By Nicholas Johnson

Before the city of Des Moines decides whether to permit demolition of a 95-year-old Masonic retirement home, the public will have a chance to help shape an analysis of the impacts of demolishing the iconic property.

The Des Moines City Council voted unanimously Thursday night (Feb. 10, 2022) to bring in a consultant who will prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) identifying and analyzing adverse environmental impacts, reasonable alternatives and possible mitigation measures to reduce impacts.

“I want the residents of this city to know this is a requirement,” Mayor Matt Mahoney said during Thursday’s council meeting. “It opens up the best possibilities for the public to be engaged. That’s what’s important, that’s what you asked for, and you’re going to get that.”

BACKGROUND
The now-vacant Masonic home along Marine View Drive South was built in 1926 and opened in 1927, serving for decades as a retirement home for Washington’s Freemasons. Also known as the Landmark on the Sound, the property was used as an event center for several years in the early 2000s.

In 2013, the Masons put the property up for sale. Clint Brown Jr., grand secretary of the Masons of Washington, confirmed to The Waterland Blog on Friday that the building had been in need of upgrades to its mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems, as well as renovations for seismic safety, at an estimated cost of $40 million.

In 2014, the state Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation determined that the building was eligible to be added to the National Register of Historic Places. In 2015, the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation added the property to its list of Washington’s Most Endangered Places.

In 2019, the Masons sold the property for $11.5 million to EPC Holdings LLC, which transferred ownership to Zenith Properties LLC a few months later.

As part of the sale, the Masons submitted a demolition permit application, which was later taken over by Zenith, who in September 2020 submitted various plans and technical documents to the city, including an environmental checklist and a historical resource report.

EIS PROCESS
While the consultant, Environmental Science Associates, will work at the direction of the city, Zenith will pay for their work to prepare the EIS, which is broken into three phases: scoping, drafting and finalizing.

Before kicking off the scoping phase, the consultant will assist city staff to produce a formal Determination of Significance, which is issued when a proposal is likely to result in significant adverse environmental impacts for which mitigation cannot be easily identified. That determination requires preparation of an EIS.

The scoping phase is when the public and other agencies are invited to provide comments identifying issues and concerns to be analyzed in the EIS and evaluate possible alternatives to demolition. The consultant will work with the city to develop a public involvement plan, host a virtual public meeting, establish a project web page, and solicit and review written comments using the consultant’s proprietary comment tracking software.

“We know people are interested in this proposal, and so the volume of comments we anticipate is a lot,” said Susan Cezar, the city’s chief strategic officer. “So the ability of this consultant to help us to categorize and make sure we don’t miss anything and incorporate all of those public comments into the scoping process and the rest of the EIS is really important.”

The EIS is expected to have a relatively limited scope since the current proposal does not include any development beyond demolition, Cezar told the council Thursday night.

“What we think will be the major scope of this is related to cultural resources impacts,” Cezar said. “Having said that, however, during the scoping process, that could certainly expand.”

Based on comments collected during the scoping process, the consultant will prepare and publish a draft EIS, which will trigger another opportunity for public feedback before a final EIS is produced. When the EIS process is complete, the city will decide whether and under what conditions to issue a demolition permit.

“This is the first part of figuring out what is going to happen with the site,” said councilmember Jeremy Nutting. “It’s a long process and there’s going to be a long time for comments. I can’t imagine that an environmental impact study is going to be done within nine months, maybe twelve.”

PRESERVATION
Prior to Thursday’s council meeting, the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation in a post on its website urged the public to begin advocating for the Masonic home’s preservation by providing written and oral comments to the council.

“This step is in compliance with the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) and we encourage its full execution,” the trust wrote Wednesday on its website, referring to the step of preparing an EIS. “However, this step also signifies that the plans for demolition are beginning to solidify and therefore, our advocacy for the preservation of this landmark must also begin now!”

In response to public comments advocating for the building’s preservation Thursday night, councilmembers Harry Steinmetz and JC Harris stressed that if the building is to be preserved, it will be the result of the public’s efforts to make it happen.

“It is possible to have historical preservation here, but it is up to the public; it is not up to the city,” Harris said. “It’s not easy. It’s millions of dollars. You’ve got to want it. But such things are possible.

“In my opinion,” Harris added, “the Masonic home is Des Moines, we all just live here.”

 

Nicholas Johnson (he/him) is an award-winning writer, editor and photographer who grew up in Boulevard Park, graduated from Highline High School and studied journalism at Western Washington University. Send news tips, story ideas and positive vibes to [email protected].