Point Ruston waterfront for sale? Tacoma says it's interested

The City of Tacoma is considering a deal with the developer of Point Ruston, a master-planned residential community and urban village built on the former Asarco smelter site, to purchase an eight-acre, 100-foot-wide swath of the Commencement Bay shoreline stretching from Ruston Way to Peninsula Park for $6 million, according to a presentation made Tuesday by City Manager Eric Anderson.

Under the proposed plan, the developer, Point Ruston LLC, would use the money to cover increased Local Improvement District (LID) costs related to the 97-acre project and agree to complete construction on the first 50 seaward feet of what would be the city-owned esplanade by the end of 2012. The rest of the esplanade would be completed as the Point Ruston project was built out. The city would purchase the shoreline property using a limited tax general obligation bond.

The plan also calls for the city to seek protection from any environmental liability related to the property by negotiating an indemnity agreement with the developer and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) so that the costs of cleanup continue to be borne by Point Ruston or the Asarco bankruptcy settlement — not by Tacoma. Point Ruston and the waterfront esplanade are part of a superfund site purchased by MC Construction in 2005. The developer and the EPA have worked together on cleaning up the toxic land. “We would not want to have something go wrong at Point Ruston, have the developer not be able to finish it, leave half of it unremediated, and all of a sudden, because we own the waterfront, we have to remediate it,” said Anderson. “We want to avoid that. That’s basically what this effort is intended to do.”

Still, as of Tuesday, the city had yet to discuss the plan or any indemnity agreements with EPA — something council gave Anderson the go-ahead on this week.

Anderson told councilmembers he saw the plan as an “opportunity” to own an important piece of waterfront property. “If the developer cannot proceed forward and complete the project — and we have not purchased this property and a new developer comes in — [the new developer] would negotiate a new deal with the EPA that may or may not include the waterfront property we’re talking about,” said Anderson. “If we own the property, we have purchased it and they cannot negotiate that away. The ownership guarantee is particularly strong because once the city acquires it, the charter preserves it as city-owned waterfront. The charter says you can’t sell that property unless you have a vote of the people. So it really locks it down in an unusually strong way. What it means is the city would have ownership of the entire length of esplanade, including the portion that is in Ruston, and would have full control. That’s the argument for going forward.”

He added that owning this stretch of waterfront — one-fourth of which is in Ruston — in perpetuity is “one of the principal motivations, if you will, if not the principal motivation.”

Anderson presented the plan to “get the temperature” of the council as to whether it was something the city should pursue. Several councilmembers said they generally supported the idea, with Deputy Mayor Lauren Walker calling the proposal “creative.” Councilmember Jake Fey said the idea “deserves the shine of light on it” and asked that councilmembers take up the issue again at its next study session, which is on Tues., March 8 at 12 p.m. at City Hall, Tacoma Municipal Building North, 733 Market St., Room 16. Audio from the session will be broadcast live on TV Tacoma and on http://www.tvtacoma.com .

For a copy of the presentation from Tacoma City Council’s committee of the whole meeting this week, click here — http://cms.cityoftacoma.org/cityclerk/Files/CouncilCommittees/Handouts/2011/COWHandouts/COW_20110301handouts.pdf .

NOTE: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to the developer as MC Construction Consultants.