If the process to redevelop more than 200 acres at the former Boise Cascade Mill along Interstate 82 feels like it’s going at a snail’s pace, there’s a good reason.
“We’re only going to get one chance to develop it, that’s why we’re careful with what we’re doing,” said Cliff Moore, Yakima’s city manager.
But after more than a decade of conversations and behind-the-scenes work, all stakeholders, including the mill’s owners and the city of Yakima, are eager to take action to get the property ready for development.
All are eager to make progress on two cleanup efforts, start construction on roads that would provide access to the mill site and take another look at the best uses for the property.
“Cleanup, access and end-use,” said Brad Hill, a representative for LeeLynn Inc. and Wiley Mt. Inc., the mill redevelopment site’s majority property owners, describing the key areas of focus this year.
Before the redevelopment can start, the site needs to be cleaned up. The property has been contaminated from more than a century of operation as a lumber mill and log yard. A municipal landfill on the property is another source of contamination.
Two cleanup efforts are underway. A plan for the larger cleanup has been approved by the Washington State Department of Ecology. Most of the property is owned by LeeLynn Inc. and Wiley Mt. Inc., but there is a single parcel owned by Boise Cascade Corp. and its successor, OfficeMax Inc. Boise Cascade owns about 20 percent of the mill site.
Mary Monahan, state DOE site manager, said property owners have about 60 days from receiving the approval letter to start collecting soil and groundwater samples on the 171-acre cleanup site. They have 250 days to analyze the samples and submit a report to Ecology.
Assuming the property owners use the full 250 days, the report would get to Ecology by sometime in October, at the latest. The analysis will help Ecology and property owners determine the best course of action for cleanup. It’s highly unlikely that any actual cleanup will start this year, Monahan said.
The cleanup of a municipal landfill and former log pond is also in progress, said Moore. The city had a contract from 1963 to 1972 with Boise Cascade that allowed Yakima to fill a former log pond with municipal solid waste. The city is still working on a plan with Ecology that would allow Yakima to complete enough of the cleanup on the 28-acre site so it can move forward with planned road construction.
The remainder of the cleanup including the log pond, would be done later, Moore said.
Much of the work that will be done this year involves road projects essential to access the mill site.
That includes the East-West Corridor, a joint project between Yakima and Yakima County that would connect the north end of Yakima to Terrace Heights. The plan is to connect the East-West Corridor to the mill redevelopment site through an extension of Bravo Company Boulevard, which ends a few hundred feet north of a roundabout at Fair Avenue.
Yakima County is looking to start the first phase of its part of the East-West Corridor this fall, after the irrigation season is over, said Matt Pietrusiewicz, Yakima County engineer. The first phase includes building a roundabout that would connect the Butterfield Road to the planned corridor and reconstructing Butterfield Road between the roundabout and Keys Road. The first phase is expected to be completed sometime in 2020, Pietrusiewicz said.
Yakima County is still seeking to buy property needed for all three phases of construction, Pietrusiewicz said, but it should have enough land to start the first phase of the project.
Meanwhile, the city hopes to complete a federal environmental review for its extension of Bravo Company Boulevard, which will go through the mill site and eventually intersect with city’s portion of the East-West Corridor, Moore said.
The city is also working on acquiring the necessary property for the extension. Mill site owners said they still plan on donating property, but an updated assessment is needed so the city can find out the value of the donation, Moore said.
Yakima is also seeking funding that would pay for mitigations it might have to complete to get environmental review approval for the road extension, Moore said.
Moore hopes substantial progress will be made on three efforts by year’s end. “We’re moving forward on a variety of parallel pathways,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Washington State Department of Transportation is completing planning and design work for new lanes and ramps that would be built as part of a new interchange on Interstate 82. The interchange would provide access to the mill site via the new East-West Corridor and boost vehicle capacity in the area, said Summer Derrey, a spokeswoman for the Department of Transportation.
The agency is working with both Yakima and Yakima County on the interchange and has to wait on both entities to finish road projects that would connect to the interchange to start construction, which won’t happen for a few more years, Derrey said.
Hill said mill site owners and other stakeholders would likely revisit a key question this year: What exactly is the best use of the property?
Back in 2006, when property owners first started the project after the mill closed, the best choice appeared to be a regional retail center. At the time, such centers were doing well. And there was even a model for Yakima could follow — several hours south, in Bend, Ore., a developer turned a former mill into what is now the Old Mill District, which offers a variety of shopping, dining and entertainment options.
Now in 2019, retail has struggled nationally because of disruption from online retailers like Amazon.
While retail use isn’t completely out of the picture, a regional retail center is a no longer an ideal fit.
“We’ve got to take a closer look ... in industrial and commercial uses of all types, including retail, and see what might be a more contemporary approach to development in 2019,” Hill said.
Possible options could include medical and educational offices, entertainment options and other types of businesses, Moore said. There’s one thing he wants: “Anything that would bring new family- living-wage jobs,” he said. “We would love that.”
An organization that will be part of that conversation will be the Yakima County Development Association, the county’s economic development arm. The organization has long touted the site as a major source of new economic development activity.
Jonathan Smith, executive director of the Yakima County Development Association, said that the organization has been asking market research firms what kind of information it could gather for potential developers and businesses interested in the mill site.
Such information, such as cellphone information from those driving by the site, can be useful in developing best uses, he said. But the organization won’t start collecting such information until the site is much closer to being ready for development.
Information gathered now “would be outdated by 2022 or 2023, when we would start having serious conversations with developers,” Smith said.
Editor’s note: Brad Hill of LeeLynn Inc. is not to be confused with Yakima City Councilman Brad Hill.