Former Kaiser site preps for auto processing facility

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The addition of the vehicle processing center on the Tideflats will allow the Norwegian company to grow to a capacity of 100,000 vehicles a year. Photo courtesy of WWL

The site of the former Kaiser Aluminum plant on the Tacoma Tideflats is now being cleared for use as an auto processing center that is projected to handle up to 100,000 vehicles a year.

The port bought the land after Kaiser shuttered the facility in 2002 after more than 60 years. The port then spent millions of dollars to cleanup the site, which had been contaminated by thousands of tons of waste during the site’s metal-making years, so the industrial land could be returned to commercial use.

“This site is a prime piece of industrially-zoned land with access to a deep-water berth,” said Don Meyer, president of the Port of Tacoma Commission in an announcement. “We are pleased to see it put back into productive use to support The Northwest Seaport Alliance’s marine cargo business and help a valued customer grow.”

The Port of Tacoma has finalized a 30-year lease of the 90-acre site to Wallenius Wilhelmsen Logistics to develop an auto processing facility that could process up to 100,000 vehicles a year. The vehicles will arrive on the nearby Blair Waterway and offloaded to the site for processing before then either being shuttled to local dealerships or transported by rail to the U.S. Midwest. Wallenius has called in Tacoma with its roll-on, roll-off ships since 1992. The new auto-processing facility will expand its local operations dramatically, which is primed to be its auto processing hub once operations in California shift to Tacoma. The company currently has a local payroll of 60 people with plans to add another 100 when the facility is operational by as early as the end of 2018.

The lease agreement has the Port of Tacoma installing a fence, adding rail spurs on Taylor Way to the east and Alexander to the west of the property as well as demolishing a handful of vacant buildings at a cost of $35 million. Wallenius then will be constructing office and processing buildings at a cost of $12 million. Lease of the land will be at least $2.4 million a year with a revenue-sharing escalator adding to that total if business booms.

“WWL is delighted to grow our relationship with the Port of Tacoma through the addition of a state-of-the-art automotive processing center,” said John Felitto, president of WWL Vehicle Services Americas. “We are thankful for the support of Northwest Seaport Alliance commissioners and the Port of Tacoma team who made this a success.”

The lease agreement came after months of analysis and years of planning.

“It has taken a lot of time to get here,” Felitto said when the port finalized the agreement last month.

News of the long-term lease of the former Kaiser site is seen as good news for many Tideflat watchers because it removes the largest site of undeveloped land on the waterfront as a possible location of petroleum-based operations that have recently raised eyebrows.

The site was most recently in the news, for example, when it was the location of what would have been the world’s largest methanol plant. The $3.4 billion plant would have converted natural gas to methanol that would then have been shipped to China to be used in the production of plastic for everything from bottles and toys to electrical components. Those plans died in 2016 after the developer, Northwest Innovation Works, faced mounting pressure over safety concerns and questions about the facility’s planned use of large amounts of water and electricity. The grassroots effort that formed against the plant have since morphed into what is now Redefine Tacoma and Save Tacoma Water, which continue to focus on the safety of industrial operations on the Tideflats and the natural resources of the area, namely Puget Sound Energy’s liquefied natural gas plant. Those concerns, in turn, fueled the call for a subarea plan of the Tideflats that is now in the early stages of doing an in-depth review of zoning rules for the working waterfront.

“It looks to be a much better route than the methanol refinery… and with that space now taken it seems very unlikely NWIW will try to move into another location on the port,” Redefine Tacoma organizer John Carlton said.

Port of Tacoma now accounts for more trade than all other ports in the state combined, at $55 billion in products a year, more than double Seattle’s $21 billion, although most commercial operations are comanaged by the Tacoma-Seattle port partnership called the Northwest Seaport Alliance.

Wallenius Wilhelmsen Logistics AS is headquartered in Oslo, Norway and has 7,000 employees at 65 centers in 27 countries around the world. The company is the port’s top carrier, representing about 80 percent of the breakbulk volume through Tacoma. It handles 3.7 million shipments of automobiles, rolling equipment and breakbulk units per year.

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