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City Hall recommendation raises doubts

A real estate firm hired by the city is recommending Federal Way build a new City Hall in the downtown core to provide easy access to city services and to boost development — despite it being the most costly option.

But some councilors are concerned about the lack of public input in determining the criteria the group used in drafting its recommendation and the total cost of the proposal.

Mike Hassenger of the Seneca Group presented the firm’s recommendations at a council study session held an hour before the Dec. 18 regular council meeting. His cheapest estimate was $15 million for a City Hall outside the downtown core. A downtown City Hall could have a price tag of more than $25 million, he said.

The stark contrast in price has at least two councilors, including Mike Hellickson, questioning the group’s recommendation to build a downtown facility.

“The only reason to build in the downtown core would be if we considered the extremely weighted value of being located in the downtown core,” Hellickson said. “The weights they put on those things made it so the study would come out looking like what they wanted it to look like.”

Recommendations

The Seattle-based Seneca Group recommended the city build a new facility in the downtown core based on a set of criteria — including public access, economic development and building configuration — determined by the group and city staff.

Citizens were not directly involved in setting the criteria, Hassenger said.

Other options the group explored included building a new facility or buying an existing building outside the downtown core, buying an existing building and adding onto it, or continuing to lease space.

Building in the downtown core was estiestimated to cost about $24 million, according to Seneca Group figures. Buying an existing building outside downtown would cost about $15.5 million.

But the recommendation wasn’t based on cost alone.

The criteria were weighted. Public access to city facilities and transportation were weighted at 26 points, economic development and progress toward the downtown vision was weighted at 25 and building configuration, including layout, ease of use, parking and longevity, was weighted at 35. The best possible score for each location option was 495.

Building a new facility in the downtown core netted a weighted value score of 424 — only 71 points below perfect. Buying a building in the suburbs only got a 257.

Money matters

In 1997, the Federal Way City Council approved a $4.5 million bond to fund several capital projects. A portion was earmarked for Celebration Park, which residents voted down twice prior to the bond. Another portion went to road maintenance and a third portion went to build a new police facility.

Hellickson argues the city tacked on the City Hall plans when the original scope of the project was just a police facility.

“The citizens were promised that .5 percent would go to a police facility,” he said. “The police facility should be the No. 1 rated issue.”

Councilman Eric Faison said the police facility still would be built – along with an efficient addition of a city facility that will need to be built anyway.

“The portion of the bond to build a police facility will build a police facility,” he said. “We need to build a City Hall. We need a bigger structure. The question is whether to build it now so they can function together or do them separately.”

With the proposed expense — the largest expenditure Federal Way has ever undertaken — Hellickson said public input should be solicited and, depending on costs, allocating funds to build the facility should be put to a vote.

Iwen Wang, director of city management services, told the council no new taxes would be imposed to pay for the construction of a new facility, wherever it might be located.

Between a roughly $5 million bond for a new police facility and some city investments and returns, the city has $6.5 million in hand for the project, Wang said.

The utility tax Federal Way residents pay amounts to about $500,000 a year, Wang said.

However, Hellickson said a new City Hall likely would extend the tax collection beyond 2006.

“So it is a new tax,” he said.

On top of that, government doesn’t pay taxes, so that prime space would be unavailable for a taxpaying retailer, said Dep. Mayor Linda Kochmar.

“When the Seneca Group said staff weighted economic development as the most important component, I would question that as correct,” Kochmar said. “If you build City Hall in the core, you displace prime retail space.”

Downtown issues

Hellickson said locating the new City Hall in the downtown core wouldn’t be worth the expense.

“It’d be nice if we could afford it. It’d be great,” he said. “We can’t afford it. I don’t think it’s going to bring the development they think it’s going to bring.”

Kochmar warned that city officials will have to be careful in interpreting the city criteria used in the study, and said business owners aren’t going to flock to locate next to City Hall.

But Councilman Eric Faison said the return to the city in development that a downtown City Hall might spark could pay off.

“We should aggressively pursue a downtown location, if we can get it at a reasonable price,” he said.

That price might be higher than building in the suburbs, but it would benefit the city if it attracted businesses to put their offices there. The point, he said, is to make businesses understand downtown Federal Way isn’t just mall space.

“The biggest challenge we face is changing the perception from retail to business-retail mixed,” he said. “The city is probably the only entity that can start that process. If we don’t change the perception of what our downtown is, there won’t be development. What have we lost?”

Public involvement

City Manager David Moseley told the council that their January retreat will be an opportunity to discuss the public process they’ll use to gather input on the proposed sites.

So far, Federal Way citizens haven’t had much say in preliminary plans for the facility, though Faison said Federal Way citizens shouldn’t be surprised by the proposals. “First and foremost, there’s been significant public involvement in the comprehensive plan, which includes locating City Hall downtown,” he said.

But Hellickson said there needs o be more public input.

“This just went public on Tuesday (Dec. 18),” he said. “Absolutely, no matter what, we need to have public involvement.”

Kochmar agreed. “We need to have open public discussion,” she said. “If we’re going to move forward, we need to know what the community thinks and what the business community thinks.”

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