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Originally published September 20, 2010 at 9:40 PM | Page modified September 21, 2010 at 5:57 AM

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Point Wells: oil tanks to condo towers?

Worried neighbors and an appeal by adjoining cities haven't discouraged a developer with a $1 billion vision for remaking Point Wells industrial site near Shoreline.

Times Snohomish County reporter

Community open house

The developer of a proposed urban center at Point Wells, on Puget Sound and adjacent to Woodway and Shoreline, has scheduled an open house Thursday from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Shoreline Conference Center, 18560 First Ave. N.E., Shoreline. For more information about the proposed development and to view a video on the project, go to www.point-wells.com.

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The smell at times is like a tar roof being laid on a hot day.

Some of the 80 oil tanks at the 61-acre Point Wells asphalt facility and oil-tank farm are almost 100 years old. The largest holds 5.5 million gallons of oil. A maze of pipes crisscrosses the property, a conduit for oil delivered weekly in rail tankers and transferred to vessels that refuel cruise ships on Seattle's waterfront.

The Israeli billionaire developer who owns Point Wells near Shoreline wants to transform the property, with its rusting smokestacks and polluted groundwater, into a waterfront development — something neighbors fear would be as dense with new condos as downtown Bellevue. Two-thirds of a mile of sandy beach would be restored and opened to the public, backed by condos, shops and businesses.

"It's my dream," says Shraga Biran, the driving force behind the Point Wells development, in a video for the project. "I'm starting up a process of metamorphosis, from ugly to beautiful, from neglected to something exemplary and great."

To create a site plan, Biran has hired Perkins + Will, the architects who designed the award-winning Dockside Green development on Victoria, B.C.'s Upper Harbor. The Victoria community produces its own heat, treats its sewage and recycles wastewater into an attractive series of landscaped ponds that spill into the nearby bay.

But total costs for Point Wells, including environmental cleanup and high-end construction, could reach $1 billion. To cover those costs, the developer wants to maximize use of the prime property. And that worries the neighbors in Shoreline and Woodway, who largely favor environmental cleanup of the old site but fear the proposed development would overwhelm the two-lane road that now serves the property, as well as destroy views.

The Snohomish County Council in May approved an "urban center" zoning designation for Point Wells, allowing buildings up to 18 stories and 3,500 condominiums. The two cities, plus a Richmond Beach group, appealed to the state's Growth Management Hearings Board, arguing that such zoning is meant for far more urban sites.

But those appeals are on hold as the cities attempt to negotiate the scale of the project with the developer, Blue Square Real Estate, a holding of the Alon Group, an international energy and real-estate company based in Tel Aviv, Israel.

Blue Square will host a second open house for the community Thursday that will include a presentation by Dockside Green architect Peter Busby of Perkins + Will.

While no formal application has been filed for the project, Busby said he anticipates buildings up to 17 stories, or 180 feet, at the rear of the site, stepping down in height to the water, and about 3,000 condominium units. He noted that the bluff, which separates most of Woodway from Point Wells, is about 200 feet.

He said many of the ideas from Victoria's Dockside Green can be applied to Point Wells, including a power plant to provide energy, a sewage-treatment facility, as well as shops and services such as restaurants and medical and dental clinics.

To offset traffic impacts, Busby said the developers also are exploring a range of transit options, from car sharing and van pools to water taxis and an eventual Sound Transit Sounder station.

"We're not just proposing green buildings. Point Wells could be the first completely self-sustaining community in the United States," Busby said. "The challenge is to get the neighbors to see that it needs to be big enough that the other (retail and commercial) uses can survive. Otherwise, people get in their cars and leave."

In adopting the urban-center zoning, the county encouraged the developers to work with neighboring jurisdictions to reach agreement on density, scale and design. Woodway and Shoreline asked the county in July to limit the project to 11-story buildings and 800 housing units.

But the county last week said the cities couldn't set limitations more restrictive than the urban-center zoning.

Eric Faison, administrator for Woodway, said county staff members seem to be interpreting the new urban-center code to give cities no meaningful say over the size of the proposed development.

Faison said 3,000 condos would be similar in scale to the residential development in downtown Bellevue.

"We don't think that's appropriate for a site that has only one access point, that's far away from any employment center and lacks public transportation," he said.

And Sound Transit says it doesn't have a Point Wells station in its current 15-year plan. What's more, industry standards suggest that, for efficiency, train stations be located at least five miles apart. The existing Edmonds station is about one mile away.

"It would be highly unusual for us to construct a station one mile from an existing station," said Kimberly Reason, media-relations specialist for Sound Transit.

The Point Wells site also raises environmental concerns.

Tim Walsh, chief hazards geologist for the state Department of Natural Resources, called Point Wells "a scary site." The ground could liquefy in an earthquake, he said, and most of the site is just a few feet above sea level.

He said two landslides in the past 200 years have triggered tsunamis on Puget Sound. Both flooded low-lying communities nearby.

"That's an area that a tsunami could wash over," Walsh said. At the same time, a redeveloped site could restore natural habitat, clean up industrial pollution and be engineered to withstand earthquakes and tsunamis.

"It's certainly an unsavory site at the moment."

Mark Wells, the site manager for Point Wells' current fuel transfer and asphalt operations, said the facility would be closed and the site cleaned up in phases over several years if the project wins county approval. The redevelopment proposal still would face environmental review and public hearings.

Wells said the end result, with miles of near-shoreline habitat restored and a Puget Sound beach open to the public, would be "spectacular."

"The neighbors are going to be looking at a beautiful development instead of rusty tanks," he said.

Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or lthompson@seattletimes.com

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