A look back: How the city's downtown came to be

"By TAMMY BATEYAssistant editorWhen Shirley Charnell moved to Federal Way in 1937, the land around Pacific Highway and 320th Street was covered with farms, not strip malls and big-box retail.Her parents owned a 40-acre farm where Ross Plaza now sits. Charnell, now a member of the Historical Society of Federal Way, used to sit on a hill, now flattened and replaced by Coco's Restaurant, and look at Pacific Highway.When I was a kid, my cousin and I'd count cars, she said. It'd be half an hour between cars, and you know how long it takes now to go through that intersection. The growth was just tremendous. As the city moves forward with plans to transform the downtown into a destination for residents and tourists alike, it's important to understand the city center's evolution from farmers' fields to retail stores. Officials hope to shake up the mix of the downtown, to expand the center from its present hub of retail shops and to attract office buildings, attractions and residences. But the downtown's development until now has been based on retail. Federal Way's legacy of unplanned growth is one of the greatest challenges the city faces in transforming the downtown. The city, which incorporated in 1990, began planning a downtown that serves as an invitation for people to get out of their cars shortly after forming.The push for incorporation was driven by residents' growing frustration with King County's seeming lack of concern about Federal Way's development. Haphazard planning created a downtown that is overwhelmingly retail and not appealing to walkers, according to city officials. The county allowed the market to drive the development of the area around South 320th Street and Pacific Highway as a retail hub. The late 1960s completion of Interstate 5 and 320th (initially 320th just reached Eighth Street) fed that market, Charnell said. The Federal Way Shopping Mall, which opened in 1955, also attracted tourists and new businesses to the area. The mall contained Santafair, a combination of circuses and amusement rides and Old World Square, a reproduction of the quaint shops seen in Europe. Investors in Federal Way Shopping Mall, which was located where Pavilions Centre now stands, declared bankruptcy in 1967. But Federal Way would soon get another shopping mall. SeaTac Mall's construction in August, 1975, sped up the retail growth. Within a year of opening, the mall contained 90 shops and four department stores on 19 acres, according to the Historical Society. Across 320th Street from the mall, the SeaTac Village shopping complex opened in 1976 and SeaTac Plaza opened in 1979, the historical society said. Over the years, more strip malls and big-box stores moved in across from the mall, taking advantage of the nearby freeway access. It originated as a major retail destination, Stephen Clifton, the city's Community Development Services director, said of downtown.I don't perceive it as really how a downtown looks like as far as downtown Seattle, downtown Chicago or even some of the smaller cities, said SeaTac Mall Manager Bob Fliday. That's what the city is working toward. (Now) it's kind of a retail environment with really no organization.From the beginning, city employees faced an uphill climb in developing an attractive, mixed use downtown, Clifton said. The city inherited all sorts of problems when it took over from King County, he said. The downtown was characterized by substandard roads, poor drainage, aboveground utilities and intimidatingly long blocks.As for design guidelines, they didn't have them, Clifton said.The first City Council began reviewing how to rewrite the land-use code immediately after incorporation. In the fall of 1992, the city began City Shape, a staff-driven, formal process of gathering public input on how to best reshape the city, including the downtown. The City Shape process involved numerous open houses and field trips, and led to a revised comprehensive plan in 1995. Some citizens, Councilmember Mary Gates recalls, were skeptical Federal Way could transform the blocks around 320th and Pacific Highway into a thriving, mixed-use downtown.There were a lot of people who felt that way, said Gates, who's served on the council since Federal Way incorporated. The people were not at fault at all. There are people who can't envision something until it's on the ground.But citizens who attended the open houses offered opinions about what they envisioned if a downtown were to form. What we heard pretty consistently was they didn't want massive, high, high, high buildings, but they certainly didn't want to see any more of that asphalt, Gates said. Federal Way's identification as an urban center meant it would be required by the state to meet housing guidelines under the Growth Management Act. It also would become the future site of a transit stop. Early in the City Shape process, officials tried to help citizens visualize what Federal Way wanted to accomplish. Clifton recalls the city busing about 70 people to Burnaby, British Columbia, located about 20 miles outside of Vancouver. Burnaby had transformed itself from a shopping mall-oriented suburban city to an urban center.Knowing we were a designated urban center, we wanted to look at what our future would be, Clifton said. By then, city officials were weary of the jokes about Federal Way's downtown - of lack thereof.We were all so very tired of hearing, 'Downtown Federal Way, where is that?' snicker, snicker, said former mayor Ron Gintz.But they were motivated by more than embarrassment. Council members recognized that bedroom communities don't pay for themselves. And retail, while providing sales tax revenue, isn't entirely predictable, Gintz said.In the last few years, retail has been dynamite but it is reciprocal, That is scary, he said. The next downturn, if severe, could affect the city's ability to operate, so much of the tax base is retail sales tax.City Shape resulted in the 1995 Comprehensive Plan, in which the city stated its mission of creating an identifiable downtown that serves as Federal Way's social and economic hub.City officials considered a number of possibilities about this time, including re-locating the City Hall to the SeaTac Mall. Then-mayor Skip Priest supported the idea of developing a theme for the city - such as Federal Way, the city of rhododendrons or Federal Way - Puget Sound's Family Funland.During the summer of 1996, Priest took a consultant with the University of California, Berkeley's Mayors' Institute on City Design to the top of the Reliance Building and got a similar response from them.He sighed, Priest said. 'You've got a lot of gray.' In November, Priest attended the Mayors' Institute of Design at University of California, Berkeley. Federal Way's city center was one of the eight downtowns evaluated by institute members in 1996. The first slide showing the the concrete landscape around 320th and Pacific Highway drew a collective gasp from the audience at the conference, Priest said.Some questioned whether a true city core could ever be established, Priest wrote in a Nov. 10, 1996 memo to the council. They felt we should look elsewhere, possibly surrounding the Celebration Park area. In December, 1996, the city gained the monetary means to start work on achieving the council's vision. In a controversial move, the City Council voted 4-3 to raise the tax on natural gas, cable TV, electrical, phone, garbage and surface water bills to 5 percent from 1.67 percent. The increase raised money for several projects, including $3 million for downtown improvements.The City Council created four committees to look at how to best spend the $2.8 million a year from new utility tax revenues. One focused on downtown redevelopment, one on sports fields and one on the need for a civic theater. A fourth committee, the one on which David Head served as co-chairman, oversaw the other three.After being appointed to the oversight committee, Head found the highest points he could find in the downtown and studied the view. Head, who has lived in Federal Way since 1976, drove to the Reliance Building at the end of South 320th Street near Interstate 5 and up to Hillside Plaza, the shopping complex that includes Target.What I saw was a sea of concrete, Head said. When we had guests here, there was no reason to be in Federal Way basically, nothing that invited us to get out of our cars.Federal Way resident Nancy McEleney, who served on the Downtown Revitalization Committee, says the toughest part about planning the downtown was not having a clean slate to determine what should go where. If we had a blank sheet of paper, you could have a planned community, she said. (We) had to build on what was already there.After more public hearings, the city ended up with specifics on street lighting, meandering sidewalks and a waterfall feature that will be located at the intersection of 320th and Pacific Highway. This summer, the city begins creating those features. The city will widen Pacific Highway South and South 320th Street at the downtown's most-traveled intersection and will add new turning lanes at each leg of the intersection. The work will include placing electrical wires underground to create a more attractive view and installing architectural and landscaping elements at each corner of the intersection, including a waterfall feature at the southwest corner. When we started off, it was pretty bleak, said City Councilmember Phil Watkins. Over time, you start to see the vision.Charnell says she sees the vision. After all, she's seen the city change enormously already. In 1966, the population was 20,000; now, it's about 76,000.It seems fitting that the city's latest transformation begin at the 320th/Pacific Highway intersection, she said.I still see the center at the four corners, she said. Everything goes out from that.Charnell's grandfather understood the vision now held by the city long before anything was put on paper. He said, 'When your kids are grown, Shirley, people from Seattle and Tacoma will meet here,' she said. It was the early '40s but he knew. "

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