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Shapes and sizes of possible town square under review

By ERICA HALL

The Mirror

Urban design experts from consulting firm RTKL Associates are putting together some final impressions on a town square or downtown open-space concept to give Federal Way officials following a recent public workshop at City Hall.

During the presentation Aug. 29, urban designer Paris Rutherford presented an overview of the different types of open-space development the city could pursue as part of efforts to revitalize downtown. He then handed out exercise sheets to about a dozen people in the audience and asked them to mark their preferences when they saw an example of a development they liked.

Rutherford is expected to return to the city Sept. 27 with the results of the exercise and some ideas for encouraging open space or town square development.

The week before RTKL’s results are expected, another much-anticipated body of data should be ready for City Council review.

The Leland Group, a consulting firm hired by the city last year to conduct a lifestyle center market analysis and offer suggestions to encourage new kinds of mixed-use, up-scale development in the city center, is expected to bring its recommendations to the council Sept. 20.

City officials will use both sets of data as they consider ways to boost development in the city center core.

While city officials remain open-minded about how to pursue additional development downtown, Rutherford noted any sort of redevelopment won’t be easy.

“This is, without a doubt, the most difficult thing you will do as a city. Without a doubt,” he said.

That’s because there already are businesses downtown that are making money, and the city center already is completely developed, he said. It will be hard for the city to mobilize the collective will to start changing things.

But he also noted there is no meaningful open space downtown, and no connection between the existing parks and open spaces located throughout the city.

Rutherford described the development pattern in Federal Way as similar to manifest destiny: Development here expanded as much as possible as fast as possible to accommodate as many businesses as possible so people could shop for things they wanted.

That type of development tends to focus on putting up a building and rolling out a parking lot so shoppers can get in and start buying as soon as possible, he explained, adding such development is formulaic, self-defeating, and can’t sustain a community.

“It’s commodity, not community,” he said. “Even when products are under-performing, they keep copying themselves. There’s strip center after strip center.”

Like many struggling suburban areas, Federal Way’s city center core is “defined by the car, dictated by convention and shaped by financial exercise,” Rutherford said. “This does not hold value anywhere in the country. The type of development on the ground out there, even if it’s well-stewarded by the city, won’t hold up for long.”

Part of the challenge, he said, will be taking a fresh look at the city center and re-defining it. City officials will have to think of open space as a potential way to make money, “to reinvent that sense of opportunity that may have been there 20 years ago that may be less obvious today,” Rutherford said.

He presented several examples of the types of open-space development that exist, noting some obviously wouldn’t work for Federal Way. Something the size of New York City’s Central Park, for example, would consume all of downtown.

Concepts included a range of developments, from public areas of hardscape with trees and planters integrated into the privately owned spaces, like dining areas, to stand-alone parks hemmed by trees or other distinctive elements.

Some of the examples offered contemplative and reflective opportunities — benches near plants and water features, like streams — while others were more recreational and interactive.

Still others focused on community-gathering functions, like theaters or outdoor auditoriums for a public rally or music.

The information Rutherford will bring back to the council will be for information only, city yeconomic development director Patrick Doherty said. The council isn’t expected to review Rutherford’s analysis and decide on a particular course of action.

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