To passersby on South Division Street last Thursday afternoon, Feb. 7, the shovels-ful of dirt dignitaries tossed into the air over the gravel parking lot two blocks south of Auburn City Hall must have seemed the ho-hum stuff of groundbreakings everywhere.
But if ever soil tossings could be called significant to the city of Auburn, those were the ones.
They meant that Teutsch Partners and Pillar Properties are ready to begin building there the Auburn Town Center, their seven-story, skyline-changing, block-encompassing, 226 units of wood-framed, residential apartments, with two small commercial spots on the corners. and two, two-story, walk-in-off-South Division, brownstone-type apartments.
All of that in addition to the Merrill Gardens senior living apartments, which the partners built and opened three years ago on the Gambini block immediately east of the future Town Center.
Construction should start in March and wrap up in 2021.
Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus explained what this project will mean to Auburn.
“It’s going to add another 226 doors to our downtown in this revitalization, which means that more people will be living here and that more businesses are going to want to be here,” she said. “There’s always been kind of that chicken-and-egg thing: ‘If you build it, we’ll be there,’ or, ‘We’ll be there when you build. it.’ Since it’s going to be built, there will be residents here, and the businesses are going to follow suit because they know that we’ve got quality products in the downtown core, great residential opportunities, and they’re going to want to be part of it.”
Billy Pettit, President of Pillar Properties, whose company has developed a number of projects in tandem with Merrill Gardens throughout the Puget Sound Region, explained why are building it.
“We’ve kind of had a priority on town-center projects over the last few years, and we really like to jump on opportunities where we can build both a senior-living community and a multi-family community,” Pettit said. “We really believe in inter-generational living. You know, it’s fine to attract young people, but you’ve also got a lot of people who have been living in the area a long time, and they are an important part of the fabric of the community. Why not give them an opportunity to stay around?”
Auburn Economic Development Director Doug Lein said that realizing development on the blocks immediately around City Hall has been among his principal goals ever since he arrived in the city eight years ago.
“The thing that’s cool about this it brings in another component of residents who are now living here 24/7, and that means household incomes that are going to revitalize the boutique retail on Main Street,” Lein said of the project.
“… Obviously, in the process of marketing the transit station district to developers, this is a great addition to the process down here,” Lein said. “More important, with this second project, it will have been the second check the developer has written: the first one, for Merrill Gardens, was easy, the second one was more difficult. Part of their due diligence when they were deciding to do this second part was to determine if the first part (Merrill Gardens) was stabilized. The next developer is going to see that well-known developers like Teutsch and Pillar have made that second investment, and that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are making money here, and that’s what will bring on the next wave of development.”
John Walker, owner of Teutsch Partners, said that by the time the building opens, the partnership will have invested about $106 million into the revitalization of downtown Auburn.
For helping to make that happen, Walker lavished the city and its development staff with praise.
“I’m always telling my kids, ‘You need to set yourselves up in situations that will give you the best chance at success,’ and Auburn has provided that environment for us, the mayor, the council, the department directors,” Walker said. “They were able to think out of the box and work collaboratively, to have a progressive outlook on development and a willingness to look at creative and innovative solutions to revitalize the downtown. And most important, they had the courage to do this during really tough economic times.”
It’s worth looking back at the changes 10 years have wrought on downtown’s skyline, changes that began physically with the tearing down of the Tavern Block east of City Hall and construction of the 1st Main building, followed by the addition of the Trek apartments on the old Cavanaugh block across East Main street, the building of Merrill Gardens and the levelling of the moribund row of buildings immediately south of City Hall on West Main.
None of that, noted former Mayor Pete Lewis, would have been possible without the major infrastructure update the city completed underground just south of City Hall a decade ago.
“(Former Councilmember) Jeannie Barber was a part of all this, that’s how far back it goes. Rep. Pat Sullivan helped us get a tax credit deal, and part of that was we had to install the new infrastructure. At the time. we still had clay pipes under there. That big stormwater vault and the new piping meant we could build in the downtown,” Lewis said.
An unrelated, mixed-use project is also in the works, for the block immediately south of City Hall, but it is least six months from groundbreaking.