Northern State study second of its kind

Skagit County, the Port of Skagit and the city of Sedro-Woolley formed an interlocal partnership in January for a comprehensive study of the best possible uses of the site economically.

By Kimberly Cauve, August 4, 2014, Skagit Valley Herald

The North Cascades Gateway Center campus comes alive with workers in neon vests and hard hats during the warm, dry summer months.

In a single day, three workers repair a roof — two clear storm drains and one is elevated in a cherry picker to replace lights — while another worker zips around mowing the lawn, and another fills in potholes.

State Department of Enterprise Services staff tackle the majority of outdoor maintenance and repair projects during the summer to take advantage of the good weather. Often alongside them are U.S. Department of Labor Job Corps students working to get certified in a trade.

But what does the future hold for the site of the former Northern State Hospital?

The question still looms while a team of contractors chips away at the layers of history, soil and community interests captured by the 227-acre campus. And it’s a question that’s gone unanswered for decades.

The state Department of General Administration inherited the property after the mental hospital’s closure in 1973. The agency later became the state Department of Enterprise Services, and the campus is now called the North Cascades Gateway Center.

About half of its 44 buildings are part of a nationally recognized historical district. Twelve have been left unusable as growing infrastructure needs of the aging campus surpassed Enterprise Services’ operations and maintenance budget.

Aging infrastructure

Enterprise Services manages the buildings, grounds, steam generation and distribution, electrical distribution and sewer and storm-water systems that support campus operations, Communications Director Curt Hart said. It uses revenue from tenancy and utility reimbursement to cover operating expenses for staffing 12 employees on site, utilities, service contracts, repairs and maintenance.

Several of the buildings are occupied with Job Corps operations and other community programs. While four of the early buildings now used to house Job Corps students have been upgraded with new roofs, others stand empty with broken and boarded windows, peeling exterior stucco walls and mossy tile shingles on the roof.

For example, Trevennen Hall, which served as nurses quarters when Northern State Hospital was active, requires expensive upgrades before it could be used, Enterprise Services Construction Maintenance Superintendent John Wiggins said. Inside, the empty buildings are filled with lead paint, warping floors and broken glass.

A few concrete building pads overgrown with moss and weeds show where buildings have been torn down.

Still, most days upward of 400 people occupy the campus, comparable to the population of Lyman, Wiggins said. And there’s room for more.

“I would love to see more development up there, I really would. Job development would be great,” he said.

Twenty buildings are leased to the Job Corps program, which along with other campus tenants provide educational programs, juvenile jobs training, drug and alcohol treatment, mental health services and other community programs using about 350,000 square feet of classroom, administrative, dormitory and treatment facility space.

The state’s income from those tenants averages $2.6 million annually, Hart said.

Over the past 10 years, the state agency has spent $7.2 million from lease payments on maintenance. It has also invested nearly $4 million in capital funding for things like new roofs, fire alarms, sewer and storm-sewer repairs, upgrades to the domestic water system and elevator repairs.

That hasn’t been enough to keep up with maintenance and keep all of the doors open, and just how much that might cost isn’t known.

“That’s why we’ve been involved in exploring the future use of the property with folks there in the community,” Hart said.

Skagit County, the Port of Skagit and the city of Sedro-Woolley formed an interlocal partnership in January for a comprehensive study of the best possible uses of the site economically.

The state hopes the results will determine how to handle the aging buildings for specific potential uses.

“There are some buildings not in use because they are not in good shape,” Hart said. “It’s cost prohibitive for us to repair it. More than likely the most cost-effective route would be for us to refurbish it or tear it down, but we’re not sure.”

Drawn-out decision

This isn’t the first time the state has considered its options. General Administration was awarded $100,000 in 1988 to study possible uses of the partially vacant campus and released a report summarizing the findings in 1992.

According to the document, 60 percent of the buildings were occupied at that time, and 10 of the vacant buildings were not usable due to structural deficiencies and deterioration. Weather exposure and turning off heat and electricity in several buildings in 1976 to cut operating costs caused some of the problems.

The conclusion of the study laid out options to sell, demolish or expand the site. None was appealing.

Overall, the cost of complete demolition was estimated to be less at that time than renovation. While demolition and restoration of the land was estimated at $16.3 million, renovation of the buildings and infrastructure was projected at $27.3 million.

Selling it was determined “very unlikely” because of the presence of hazardous materials and abandonment of some of the buildings. Demolition was deemed unfeasible because the state would lose money it had invested in the property.

Renovation was projected to be costly because substantial upgrades would be needed to bring the buildings up to seismic and life-safety codes, and antiquated utilities and roofing would need to be replaced. It was also believed the use of asbestos when the structures were built would complicate reconstruction.

The report concluded that the campus did not lend itself to ownership or operation under a single entity, but was better suited as a multi-use facility. It recommended the state “involve the community in identifying potential additional uses for the campus and surrounding property.”

Now 22 years later, local agencies have come together to conduct a second study. This time they are actively pursuing community input, and the state Department of Ecology is footing most of the bill.

Pinpointing pollution

Alongside each local partner’s commitment to spend at least $25,000 on the study, which was projected to cost $325,000, Ecology awarded a $200,000 grant to support the cause.

The money, called an integrative planning grant, came from Ecology’s Toxics Cleanup Program. The grants are intended to remove uncertainty about what needs to be done environmentally in order to redevelop a site, particularly in small towns that can’t afford engineering and design staff.

The state-issued grants have taken damaged or abandoned areas — often called “brownfields” — and created something attractive and economically beneficial in other communities, like building a park and market on the Wenatchee waterfront in place of an old landfill and industrial building.

According to Ecology’s Toxics Cleanup Program records, the main Northern State Hospital campus had five underground storage tanks for heating oil, gasoline and diesel fuel, communications manager Seth Preston said in an email. Three were removed in 1992. One was left because it was too close to a building, and the other could not be found.

“That’s really the extent of what we know to this point, which is why we’re really interested in this environmental assessment, too,” Preston said.

Ecology suspects the soil and groundwater may have residual contamination related to benzene, a chemical found in petroleum and other products. It can cause a wide range of health effects depending on the amount and length of time exposed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It’s also possible there are more tanks than the state office knows about. According to General Administration documents, there may have been as many as six underground tanks and four smaller ones in crawl spaces. Ecology hopes the study will verify that and help spark a transformation of the historic campus.

“It’s obviously a place with a lot of potential. There’s a lot of land up there, it’s right along … Highway 20. It’s something that people have been interested in doing something with,” said Preston, who grew up in Sedro-Woolley and remembers playing baseball on fields adjacent to the hospital. “That fits with some of our goals for getting the environment cleaned up and helping boost communities through economic development.”

The consultants on the job are expected to complete soil testing in August, project manager Marc Estvold said.

“We don’t anticipate this to be an extremely contaminated site, but we do believe there is some,” he said.

A community transformation

The Port of Skagit, acting lead agency for the study, was the local recipient of the state grant. The Port used the money to hire a group of consultants through Pacific Northwest firm Maul Foster & Alongi Inc. to evaluate the property, including the status of the historical buildings, any environmental problems on the campus and an economic analysis to determine whether proposed uses are realistic, Estvold said.

Port Executive Director Patsy Martin said so far, the community has pointed toward a publicly accessible site offering a variety of services.

More than 100 people visited the campus June 5 to exchange ideas for the site’s future with local officials and the consultants. The majority of interests steered toward community uses like reverting back to a hospital or medical facility, expanding the existing educational use or providing social services.

The local partners that teamed up to tackle the old campus hope the consultants will pin down how to best transform it into “the next thing that achieves our goals and the public’s goals,” Martin said.

Estvold said the cooperation between local partners, the state agencies and hired help is what’s really moving the project forward.

“This project — wow — I wasn’t really sure how you’d get your arms around this,” Estvold told Port staff in June. “But it’s coming together. The key to this is you have so many people working together toward one goal.”

The consultants plan to have a summary of the community’s interests coupled with preliminary suggestions by late September, which will be presented at a public meeting.

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