City leaders seek more vibrant feel for downtown

"This is the fifth story in a series about Federal Way's downtown. On June 7 we told you about the multi-million push the city will start this summer as well as policy decisions on downtown that the Federal Way City Council soon will face.On June 28 we took a look back at how Federal Way's downtown plan came to be.On July 5 we looked at why the area surrounding the SeaTac Mall was chosen for the downtown. On July 19 we looked at traffic impacts of changing downtown.On Aug. 2 we look at different strategies for creating a downtown.On Aug. 30 we'll tell you about the potential economic impacts of a developed downtown in Federal Way.Have a sayThe Federal Way Mirror welcomes your comments on this series.Contact us by phone at 925-5565, e-mail or write to 1414 S. 324th St., Suite 210, Federal Way, WA, 98003.-------------In 10 to 20 years Federal Way's downtown could be identified by its string of mid-highrise buildings, condos, trendy restaurants and new street grid.This vision, outlined in the city's master plan for a bustling downtown, might be possible if enough building and land developers turn the current string of strip malls into successfully operating offices and housing units.Now lining South 320th Street - the heart of downtown Federal Way - are modules of retail stores. Complexes include the pedestrian friendly Gateway Center near Interstate 5 as well as Center Plaza, the SeaTac Mall and SeaTac Village. The existing strip malls with several, single-use retail stores might someday disappear if developers see success in replacing them with newer, multi-use buildings.Though for some it's hard to picture a different scene in downtown, city officials are making no secret that Federal Way will be changing its face in the future.We'll want to see a mixed use of retail space, office and housing space, said Federal Way spokesman Derek Matheson of the downtown area. There wouldn't necessarily be the same buildings that are there now, but rather a new type of building that is five stories rather than one.Though the city is not responsible for who builds the downtown buildings or when, city officials have made changes to the zoning code that will require a different look, Matheson said. Any new buildings must adhere to zoning codes, but developers also will be given creative leeway, he said.The codes are designed to give as much flexibility as possible, Matheson said. It is because of this flexibility that developers will likely comply with city zoning codes, he said.The goal, he said, is to have the city core look and be more dense than the sprawled out developments of strip malls that characterize downtown now. Having a denser downtown is beneficial because it concentrates retail, office and residential space in one area without folks having to drive all over town - or out of town - for shopping as well as many services.But a major obstacle in realizing the downtown dream lies in attracting developers, says Debra Coates, Federal Way economic development executive.As long as raw land still lies undeveloped in Federal Way, developers will likely use it because it's cheaper than tearing buildings down and rebuilding.Until land is absorbed like East and West Campus, nobody will develop downtown, Coates said, as long as there's raw land available.In anticipation of this problem, the city is considering incentives to developers. These include property tax exemptions for multi-family housing and completion of an environmental impact report for downtown developers. If the City Council approves a plan to complete the environmental reports, at a cost of $200,000 to $250,000 to the city, the action could save developers from 60 to 90 days of buildingtime as well as the cost of doing the report. City officials say they have good reason to invest in a redeveloped downtown. Sales tax revenue will undoubtedly increase with the attraction of new and attractive multi-use buildings and a larger population, Matheson said.For example, Pavilions Center, located on Highway 99 in Federal Way, with its several newer retail business stores, has brought the city about $80,000 in sales tax this year, a 20 percent increase from 1999. Conversely, the older SeaTac Mall has dropped by nearly $5,500 in retail sales tax revenue from 1999 to $520,164 this year, according to year-to-date figures from the city's Management Services department. If Federal Way's downtown is redeveloped, city coffers likely will be filled by an increase in the number of retailers or businesses paying sales and property taxes, said Iewn Wang, Management Services director.But if developers find no interest in developing downtown, property value of existing buildings will go down, especially if urban decay sets in and residents lose their desire for shopping in the area, Wang said. If people want to come in and tear down old stuff and renew it, then property valuation will increase, Wang said.The city might be able to overcome the development hurdle if it moves its municipal building downtown. The idea was proposed in June to illustrate the city's effort to commit to an improved downtown.Dan Casey, who developed Gateway Center, says it's a good idea because moving the municipal building downtown could jumpstart the downtown development bandwagon.Developers can't afford to buy existing buildings and tear them down and build them up again, Casey said. You start the process. There needs to be some kickoff investment or infrastructure by the city that creates an ambiance.That ambiance likely will be created by the city's municipal building, a professional, working environment, yet inviting enough to be located in a major retail outlet like downtown, he said.With the city locating a municipal building and a grid road system, it can create openings in land use, Casey said. It opens up for the initial phases for office development. Once the process takes route... then the developers will be able to see values in terms of land values go up, and they will start to be able to afford building.Though downtown redevelopment is a part of the city of Federal Way's goals, Stephen Clifton, community development services manager, says the city is not working to eliminate existing buildings along South 320th Street.As the city densifies it will become a lot more appealing to developers, Clifton said. A lot of one-story structures are now ripe for redevelopment that were built in the '60s. They're now financially feasible for them to do it. "

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