Twenty-one acres on the Kennewick side of the blue bridge soon could be the crown jewel of a revitalized riverfront stretching east to the cable bridge, says a group of Tri-City developers.
A new limited partnership, BW Land, bought the property for $3.02 million last week. Crews already are clearing debris and old buildings, making way for the kind of development officials have dreamed of for more than a decade.
Jim Bullis of Kennewick, a minority partner with BW Land, said the group hopes to create a neighborhood like some in Seattle, Spokane and Portland, where people live downtown with all the amenities nearby.
"We want to create a little village down there," said Bullis, who is partners with majority owner Steve West and minority partner Corey Bitton, both of Pasco.
They hope to attract restaurants, a high-end hotel and buildings with retail shops on the first floor and condos on top.
The development BW Land has described fits with the vision the city has for the area, said Kennewick Mayor Steve Young. The city council would like to see the rivershore developed with restaurants, wine-related businesses, hotels and housing.
"We want the bridge-to-bridge and the downtown areas to grow just like Southridge and the entertainment district are growing," he said.
Bullis said he and his partners are aiming for the best use of the riverfront and will take into account the Bridge-to-Bridge, River-to-Railroad study created in 2003 for the city and the Downtown Kennewick and Columbia Drive Association.
The land owned by BW Land is a critical, visible part of the area between the bridges, and part of the entrance into Kennewick from Pasco, said Kennewick Port Commission President Skip Novakovich. It's important for that part to be welcoming.
Having the private sector step in and embrace the same vision is crucial, Novakovich said. The public sector can help with infrastructure and provide incentives, but the private sector needs to make the investment and reap the benefits, he said.
"This is the first time in 12 years that I finally think something is going to happen," he said.
The property, once owned by members of the Jesernig family, includes the land currently leased by Oasis Auto Sales on Columbia Drive, as well as much of the land north of the car lot to the river and east to the Highway 395 bridge, said Ted Potter of Ted Potter and Associates Inc. of Kennewick, the listing agent for the properties.
Rudy Jesernig, who died in July 2011, owned most of the land. His son Jim Jesernig, a former Tri-City state legislator and state director of agriculture, has been handling his estate.
Bullis said he and his partners already have started to clean up the property that once was a cherry orchard, including removing dead trees.
The shell of the former Off the Highway Motel also has been demolished. It had been unused for almost 20 years.
There are some old 1940s farmhouses, which Bullis said they expect to remove or repurpose.
The mobile home park still is occupied, but the new owners plan to work with the residents to help them find new homes.
They also plan to build new roads, streetlights, sewer and water lines, and underground electricity. Homes and businesses have been on septic systems dating to the 1940s and there are also several hand-dug wells.
Bullis said one hotelier already is interested in building there.
"We've talked to everybody from McDonald's to Starbucks," he said.
And while there are no projects to announce yet, Bullis said the feedback has been positive.
Jeff Kossow, Kennewick's director of planning and economic development, confirmed that no specific development plans have been submitted to the city.
Bullis said they want to make sure their development will benefit the whole community. The three partners are longtime Tri-Citians, and West and Bitton also are farmers.
Bitton, who formerly owned the Moore Mansion in Pasco, pleaded guilty six years ago to felony mail and wire fraud in connection with a problem with the state taxes and a mortgage application involving the historic mansion. However, Bullis said Bitton has since been involved in some successful developments in the region.
To the east, the Port of Kennewick has been buying property and working to revitalize the area north of Columbia Drive between Clover Island and the cable bridge. The port now owns almost 15 of the 28 acres.
Novakovich said the efforts should complement each other. The port also wants to draw retail, some residential and wine-related businesses to the western end of Columbia Drive. Development could start as soon as this year.
And the port is moving forward with tearing down 14 buildings on the almost two acres it recently bought along Columbia Drive. The property includes the Chieftain Apartments, the Labor Ready office and a pawn shop.
Larry Peterson, the port's director of planning and development, said the port will contract to remove asbestos before demolition begins by midsummer.
Removing the apartments, which are unoccupied, will help lift the entire area, Novakovich said. "I think we are taking out a real eyesore."