A decade ago, Richland contemplated an ambitious visitor center at Columbia Point South, the sliver of city-owned land near the confluence of the Columbia and Yakima rivers.
The area was zoned to allow what was then called the Hanford Reach Interpretive Center, a $40 million, 60,000-square-foot space that would have taken up many of the city’s 89 acres to the south of Interstate 182. The project ended up being built at the Richland Wye after local tribes objected to developing sacred territory.
Barricades went up to keep motorized vehicles out, and Columbia Point South stayed untouched except for the bicyclists, joggers and pedestrians who use its trails.
Now, the city is mulling new zoning for Columbia Point South. The proposed “urban recreation” zone would still allow development, but is far more restrictive. If adopted, the new zoning would extend the requirement that land be scrutinized for evidence of past use by Native Americans to the entire site, not just the current quarter mile closest to the shoreline as is currently required.
Columbia Point South is special, said Kerwin Jensen, the city’s community development director. An urban recreation zoning designation would help keep it that way.
It would be applied to 80 of the 89 acres the city owns at the difficult-to-access area. Urban recreation zoning would be the most restrictive commercial zone in the city, even more restrictive than commercial zones in residential neighborhoods. The concept was developed in consultation with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.
Jensen said city also reached out to the Confederated Tribes & Bands of the Yakama Nation, the Nez Perce Tribe, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Tribes and the Wanapum Band, but none responded. The Tri-City Herald reached out to the tribes as well but was not able to connect for this story.
The zoning designation would allow the city to entertain proposals from developers for cultural facilities, unique lodging facilities, limited retail and sporting goods rentals.
The planning commission reviewed the proposed new zone and voted to recommend it be adopted by the city council. The council will consider the new zone when it meets Tuesday.
The rezone continues a conversation that began last year, when the city paid consultant Roger Brooks $85,000 to evaluate ways to strengthen the its core and its relationship with the river. The result was a lengthy proposal that included various scenarios for Columbia Point South, including restaurants and an amusement park modeled on Idaho’s Silverwood Theme Park.
The Brooks recommendations stirred controversy over potential development of the city’s extensive shoreline. But the idea of capitalizing on a key community asset became part of the city’s update to its 10-year comprehensive plan, a process that started earlier this year. The council is expected to give final approval to the comprehensive plan Tuesday.
Jensen said rezoning Columbia Point South doesn’t mean the 80 acres would end up with wall-to-wall development. If one site is inappropriate to develop because of cultural or other issues, the development would move to a different one.
Jensen called the allowed uses a starting point. No project will be authorized unless it passes close scrutiny. Since the city owns the property, it would not sell land to any developer without first signing off on the project.
If approved, the rezone will apply to the area that borders the freeway. The city’s 13.5 acres along the Columbia would remain as natural open space. The federal government owns the balance of the land at Columbia Point South. In all, 177 acres of land would remain open space.
In aerial photos, the city property is generally the sparsely vegetated land below the freeway, while the green area closer to the rivers is in federal ownership. Maps vicariously identify it as owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Department of Natural Resources.
A political hot potato
The rezone plan has emerged as an election issue, with four of the city council’s seven seats on the Nov. 7 ballot.
Dori Luzzo Gilmour, the incumbent in Council Position 7, and challenger Michael Alvarez disagree over developing Columbia Point South. So do Ginger Wireman and Ryan Lukson, the candidates for the Position 4 seat being vacated by David Rose.
Luzzo Gilmour told the Herald’s editorial board she is disappointed the city is discussing any development. Columbia Point South is sensitive not only for its tribal resources, but as a rich habitat for birds and other environmental concerns.
“Why are we even discussing this?” she wondered.
Alvarez is open to limited development, but only with input from citizens and tribes. If there’s support, he would favor some development coupled with rehabilitation of the landscape and its trails and walkways.
Wireman and Lukson share many similar views when it comes to municipal government. Columbia Point South is the main point where they differ.
Lukson told the Herald he favors development, but with active involvement of all interested tribes. The right development could give the city a much-needed identity, he said. He cites Bend and comparable cities that built their identities around their waterfronts.
“There is a lot of unused potential,” he said..
She has tracked the proposed rezone as it worked its way through the city’s process. Pursuing development would be a waste of city resources, she said. Setting aside cultural and environmental issues, she cites the failure of efforts to site the Hanford Reach Interpretive Center, aka The Reach.
Too, the property is only reachable by land through a narrow underpass that runs beneath the I-182 bridge.
She said the city should direct its economic development resources to recruiting occupants for its many vacant storefronts and office buildings.
“Columbia Point South is a nonstarter,” she said.
History and challenges
Columbia Point South is one of few shoreline properties in the Tri-Cities not owned by the federal government. City officials aren’t sure how the city acquired it, but note it has been city-owned for decades.
Pressure to develop rose about a decade ago with the proposed Hanford Reach project. Backers spent $3.6 million for plans and blueprints from a Seattle architect, and $1.1 million to install utilities to the edge of the property, according to Herald archives.
The plan foundered after the region’s tribes objected, noting it was once a gathering place for Native Americans. The Federal Highway Administration and Washington State Department of Transportation backed the tribes, prompting the public facilities district to build at Columbia Park West instead.
When Roger Brooks, the consultant, reviewed Columbia Point South, he saw an opportunity for light development. He took note of one of the major barriers to any future development: limited access.
Brooks proposed a shuttle system to keep private vehicles out while encouraging people to go in.
“Columbia Point South’s highest and best use would be the development of a major Tri-Cities attraction: a major theme park that would tie to river-based activities, trails and natural habitat areas,” he wrote.
The city has received no development proposals for Columbia Point South, Jensen said.
The proposed “urban recreation” zone is on the Richland City Council’s agenda for a first reading Tuesday and will not become official until it is heard a second time at a future meeting.
The council previews items on its agenda during a pre-meeting at 7 p.m., Tuesday, in the city manager’s conference room at 975 George Washington Way. Its formal meeting starts at 7:30 p.m., in the council chambers next door, 505 Swift Boulevard.
The sessions are open to the public. The latter includes a public comment period to give people time to directly address the council.