News Column

Edgewood Flower Farm's historic barn, farmhouse to be torn down for new apartments

July 15, 2014

By Kari Plog, The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.)

July 15--Bill O'Ravez was hard at work one recent sunny morning, slowly disassembling pieces of Edgewood's history.

In 1954, his parents bought what long has been known as the Edgewood Flower Farm. Over the years the family sold berries and various fruits and vegetables.

For decades, the farm was a destination flower retailer in the East Pierce County city of about 9,400.

O'Ravez recalled it was the place where many Edgewood residents "got their first taste of work" as kids.

But what was intended to be a short-term closure of the farm in 2007 spiraled into a long-term struggle to secure the future of two historic buildings on the property.

One, a barn built in 1917, is listed on the Washington Heritage Barn Register. The other is a 2,200-square-foot farmhouse the couple calls charming and sturdy, something they say is rarely seen today.

Now, developers have nearly reached an agreement with the couple to buy the land, a sale that took years to secure after plans of downsizing the farm's operations backfired during the recession.

Their plan -- to build the first multifamily housing complex in the city -- will mean demolition of the two historic buildings, beloved by the owners and the community.

Donna O'Ravez, Bill's wife and a member of the Edgewood City Council, says the developers have good intentions but she wishes they'd reconsider tearing down the buildings.

"We've steadfastly tried to get the developers to keep (the structures)," she said. "We think it would be a draw to their development."

The new owners offered to help relocate the farmhouse but moving the barn wasn't feasible because of its condition, said Mark Lundberg, owner of Carlton Development Group, a developer involved with the housing project.

There was no turning back after the new landowners realized they couldn't cover the other relocation costs, Lundberg said.

"We've got a lot of money in this," he said. "We can't just drop our plans at this point."

GROWTH TAKES ROOT

City officials sympathize with the desire to save the barn and the farmhouse, but they say the decision is up to the developers.

"While we'd like to see those structures stay, the municipal code has no requirement for them to stay," city planner Kevin Stender said.

Stender said the housing project -- which is going through the city's permitting process -- would include 254 units on the flower farm property and on parcels to the east and south, a swath of land just north of city hall on Meridian Avenue East.

It would be the first of what is anticipated to be several multifamily housing projects in Edgewood.

"We've had a lot of interest in the last year or so," Stender said. "I'm expecting at least two other apartment projects by the end of the summer."

The impending project is an example of the push and pull between preserving Edgewood's rural roots and supporting its growth.

"If you look at our comprehensive plan, it has a strong interest in maintaining a rural atmosphere," Stender said. "If you drive about a thousand feet in either direction (of the project site), it will be fairly open spaces."

Lundberg said the planned housing project will enhance the community. It is a lower-impact development -- about 18 units per acre -- compared to other multifamily projects, he said.

"We feel that we're doing a great upscale project for Edgewood," Lundberg said. Current zoning could have allowed other developers to "pack twice the number of units" on the property, he said.

The sale is "really, really close" to being finalized, Lundberg said, adding the project could begin as soon as 60 days out. He estimated it will take about 18 to 20 months to complete.

FINANCIAL STRUGGLES

Seven years ago, Bill and Donna O'Ravez's big plans for the Edgewood Flower Farm quickly turned into big problems.

They planned to downsize and sell the back portion of the nearly 9-acre property for senior housing and other non-farm-related development. The farmhouse would become a bistro and gift shop.

"We thought we'd be up and running in a year's time," Bill O'Ravez said.

The bank kept delaying funds for the developer seeking to buy the land, assuring the couple the problems were minor.

Then the economy tanked and the bank yanked financing for the project. The sale was dead.

"That put us into a really bad situation," Bill O'Ravez said.

By that time, the couple had sold off much of their inventory in anticipation of a smaller operation. They were living off that money and the income from spring crops sold at their off-site Edgewood home.

After the first flower-farm buyer backed out, the nonprofit organization Step By Step showed interest in buying the property in fall 2012. The Milton-based organization helps struggling expectant mothers, and currently leases the farmhouse.

The group planned to buy the land, build a headquarters and use the property for job training.

The plan preserved the farmhouse and barn and included several new structures.

But both sides couldn't agree on a price for the land and the sale fell through.

'BACKED INTO A CORNER'

The housing developers contacted the couple in December 2012, and were willing to try to keep the barn and farmhouse intact.

They originally planned to set aside a little more than an acre for Bill and Donna O'Ravez, structures included.

Then, the couple said, the developers bought a nearby property for cheap and sought all of the flower farm property for a lower price; the new terms called for all or nothing.

Because the land is in a local improvement district that brought in a sewer line along Meridian, whoever owns the land is on the hook for about $95,000 a year.

Due to those fees and years of failed attempts to sell the property, the O'Ravezes felt they couldn't pass on the developers' adjusted offer and agreed to the new terms.

"We were backed into a corner," Bill O'Ravez said.

His wife added that "we don't fault anyone with what happened," stressing the economy was the primary reason for their struggles.

Still, the couple said they wish the developers would maintain the integrity of the historic buildings.

As for saving the farmhouse, Donna O'Ravez said, the amount the developers offered to help pay to move it would've been only "a drop in the bucket."

On top of buying property for the house's new location, lifting and preparing the structure for transfer -- not including moving it -- would cost about $75,000.

Plus, she said, the house wouldn't be the same if moved elsewhere.

"To do it justice, it should stay where it's at," she said.

Donna O'Ravez said the future of the farmhouse and barn is uncertain.

She's holding out hope the developers will have a change of heart. If not, she hopes a local house-moving company will buy and move the farmhouse.

At the least, the farmhouse, barn and other on-site structures will be taken apart and sold as "reclaimed wood," Bill O'Ravez said, so residents will have a chance to own a piece of Edgewood's history.

"We feel the developers are short-sighted," he said, adding they aren't looking at the significance of keeping the structures. "But it's their call."

Kari Plog: 253-597-8682

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(c)2014 The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.)

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