Sunday, July 11, 2021

Interstate 5 did not destroy Tumwater's downtown. It was already dead. Killed by isolation

One of the most persistent Olympia-area history myths is that Interstate 5 destroyed Tumwater's downtown. I've written about this before, so what follows you can find in different forms in other places, but I tidied it up for this post.

Daisy Ackley in her “Wagon Wheel’s A’Rolling” history tells what has become common knowledge in our area, the interstate came careening through town and destroyed what was Tumwater.

Poor old Tumwater. There is nothing left of the original town, save the name. It has been drawn and quartered (as it were), but the "Freeway" running through it from "stem to gudgeon." None of the old landmarks on Main Street (now Deschutes Way) are left.


Let’s take a step back and explore Tumwater’s history through its roads. Interstate 5 wasn’t the first road to change the course of Tumwater’s history. It is possible to tell the story of the town through its roads and railroads.

The Olympia Tenino/Port Townsend Southern Railroad (1875) and the Olympia Terminal/Union Pacific (1915) and the transition between the two show how roads changed Tumwater and how they changed the focus of Tumwater.

The Port Townsend line ran through the old river focussed Tumwater, connecting its industries directly along the lower Deschutes estuary to the saltwater on the shores of West Olympia.

The Union Pacific line (while it did connect through a branch down to the old Olympia brewery site then on saltwater) is certainly new Tumwater. And, through ownership changes in the early 1900s, both lines became owned by the same company (Union Pacific) and the latter replaced the former in connecting Tumwater to the Olympia waterfront.

In geography, here's the difference between the two lines. The Port Townsend line ran through the west side of what is now the Tumwater Falls Park. Much of the current trail is actually the old railroad grade. It continued down the west side of the Deschutes River (now Capitol Lake) until reaching saltwater near where Tugboat Annie’s is now.

While the Port Townsend Line sunset in 1916, the Union Pacific (former Olympia Terminal Line) was being completed just a year earlier. This is the current line when you think of the Olympia Brewery. Going down Custer Way, this is the line you cross over. The one obstacle that the road had to face to get from up on the east bluff to downtown Olympia and the waterfront was the bluff itself. The solution was a tunnel under Capitol Boulevard.

What's interesting to me is that while the new railroad, the railroad that started drawing Tumwater up and away from the river, seems so tiny compared to I-5. While tunneling under Capitol Way created a nice shortcut for the railroad, it pales in comparison to the obliteration of the same hillside by I-5 just decades later.

And that move, away from the industry of the river in the early 1900s, was the most vital step. It shows that Tumwater as a community was already moving away from what people claim as the city’s “downtown” well before the interstate.

This is "downtown Tumwater" as it existed in 1946 (detail from this photo at the Washington State Archives):



While I-5 may have come along later to bury Tumwater's historic downtown, by the time it got there, Capitol Way had already stuck the knife in.

The best history of this, actually what got me started on this entire line of thinking, is Shanna Stevenson's chapter "A Freeway Runs Through It" in "The River Remembers." She points out that before 1936 the main drag through Tumwater dog-legged through the old downtown Tumwater.

After the current Capitol Way was finished in 1938, it totally bypassed the old downtown. This bypass led to the creation of the commercial area down at Capitol Way and Trosper Road.

Going from crossing the Deschutes on a low bridge over waterfalls, the main road through Tumwater now crossed the Deschutes at a much wider point (a more than 1,000 foot span) over what is now the old (but then new) Tumwater brewery.

For over a decade before Interstate 5 uprooted the blocks old downtown Tumwater, the city was already abandoning its water-falls based history and moving east and south.

Even compared to the current downtown Olympia, “downtown” (and that is a real stretch to call it that) Tumwater in the early 1950s was isolated and not a thriving business district.

And the kicker is that the Tumwater City council signed onto the plan:


By 1951 a route for the future I-5 was selected which would have separated the state Capitol from downtown Olympia via an underground viaduct along Tenth Avenue. It would have crossed Capitol Lake near the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad trestle and traveled up the Percival Creek canyon into West Olympia. A spur road to the west was to be located near the head of the creek, and would have provided access to Shelton and Aberdeen.

However, in 1954 cost estimates for the Tenth Avenue route caused highway engineers to seek an alternative alignment. The Tumwater Canyon, with its basalt bedrock, was proposed as an alternative. The Tumwater Canyon alternative would virtually wipe out the original central business district of Tumwater, cross Capitol Lake in a wide curve, and cut under Capitol Way at 27th Avenue.

Another alternative route, called the Dunham bypass, would have by-passed both downtown Olympia and Tumwater to cross near Ward Lake. ...In April 1954, after much discussion, both the Olympia and Tumwater city councils signed onto the Tumwater Canyon alternative.


If I-5 did kill any part of Tumwater, Tumwater let it happen. And at any rate, Tumwater's actual commercial districts had already moved on.

Wednesday, July 07, 2021

The scale of out of town real estate investment in Thurston County is small

A candidate for Olympia City Council recently released a list of ideas to prevent out-of-towners and corporations from buying homes in Olympia. The end would be to make housing was more affordable by making it harder for people who don't live here to bid up houses. This is an interesting line of thinking, but first I wanted to dive deeper into the phenomena he describes. His post leans to heavily on anecdotal evidence of distant corporations snapping up single-family homes.

Thankfully, Thurston County GeoData allows you to download the entire parcel database. This can tell you who bought any piece of property, when, and for what price. Here is what I found:

1. More rentals, more out-of-state buyers. But within the normal range.

Both the number of out-of-town buyers and homes simply bought for rentals has gone up in the last year. That said, they've gone up to a point well within the range of what you would expect in any given year since 1995.

For rentals, I looked at single-family home parcels where the owner's address did not match the address of the parcel:From the above chart, about half the percent of single-family homes in a given year are purchased as rentals. I assume there is a skew towards homes purchased further back to be listed as rentals since many homes would have been bought and sold several times since 1995. So, if a house today has a sale date in the 1990s, it is likely a long-term rental held by the same person. But you can even see in recent years (say since the economic recovery in the mid-teens) there was a slow decline in the number of single-family homes bought for rentals, with a slight uptick this year.

For out of state owners, I just looked at the owner's state:

Again, there was year-by-year data available back until the 1990s, and houses with sale dates that far back are long-term purchases, probably making them more than likely to be long-term rentals. But even these have owner addresses more likely to be in Washington. And again, there is an uptick this year in out of state purchases. That said, the vast vast vast majority of single-family home purchases are made by residents of Washington. The uptick this year when from two percent to only five percent of all purchases.

2. Two major out of state corporate buyers, but in context not a big deal for Olympia or the county

Lastly, I was able to take a look at who the buyers had been in the last year with out-of-state addresses. The GeoData spreadsheet does not include names, only addresses. But with a bit of sleuthing, I was able to find two  corporate buyers that are currently active in the Thurston County Market. Home Partners and Invitation Homes (as of early June) own 71 parcels with single-family homes across Thurston County purchased since the beginning of the pandemic.

Again, that is definitely a number, but when compared across all purchases since March 2010 (arbitrary date I picked to put a pin in the current pandemic-fueled housing market), their total purchases only count towards 1.1 percent (71 out of more than 6,400 transactions) of the market. 

Also, the map of their purchases are telling:

Most of the homes purchased by these two corporations are outside of Olympia. In fact, they are mostly in newer neighborhoods on the fringes of the advancing wall of sprawl of our community. The actual parcel-by-parcel impact, at the very least, is being felt in Lacey, Tumwater and the unincorporated county, but not Olympia.

Yes, some single-family homes are being bought by institutional buyers. And in the grand scheme of the entire single-family housing market in Thurston, it is a tiny amount. 

But why should this worry us? Is it because we think all homes should be owner occupied?

I think we (or at least the linked-to candidate above and their supporters) have a bias in how they thing about apartments and single-family homes.

Most of the large apartment complexes being built in Thurston County are built, funded, and operated by massive out-of-state corporations. When I lived in a fairly new apartment complex in SE Olympia, I sent my money to a corporation in Texas with a regional office in Seattle. While there had been some neighborhood-level hand wringing about that fairly modest complex being built because of traffic and unsavory renters, none of the concern was about whether the apartments would be owned by an out-of-state corporation. 

But there is concern about out of state corporations owning single-family homes, because there is a mindset that these should be owner-occupied. This is the natural order of things.

There is little to no benefit for our city to be bought and owned by outside investors and incredible negatives. It creates a dynamic where people such as teachers are being outbid and forced to rent rather than building equity in a home they own and deepening their roots in the community or being forced to live far outside of town and commute great distances. That is a burden on the environment and our infrastructure as well as a cost on the teacher.

"... forced to rent rather than building equity in a home they own and deepening their roots..."

I'm not saying institutional corporate ownership of homes (single-family or apartment or in between) is a thing we need to encourage more of, I'm just saying we should examine where we decide to wring our hands.