Lakewood's way for Federal Way?


Staff writer

Two years ago, Lakewood was about to fall into a coma.

The young city was suffocating under the weight of a mall in its death throes at the same time that city staff were outgrowing their rented mall offices.

“The mall was killing us. The city was dying day by day by day,” Mayor Bill Harrison said.

Because of the dearth of empty storefronts and lack of pedestrian traffic, no one would have guessed the city was issuing more business licenses every year.

“The perception was the city was hemorrhaging because of the mall,” Harrison said.

While Federal Way is facing similar development challenges, this city’s situation is different from Lakewood’s, said Andrea Gernon, who was part of the Lakewood incorporation effort and headed up transition studies.

Federal Way is a more vibrant community, with businesses and the mall and bustling traffic along South 320th Street.

Still, “an awful lot of people leave Federal Way to go to work. There might not be a sense of a community center,” she said.

“But your situation really is quite different from ours. We needed to create clientele to shop our downtown stores. We don’t have freeway access to the mall. We don’t have visibility. Shopping had really dropped off. There were lots of empty store fronts,” Gernon said.

Lakewood city officials had to do something innovative, cost-effective and fast to keep their city afloat. A little luck and serendipity helped.

Lakewood officially incorporated in 1996. The decision to build a city hall as part of city center development was part of a “very long process,” city spokeswoman Candice Bock said.

Gernon remembered working out of vacant mall space in the beginning.

“At the time of Lakewood’s incorporation, there was no city hall,” she said. “The first city hall was in the building rented for the transition effort. It was a former child’s play area.

“There were cubby holes where the kids put their shoes and the room was painted bright gold. But the Lakewood Mall had the space –– there was lots of space –– and the mall let us go there.”

After the official incorporation, city staff moved to rented space in a former department store, which they soon outgrew.

They couldn’t negotiate for more space in their location, Gernon said, so they moved to another commercial building. They outgrew that space, too.

“They rented a lot of space. They were paying a lot in rent,” Gernon said. “When we incorporated, we thought there wouldn’t be a need for a big city hall.”

But Lakewood kept growing.

The city formed a committee to look at sites for a city hall located within a mile of the ailing Lakewood Mall.

“We needed to create a city center,” Gernon said. “The notion was to create a downtown city core.”

The committee looked at whether the city should continue to lease, to buy or to build, Bock said. Ultimately, they decided the best course of action was to build.

“It was the most cost-effective,” Bock said. “There was not an appropriate pre-existing building in Lakewood that city staff could move into. They were afraid they’d have to retrofit.”

The decision to put a city hall in the center of Lakewood was “pretty unanimous,” she said.

At the time, the owner of Lakewood Mall didn’t want to work with the city, so the committee found a not-as-perfect property at another corner of the city center.

Then, the mall’s owner died. Harrison said the mall sat stagnant about three years and eventually went into receivership with Wells Fargo.

As part of a larger redevelopment plan — and an effort to spark enough economic growth to sell off the rest of the property — Wells Fargo offered the city five acres of mall property, where an Ernst hardware store used to sit, for $10.

The city snapped up the offer.

“Pretty much everyone associated said you couldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Everybody also recognized how crucial the Lakewood Towne Center would be to city survival,” Gernon said.

On the heels of the city’s decision, Wells Fargo sold the mall property to a real estate development company called MBK Northwest, which overhauled it, demolishing the interior hallways and redesigning the mall with more modern exterior entryways into each major retailer.

“Rather than selling to the first buyer that came down the pike, (Wells Fargo) looked for someone who’d redevelop,” Harrison said. “They felt having a city hall near the mall might encourage people coming to city hall to shop.”

Civic presence was critical to the project.

MBK Realty has “said publicly they would not have gone through with the deal to redevelop the mall if the city had not gone through with the plan to put city hall there,” Gernon said.

The city turned an old mall road into Main Street, which now winds past movie theaters, Barnes and Noble, Gottschalks and GI Joe’s to a turn-about and parking lot near City Hall. Bus stops dot Main Street, and there’s a transit center near the mall.

Despite the initial outcry over the cost, public perception has been “very positive so far,” Harrison said. “We had a lot of flack from a certain element out there about building a city hall. If we’d have built city hall for 15 cents, they would have liked it. And there was an undercurrent (of people) who weren’t happy with the council at that time who used city hall as a vehicle for criticizing us.

“But most people are very complimentary and like it. We’re delighted.”

In Lakewood’s case, putting city hall in the city center served to boost the economic vitality. “No question about it,” Harrison said.

Lakewood City Hall opened in November 2001, and last August, the city celebrated the grand opening of Lakewood Towne Center.

“Ours was a combination of urban redevelopment and commercial redevelopment to give a city center to Lakewood,’’ Gernon said. “The city hall was the smartest thing the city could have done because we went from renting and spending a lot on rent to something the city owns. It was built debt-free. There was a reserve fund.

“Visits to city hall have gone up astronomically. The processing time for permits is reduced, and there’s now a place to sit while people wait. The permit process is greatly improved.

“What I’m hearing out in the community is people like the building,” Gernon said. “There’s a sense that people are proud of it.”

It’s too early to tell if it’s all working, “but by all accounts, it seems to be doing very well,” Bock said. “A lot of citizens are very happy city hall is so much more accessible.We’re not crammed into an ill-suited building.”

Staff writer Erica Jahn can be reached at 925-5565 and

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