Mutual Materials eyes potential redevelopment
February 3, 2012
By Christina Lords
Nestled back from a short, paved driveway off of Newcastle’s Coal Creek Parkway, the now defunct Mutual Materials brick plant still looms large.
Covered awnings still protect masonry products and other materials, stacked more than 10 feet high on pallets, from the rain.
A small stream meanders by the closed chain link fence gating its entrance and a quiet has essentially blanketed the plant since it shut down its day-to-day operations last spring.
But now a different kind of work is going on here — work that might lead to redevelopment of the site that would impact the city of Newcastle for years to come, a fact not lost on Mutual Materials executives and shareholders, Mutual Materials President Joe Bowen said.
“Given the sense of pride that we’ve had about what we’ve done there, we just want to make sure whatever the result of that property is … that we’ll be able to look back at what goes in there and still have that sense of pride,” he said. “The community of Newcastle has been very, very gracious to us for years. It’s important that we give this the consideration that this community deserves.”
Looking back to the beginning
The day was unseasonably dry for June in Seattle.
Little rain had been recorded. Temperatures were hovering steady in the 70s.
John Back was at work heating glue over a gasoline fire at Victor Clairmont’s downtown Seattle woodworking shop the afternoon of June 6, 1889.
But as the glue boiled over and caught fire, eventually spreading and burning about 25 city blocks in the Great Seattle Fire, Back would have more of an impact on Seattle history than he could have ever known.
The next day, nearly 600 businessmen in the Seattle area came together to determine how to rebuild.
It was mandated by the mayor that the downtown business core would be rebuilt with brick.
With only brick.
Experienced bricklayer Daniel Houlahan traveled from California to help pave the city’s roads and sidewalks — a journey that would help rebuild Seattle’s infrastructure and eventually impact the city of Newcastle for years to come.
Houlahan located a clay deposit to use for a brick plant and found an ideal site at the base of Beacon Hill and went on to found the Builders Brick Co. — Mutual Materials’ predecessor — in 1890.
After Builders Brick went on to supply much of the brick that rebuilt and continues to build Seattle, the company purchased Mutual Materials, a local distributor that opened its doors in 1959.
After expanding its operations into the marketing and distribution business, Builders Brick officially changed its name to Mutual Materials Co. in 1966.
In 2003, the plant was boasting an output of about 25 million bricks per year.
Today, Mutual Materials is the largest producer and distributor of masonry and hardscape products for household and commercial uses in the Pacific Northwest.
A special opportunity
Bowen said while the Newcastle facility has been a cornerstone for the family-owned company for generations, the company aims to take the property in a new direction after the depth and duration of the economic recession was too much for the plant to withstand.
The plant has shut down twice since 2008.
“It is a special opportunity because of the size of the site and how it could be integrated into the existing area,” Bowen said. “It’s pretty uncommon to have a site this big in this area. To have a clean tablet, if you will, to be able to draw something up from scratch … is a really, really unique opportunity for Newcastle.”
An environmental study — with work that includes mapping out stream, wetland and mine-hazard locations — outlining how much of the 52-acre site located within Newcastle’s Community Business Center is expected to be complete and given to the city by early February, Community Development Director Steve Roberge said.
Because the property, which is zoned for mixed-use residential and mixed-use commercial use, has several areas that are considered streams or wetlands, only a portion of the property is developable, he said.
“That’s what they’re trying to figure out now,” Roberge said. “How big are the buffers? How much of that area are they going to try to take up? Are they going to have to cross those buffers and do some mitigation? These are all things that will have to be worked out once the development is determined.”
Once the city receives that information, the city is responsible for verifying the findings of the Mutual Materials’ study.
Redevelopment would bring revenue
City Manager Rob Wyman said city officials have been doing everything possible to facilitate a smooth transition for potential redevelopment.
The project harbors potential to bring in much-needed revenue for Newcastle, he said.
“Formally, at this point, the city doesn’t have an official role in this process, as they’re not in for permit,” Wyman said. “But all my conversations with them have been very, very positive. You really do get the sense that they want to be a partner in this, and we want to work with them. I think we both have the same goal: determine what’s best to put on that site.”
If the property is redeveloped, short-term and long-term revenue could alleviate some of the burden of lower revenue projections for the city over the next several years, Financial Director Christine Olson said.
“Several things happen when a property is being redeveloped like that,” she said. “Obviously if the property is sold, there’s real-estate excise tax the city would get. But then you’ve also got the construction of building … there is sales tax in the city for that.”
Revenue comes into the city during such a project by way of review fees, permitting fees, impact fees for things like traffic and schools, and other revenue, Roberge said.
Depending on what goes into the space, it could have further implications down the road, Olson said.
“Once it’s established, if it’s any kind of retail, that’s huge for us,” she said.
The scope of the project has lasting, unprecedented implications for Newcastle and a city the size of Newcastle rarely gets a project with such potential, Wyman said,
“This is a one-of-a-kind piece of property in Newcastle,” Roberge said. “It really is. It’s 50 acres, undeveloped, in Newcastle. We don’t have any more of that. It’s gone. There are a few medium-sized parcels, but nothing of this size and magnitude.”
Depending on how the property is developed, city officials may have to make adjustments by possibly contracting more community development-related work out for review to keep the project on target, he said.
“The potential is massive because you’re dealing with a clean slate,” he said. “There are no roads there now. There’s no infrastructure. When you have a fresh development like this, you get to plan the whole thing. When you plan something that’s on that scale, there’s just so much available to you — from their perspective and the city’s perspective.”