With the rubble of the former Benevolent & Protective Order of Elks clubhouse as a backdrop, developers and local officials dug their shovels into a narrow stretch of dirt Wednesday in a ceremonial groundbreaking for the next chapter at 351 E. Rose St.

The Lodge Apartments, a five-story, 137-unit structure, will begin taking shape this summer.

Construction is expected to run 15 to 18 months with an opening slated for Fall 2020, representatives of Seattle-based Evergreen Housing Development told a crowd of about 50 people.

When it’s done, the project will infuse new housing stock into the community while also building an around-the-clock presence of downtown residents who can shop, eat and seek basic services all within walking distance.

“That’s what drew us to this location — the 24/7 nature of the site,” said Fred Hines, Evergreen’s director of acquisition and development.

With access to a grocery store just across the street, plus restaurants, specialty shops, banks, dry cleaning and other services within walking distance and bus stops nearby for public transit to go beyond that, the combination lays the groundwork for one of Evergreen’s most urban designs to date, Hines said.

Many of its other multifamily housing developments include multiple buildings in a garden-style setting.

The single building, which includes several corner units with wraparound windows offering views of the city, is more like something out of its Seattle markets.

More than three years in the making, Evergreen had been interested in developing in the Walla Walla market when it found the Elks clubhouse site. But, said Executive Director of Development Andrew Brand, it took two years before receiving a response on the property.

The land has been home to the Elks since 1972. It was built after its previous five-story location at Fourth Avenue and Alder Street burned in a fire.

The club was 20,000 square feet, built at a time when membership numbers were around 4,200 people.

Walla Walla’s was the 287th chartered lodge in the U.S. It continues, but membership has dropped significantly since its heyday. The local organization had a massive sale of furnishings and mementos as part of its exit from the property.

An office presence continues on Birch Street, and the organization maintains its regular gatherings at various locations throughout town while a search for a new and smaller headquarters continues.

Demolition of the former lodge has been underway about a week.

Although the spot has held significance as a gathering place for everything from father/daughter dances and special dinners to wedding receptions and fundraisers, the land holds promise for its next iteration in housing.

“As soon as the building started to go down, it was real,” Walla Walla Mayor Barbara Clark said during the presentation. “We’re going to have some very happy people living here.”

Units in the building will range in size from short-term rentals starting as small as 341 square feet, all the way up to two-bedroom premium units up to 1,146 square feet.

The homes will be finished with plank flooring, quartz counters, high-quality cabinets and stainless steel appliances, The Lodge website describes.

Evergreen is exercising a 12-year property-tax exemption on the development. The exemption is offered as an incentive to developing housing downtown, where it might not otherwise take place.

Under the arrangement, 20 percent of the units must be dedicated as “affordable housing.” Half of the affordable units, according to municipal code, are to be rented to low-income households, meaning those making at or below 80 percent of the area median income. The other half must be available to those making above 80 percent of the area median income, but less than 115 percent of that amount.

The combined median household income for Walla Walla and Columbia counties in 2017 was $54,157, according to data aggregation service Walla Walla Trends. The city uses U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development numbers for the area median income, which is $65,700 in 2018 for a family of four.

While discussions in public forums in the community maintained the monthly prices are likely still high for many local residents, the stock could lead to a decompression in lower-priced inventory as residents move from other units into these and free up what’s currently occupied.

In fact, the lack of vacancies in the community was another indication that a project like this could succeed here, Brand said.

For representatives of the Downtown Walla Walla Foundation and Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce, the project is a major economic development for the downtown core.

“It’s great to bring in a little bit of diversity to the housing market in Walla Walla,” Chamber President and CEO Kyle Tarbet said. It’s the kind of development that could spur more business interest, he said.

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at 509-526-8321, vickihillhouse@wwub.com or on Twitter at https://twitter.com/VickiHillhouse.

Vicki covers business and economic development, including tourism, the Port of Walla Walla and the Strictly Business column, as well as features. She has been reporting for the Union-Bulletin since late 2001.