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Council faces critical crossroad

The city council is one vote away from reshaping the face of Federal Way despite lingering doubts over which proposal for high-rise buildings will best suit the city's needs.

Nearly one year ago, with visions of redeveloping and revitalizing Federal Way's downtown area, the city announced plans to purchase the former AMC Theaters site, located near the transit center on 23rd Avenue South.

As soon as Tuesday, July 17, the City Council could select one of two proposals for the downtown area.

Several council members have displayed an eagerness to begin the building process, but legally, the council is under no time constraints to make a final decision, said City Attorney Pat Richardson.

Since the City Council narrowed seven proposals down to two, some key issues have stood out.

On the surface, United Properties' Symphony proposal and William & Dame/Alpert Capital's proposal are strikingly similar. But a closer look reveals some significant differences.

The issue of whether retail should supplement residential use or if residential space should supplement retail space is one that has been debated repeatedly by council members in the past month.

Creating an open green space where the community can gather is a desire all seven council members advocate. But the best way to provide this space is still in question.

United Properties' Symphony project favors residential housing — offering a total of 890 residential units for various income levels. Williams & Dame/Alpert Capital's Steel Lake Village project favors retail space — providing more than three times as much as Symphony.

The question still remains of how much residential and retail space is necessary.

Deputy Mayor Jim Ferrell said he agreed to purchase the AMC Theaters site with the notion that an urban mixed-use project, emphasizing retail as a way to spark retail sales tax and revitalize the downtown area, would be constructed.

At the July 3 City Council meeting, when a last-minute addition to the council's agenda could have resulted in a final vote on the project despite the absence of two council members, Ferrell said he felt as though he had been led down a primrose path after council member Linda Kochmar commented on the need to meet the state's Growth Management Act requirements.

"We've lost our way, in my opinion," he said at the meeting.

Ferrell has feared all along that the project had the potential to become more about growth issues, rather than about providing a place for the community to unite, he said in an interview July 11.

"(This project is) not about us fulfilling a quota for state government," he said.

But, a market analysis demonstrated to the council that a project with a residential focus may be more successful than one with a retail focus. Additionally, the state's Growth Management Act requires the city to provide thousands of housing units in coming years.

This project may be a good opportunity to begin fulfilling those state mandates, Kochmar indicated at the July 3 meeting. Once an interest in residential space is created, retailers will be drawn to the area, she said at the meeting.

The council has considered the market for retail and residential space alike. Within the next 10 years, Steel Lake Village's 500 condominiums would have to capture 23 percent of the predicted condominium market share, according to a summary conducted on behalf of the city by Leland Consulting Group and compiled into a summary by former city executive assistant Patrick Briggs.

Within this time frame, Federal Way is expected to capture only 13 percent of this market, according to the summary. However, the retail side of the project will capture sales tax dollars.

The City Council has expressed numerous times a desire to draw high-end retail to its urban mixed-use development. Whether Symphony's combination of housing will be able to do this has raised questions among city officials.

Apartments may be easier to fill and more likely to capture the potential market, but may not attract high-end investors, Ferrell said. Likewise, Symphony's residential units may be easier to fill, but might not attract the high-end retail and sales tax revenue the city desires, he added.

Steel Lake Village's condominiums may be more difficult to occupy, but its retail options would provide more opportunity to capture the city's projected retail demands, he said.

Sense of community

Beyond the catch-22s associated with retail and residential space is a question of how to provide a sense of community.

The City Council has expressed several times a desire to provide a place where Federal Way residents and visitors alike can mingle and feel connected to the city.

Ferrell said he would like to see a park, similar to Puyallup's Pioneer Park, in Federal Way. A place to display a lighted Christmas tree and enjoy outdoor summer concerts is what Ferrell envisions, he said.

Symphony with its 1-acre park would offer this, but would be surrounded on each side by concrete high-rise buildings, three of them 22 stories high. The limited visibility of the park, along with the many Symphony residents that would likely use it, could possibly detract visitors.

While the idea of the park itself is appealing, Ferrell would not take his family to visit an area that was crowded and enclosed by large concrete structures, he said at the July 3 meeting.

Ferrell questions the idea of a free park. The city would be paying to maintain what could be viewed as Symphony residents' private park, he said at the meeting. The council must ask itself how much it desires open space.

Steel Lake Village offers no park options. Instead, Williams & Dame/Alpert Capital suggested the city invest in transforming land near the former AMC Theaters site and the existing Sound Transit parking garage into green space. The council has shown dissatisfaction in purchasing the land or building a park so close to a transportation hub.

Beyond the detailed characteristics of the proposals, the council must also consider the track record of each contractor. United Properties has a history consisting of multi-level residential (mostly condominium) developments. Using pre-cast concrete, the company projected its building costs to be nearly $228 million. This figure is thought to be somewhat understated, according to Leland Consulting Group's analysis.

Williams & Dame/Alpert Capital has experience creating urban mixed-use spaces and has often compared the proposed Steel Lake Village to its contributions to the Pearl District in Portland, Ore. The company estimated its building costs to be about $356 million. This figure is thought to be somewhat overstated, according to the analysis.

With so many options to consider and downtown Federal Way's future in its hands, the council must determine which project would best suit the city.

"A mistake here could be very costly down the road," Ferrell said.

The council still has the option of rejecting both proposals, Richardson said.

Contact Jacinda Howard at jhoward@fedwaymirror.com or (253) 925-5565.

To speak publicly about these proposals attend the 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 17 City Council meeting at City Hall, 33325 8th Ave S., in Federal Way. To review the complete proposals visit the City's Web site at www.cityoffederalway.com and click on the "Proposals for the Former AMC Theaters" link.

Quick Facts:

Retail space: Steel Lake Village would offer a total of 92,000 square feet of retail space, including a movie theater, and Symphony would offer 29,000 square feet of retail space. Retail sales tax could not be collected on Steel Lake Village's 50,000 square foot movie theater.

The city is expected to capture an interest in 195,000 to 270,000 square feet of retail space over the next decade, according to an analysis conducted on behalf of the city by Leland Consulting Group and then compiled into a summary by former Executive Assistant Patrick Briggs.

Residential space: Steel Lake Village would offer a total of 500 condominiums, while Symphony would offer 890 apartments, condominiums and town homes.

Open space: Steel Lake Village does not include a park feature. Symphony would include a one-acre park to be dedicated to the city once complete.

Track record: Steel Lake Village compares its proposed Federal Way project to past development it has completed in the Pearl District of Portland, Ore. United Properties listed several high rise condominium projects in its proposal to the City of Federal Way.

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