PORT ORCHARD — Enduring the second year of COVID-19 presented the City of Port Orchard with its share of challenges, but the pandemic also brought about a realization that could likely impact the city’s workforce in unanticipated ways, Mayor Rob Putaansuu told the Independent during a wide-ranging review of accomplishments during 2021.
Just prior to the outbreak of the global viral pandemic, city officials had been investigating ways City Hall’s square footage could be maximized to accommodate a growing workforce. One alternative that had been looked at included a plan to transform the City Council chambers into additional office space.
But with the pandemic entering into a second year and a portion of the city’s employees continuing to work remotely, Putaansuu said some of the changes made to safeguard employees from the virus could likely become permanent.
“[COVID is] changing how we’re working,” the mayor said in an interview Monday. “This has really opened our eyes to how we can do business differently. We don’t have to have expensive office space for everyone. We’ve got technology now that can answer our work lines remotely.”
Putaansuu said going forward, City Hall will include offices with cubicles that can be shared by staff.
“It’s an evolving situation that’s changing some things into positives,” he said.
The “new normal” in the workplace is impacting the mayor, as well. As the incoming president of the Association of Washington Cities and a member of the Puget Sound Regional Council’s executive board, Putaansuu said he normally would be logging substantial mileage attending meetings held at various locations in the region.
But the pandemic has changed that requirement, he said.
“I’ll still be traveling, but not as much as I used to. It’s way more efficient [attending meetings remotely] if we can get our work done that way.”
Despite the disruption caused by COVID, Putaansuu said project planning and accomplishments by the city were unaffected in 2021. He pointed to the completion of a couple of the city’s subarea plans, which are part of its comprehensive planning processes.
One of the subarea plans completed last year — for the downtown area and county government campus — is vital for the creation of meaningful development in those areas. The master plan for downtown stretches from the West Bay Shopping Center to the former Cheers restaurant site on Bay Street, then up the hill to the county government campus.
Key to that subarea plan for downtown development is the South Kitsap Community Events Center project.
The city closed on its purchase of the current Kitsap Bank site last month, aided by a $1.2 million grant from the state Legislature. He said a new bank headquarters will be built in a three- to a four-year timeframe. The community center will sit on the bank’s current site after the headquarters building is demolished and construction starts in about four years, the mayor said.
“By completing that subarea plan, we are targeting a number of jobs and housing units that we want to see in these areas,” Putaansuu said.
A second subarea plan — for McCormick Village — was completed at the end of the year, Putaansuu said. It includes a small commercial element within the McCormick community.
“We’re going to see housing types that we haven’t seen in Port Orchard before: cottage-style homes and townhomes in a more walkable type of village setting,” he said. “I’m excited about those plans we’ve created and hope to see in the next few years development that’s consistent with those plans.”
New housing starts
Putaansuu said 380 multifamily units in Port Orchard are being built, which is a significant jump from that registered in recent years. Just 140 units were built in 2020 and just 38 in 2017. There weren’t any multifamily units built in 2019.
A major driver spurring development has been the multifamily housing tax exemption offered by the city in return for a portion of affordable housing from a project. Developer Bob Disney is taking advantage of the tax exemption and is building a project at the northeast corner of Plisko Lane and Mile Hill Drive.
Other projects include the Haven Apartments, a 216-unit project, at Ruby Creek. The Rush project at Sidney and Sedgwick, called the Sinclair Apartments Phase 2, is underway, as is the Pottery Creek Apartments, a 136-unit project, next to Fred Meyer on Sedgwick.
Putaansuu said another 540 apartment units are in review, which includes Disney’s 100 units.
Single-family units also topped out at 185 in 2021, close to the city’s all-time high of 192 in 2019. Another 113 units are ready to be issued by the city. He said there are 431 lots available for development in the city and expects them to be developed in the next few years.
While those numbers are encouraging, Putaansuu said providing affordable housing in the city continues to be a challenge.
“It’s a challenge for every community,” he said. “The significant housing shortage is driving that. Many of the factors driving that are beyond our control. We have tried to put tools like the multifamily tax exemption in place to help where we can.”
Complicating factors include material shortages and price increases, construction costs and labor shortages.
“It is a problem, particularly for a young family to be able to afford a house. It’s a tremendous challenge. Fortunately, there are a lot of good jobs out there that are readily available.”
Two roundabouts on Bethel Avenue are to break ground this year, Putaansuu said. Those projects at Lincoln and Mitchell will help alleviate traffic backups at those intersections, he added. In 2020, the city received a grant for the Lincoln-Bethel roundabout. A companion roundabout at Mitchell was added by the city, thanks to another $1.5 million grant from the state that was awarded as a safety element for the major roadway.
“That’s the first bite on a number of projects that need to happen to help traffic flow on the Bethel corridor,” he said.
A significant sewer project expected to get underway this year will help improve the city’s sewer service through improvements to the marina pump station. It also will benefit from technology improvements and a capacity increase, the mayor said.
“We lack the redundancies that a modern sewer station has, such as storage capacity, emergency generators and backup pumps,” he said of the city’s system station next to the Port Orchard Marina.
“You read about other communities with sewer overflows into Puget Sound. We’re trying to get out in front of that.”
The sewer station project cost is financially significant at $13 million. Putaansuu said, though, that the city has received a loan for the project at less than 1% interest.
“With inflation running 4 or 5%, a $13 million project would take us a number of years to save enough money from connection charges and from our ratepayers to pay for it,” he said.
”This is an example of something you want to borrow money for. With a 50-year lifecycle of the station and a 20-year loan, it would cost double that amount” if the city were to wait, taking into consideration inflation and appreciation costs.
Putaansuu also noted that the city’s partnership with McCormick Communities has resulted in the construction of a new water tower in that area by the developer. He said the corporation’s contribution will be repaid by the city from connection charges generated from newly built houses in the development.
City is performing well
Despite the complications due to COVID, Putaansuu said the city performed “very, very well” in 2021. He said the challenges due to growth will continue into the coming years: “It’s extremely challenging, from transportation to sewer and water infrastructure — all really expensive stuff — in determining how you prioritize projects.
“There’s only so many dollars and yet you have so many needs. How you deal with it is in prioritizing according to how you get the biggest bang for the buck. You’ve got to plan appropriately and prioritize, then execute your plans.”
Next week: Big plans for the city in 2022.