Proposal would add rental housing to downtown Gig Harbor

A woman exercises on Soundview Drive in Gig Harbor on Tuesday, Aug. 23. The wall of trees to her left could be cut and developed into apartment or condominium housing. In background is the Gig Harbor waterfront.
A woman exercises on Soundview Drive in Gig Harbor on Tuesday, Aug. 23. The wall of trees to her left could be cut and developed into apartment or condominium housing. In background is the Gig Harbor waterfront. lwong@thenewstribune.com

The Ben B. Cheney Foundation is looking to buy and develop forested land at a busy intersection in Gig Harbor’s historic downtown to generate income for its charitable giving.

The foundation is under contract to buy five lots, including two treed parcels that intersect at Harborview and Soundview drives, and a third adjoining property at 7601 Soundview Drive.

It wants to build 35 to 40 housing units on the combined 2.27 acres — nearly four times what is allowed under current zoning. The units would be rentals, affording the foundation a steady income stream.

The foundation also has its sights set on two waterfront parcels at 2905 and 2907 Harborview Drive where the Green Turtle Restaurant, Sunset Yacht Sales, two marinas and a former agricultural building sit.

Built in 1932, the agricultural structure has since been divided into office suites. Foundation leaders are considering giving the 0.59-acre waterfront parcel with the building and its adjacent marina to the city, said Brad Cheney, foundation board president.

“The Cheney foundation is uniquely positioned to be able to donate or give that building, if we so decide, to the city,” he said. “We believe that building is cherished by the community. We have hopes of working with the community to give access to the building.”

The foundation hasn’t finalized plans for how it would develop the second waterfront lot — it could remain commercial or be used for homes, Cheney said. The second marina would remain. Current zoning allows a variety of commercial uses or three single-family homes.

We won’t get everybody’s buy in, but we want to do this right.

Brad Cheney, board president, Ben B. Cheney Foundation

The foundation has partnered with Tacoma developer Mike Hickey and his firm the Neil Walter Co. to develop the housing project they are calling One Harbor Point. They are under contract with the Haub family to buy the land.

Known for its development holdings and philanthropy in the South Sound, the Haub family has strong ties to Gig Harbor and Tacoma.

German grocery store magnate Erivan Haub donated his family’s Western art collection to the Tacoma Art Museum and paid for a new wing to showcase it with a $20 million gift.

No applications for the Cheney foundation’s project have been submitted to the city, but representatives will meet with Gig Harbor planners soon. A meeting for Aug. 23 had to be rescheduled, according to J.J. McCament, spokeswoman for the partnership.

At least two factors could impede the foundation’s plans: zoning and great blue herons.

The zoning issue could be addressed by a City Council-approved development agreement, which could allow the increased density without a lengthy zoning amendment process.

Mayor Jill Guernsey said it’s not uncommon for the city to enter into a development agreement when “big or unique projects” come forward.

Such an agreement “is likely to be something that is involved in this project,” she said but cautioned she could speak only in generalities because no formal application has been submitted.

Other large-scale projects with development agreements include the Heron’s Key senior living community (the largest development in city history), and the Fred Meyer project off Point Fosdick Drive.

The effect of the great blue herons is unpredictable and won’t be sorted out until next spring.

Five years ago the state designated the forested tract at Soundview and Harborview drives as a nesting area for the birds. At least eight heron nests have been identified on the wooded lot, with two other potential nests spotted.

The great blue heron is listed as a “state monitor species,” which means the state Department of Fish and Wildlife monitors the birds and manages their populations to prevent them from becoming endangered, threatened or sensitive.

Wildlife officials met with city planners and development representatives in the spring about the nesting area. The development group believes the nests are abandoned and no longer offer the birds refuge.

We offered to purchase the land from the Haub family and they were not interested.

Jeni Woock, Citizens for the Preservation of Gig Harbor

Notes from that meeting provided by the developer indicate the nests were active until at least 2014, but there is question whether they were active after that. They were confirmed inactive in May when a Fish and Wildlife official visited the site.

Unable to conclusively determine whether the herons have moved on, the state and developers agreed to continue monitoring the site until April 30, 2017.

If no herons return, the state will consider the site inactive, leaving management to the property owner’s discretion.

Gig Harbor resident Jeni Woock, who heads Citizens for the Preservation of Gig Harbor, said her group tried to buy the land to save the heron rookery.

“When we heard about this our citizen group consulted with a conservation group,” Woock said. “We offered to purchase the land from the Haub family and they were not interested.”

The development team showed Woock project plans for the site, and she said she worries about traffic if the project is built as proposed.

Noting a different developer’s plan to build apartments at the shopping complex on nearby Judson Street, Woock said she doesn’t think Soundview Drive can handle the increased traffic.

“The city, of course, is famous for allowing developers to do what they want without taking into consideration how the traffic gets around from one location to another,” Woock said.

The development team is working on its traffic analysis and hopes to accommodate parking on site, Hickey said.

The Cheney foundation is targeting an older demographic, 55 years and up, for its project. This demographic drives less and the location downtown means residents can walk places, McCament said.

Gary Glein, past president of the Gig Harbor Downtown Waterfront Alliance, said more housing downtown isn’t the reason for increased traffic.

The Cheney foundation and the Cheneys are local people who have stakes in the community.

Gary Glein, Gig Harbor Downtown Waterfront Alliance

“The biggest traffic problem is people going through downtown,” said Glein, who has lived in the downtown Millville district for nine years. “Residences aren’t as big of generators of traffic as other things might be.”

The success of a downtown depends on people living there, he said. Adding more residences, he said, “is strategically important to downtown Gig Harbor.”

“Creating residential by the Cheneys on the Haub property there is a plus,” he said. “The Cheney foundation and the Cheneys are local people who have stakes in the community.”

Unrelated to the project, the city’s planning commission is reviewing multiple properties in the downtown area to determine whether current zoning matches a vision for the city’s future. One of those lots is the triangle at Soundview and Harborview drives.

The review is part of a process the City Council initiated four years ago, said city planning director Jenifer Kester. The proposed zoning change for the corner lot would allow more residential uses on the property, but no timeline has been set for when that could happen.

While all this plays out, the development group says it will continue to work on its plans, including finalizing the type of housing to build. Potential designs include condominiums, cottage housing or town homes, Hickey said.

The units would be rentals and the rent would generate income for the Cheney foundation. It would be the first income-generating housing project operated by the organization.

“We are using this as an investment,” Cheney said. “The dollars that are earned would go back into the foundation for distribution.”

Cheney noted five of the foundation’s seven board members live in Gig Harbor.

“We won’t get everybody’s buy in,” he said, “but we want to do this right.”