was that, taking stock of changes in market conditions over that span, Robertson had lost interest in its holding and was looking to unload it.

Inland was willing to bite, but, as its principals told the council in April, they could not afford to build what Robertson had intended.

Inland’s project would instead focus on “amenity-rich living options tailored around a healthy living environment” that provides access to trails and outdoor open space, community gardens of at least 800 square feet, a community trail system, two playgrounds, outdoor amenities and a pool.

“We also have the privately-owned-and-programmed community open space, which we are calling ‘the heart,’ with a stage for performances … a movie theater and space for five food trucks with power and utilities hooked up to them,” Morris said.

One of Inland’s most important requests to the city was to remove a stricture that specified only vertical construction at the site; that is, retail on the ground floor, and residential above.

Inland’s proposal calls for horizontal construction.

As originally conceived, Morris noted, RPG’s project was hampered by pending FEMA flood plain designations at the site, which would reduce the amount of developable acreage.

It’s entirely possible, Morris said in April, that RPG over promised the city back in the day. Witness to that, he said, is that even though the nation has been emjoying one of the most robust economies throughout those years of idleness, nothing happened at the site.

That RPG wanted out, Morris continued, made it more difficult to find someone to come to the development as it was 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.

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