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"International District could gain gateway, park soon"
"The gateway to the city's International District could open soon.Two 15-foot-tall gateway pieces of art will mark the district's entryway near the Indochine restaurant on Pacific Highway South, and will lead into a path and pocket park.Funded by federal Community Development Block Grants, which are distributed by the city, the $173,000 project has not come without controversy.Proponents say the project will clean up and improve lighting in an area that faces blight, make it easier for pedestrians from nearby homes and multifamily complexes to shop, give a boost to the mom-and-pop businesses in the area, build a better sense of community and fit in with the City Council's goal of creating specific districts within the downtown core. They also say - and U.S. Housing and Urban Development officials agree - that it's legal to use CDBG grant money for economic development. The city earmarks 15 percent of its CDBG money for this spending category.Detractors don't dislike the plan or downplay its benefits; they disagree with its funding mechanism and who will benefit the most. Councilwoman Linda Kochmar says CDBG funds should be used where the greatest need in the community exists, not on a project that she believes will ultimately benefit nearby property owners.It's a lovely idea, I just think it's based on a faulty premise, that it's OK to use this money, she said, adding that the city already is pouring millions into the downtown core.The project is not quite a done deal.Before the Federal Way Chamber of Commerce, the grant recipient, can begin the project, it must obtain an easement from the Federal Way school district and one other property owner for the park. Both property owners have given a preliminary, verbal thumbs-up, but are having their lawyers review the easement language before officially granting the easements, said Debra Coates, Federal Way economic development executive.The easements are being granted in lieu of property donations because the school district, a public entity, cannot donate property, she said. The length of time for which the easements will be granted is still under negotiation, said Camron Parker, CDBG coordinator for the city.Coates said the project could help accelerate development in the International District, which features Mongolian, Thai, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese and American businesses.My dream is to see someone buy the school district administration building and turn it into a mall for incubator businesses, Coates said. Of course, those businesses would have international roots, such as a Danish bakery or a German microbrewery.That's the true key to having it become international, she said. The district building isn't for sale, but school officials have talked with the city about creating a new, combined City Hall/school district office in the downtown core.Coates also would like to see a Saturday market held in the parking lot near the proposed pocket park.It will be successful with what we've got now, but that would make it vibrant, she said of the market and incubator mall.It will be tough to pass by the International District without noticing it once the chamber project is complete. There will be two 15-foot-tall gateways to the district and path that will run through it. The gateways will have a 10-foot base, topped with pieces of art that will resemble paper dolls as well as lit pagodas. The doll-like pieces will have nondenominational faces. Seattle artist Mauricio Robalino was selected by the Federal Way Arts Commission to do the work.The landscape design for the project will be done by Leanne Kuhlman of ESM Consulting, a Federal Way business chosen through a competitive bid process, Coates said.The park's design is not final. However, as planned it would contain benches for pedestrians to rest on as well as lighting, landscaping and a small area that could be used by musicians or other performers, Coates said. The benches will face the area that could be used for performances, she said.-------------------------Block grants left largely to city discretionBy LINDA TARR EditorDecisions on where to spend Community Development Block Grant money are left largely to local jurisdictions, say U.S. Housing and Urban Development officials.It's fairly easy to fit most projects into the HUD guidelines for these block grants, says Don Phillips, HUD's CDBG deputy director.The design of the program was set up that way, he said, because HUD believed that local governments would know better what their communities needed than the federal government.Grant funds can be given in three general categories:* Projects that actively benefit low- to moderate-income people. * Projects or activities that meet community development needs and have a particular urgency. Often these projects are designed to alleviate conditions that pose a threat to the health or well being of a community. This urgency is subjective, and often defined by the grant applicant.* Projects or aid that address an urgent need. HUD does monitor grants, but most of the monitoring is done after the grants are awarded. If a program is deemed ineligible after the fact, at the very least, a community is asked to reimburse the funds, Phillips said.This international district project fits into the grant guidelines because it benefits a low- to moderate- income area, said Camron Parker, CDBG coordinator for Federal Way.The area of benefit is bordered by 304th and 320th streets to the north and south, and Pacific Highway South and Interstate 5 to the west and east.The international district is roughly bordered by 312th and 316th streets, Pacific Highway South and 18th Street, which runs behind Wal-Mart.About two years ago, the Federal Way City Council decided to allocate about 15 percent of the roughly $600,000 in block grant money it receives each year to economic development, as defined by the city. That comes out to $90,000, leaving $510,000 for other allocations.The international district project was the first to receive money under this city designation.In 1999, the city received $651,596 in block grant funds; it allocated $75,000 to the international district project.In 1998, the city received $599,149 in block grant funds and allocated $98,000 to the international district project.The grant money is given to a variety of organizations that undergo a competitive application process, Parker said.Much of the grant money funds housing-related activities, he said. For example, the city generally allocates $140,000 each year for a home improvement program to aid low-income homeowners, often seniors, who need help fixing leaky roofs or other problems.The city also funds public works projects to improve safety, such as a pedestrian crossing and signal on 21st Avenue near the YMCA.About 15 percent of the grant money is given to direct human services projects like Children Active in Recreation and Education Services. CARES, run by the YMCA and the Multi-Service Center helps working families who cannot afford child care, Parker said.--------------------At a glanceThe Federal Way City Council will examine recommendations for spending Community Development Block Grants at 7 p.m. at its Sept. 5 meeting, in council chambers at City Hall.Income measuresA moderate income household brings in 80 percent of the median income in King County. That median is $65,800 for a family of four. A moderate income for a family this size is $50,200 or less.A low-income household brings in 50 percent of the median, or $32,900 or less for a family of four. "