News

City Council: Are the people with us?

By ERICA HALL

The Mirror

Downtown revitalization is still Federal Way officials’ top priority, especially as it relates to increasing tax revenue. But as concerns about city code enforcement and neighborhood health have become more insistent, City Council members note it’s growing increasingly important to communicate more effectively with residents.

Several council members said they’ve been hearing concerns from individuals and neighborhood groups that officials are focusing all their attention on the city center and ignoring the well-being of the neighborhoods.

“People really need to understand what we’re doing,” Councilman Eric Faison said during the council’s annual retreat Jan. 28 at Dumas Bay Center.

He said a robust business climate helps local residents because businesses pay more in property taxes and can help reduce the tax burden on homeowners. An average household in Federal Way might pay $360 a year in property tax, he said, but Old Navy and Toys R Us –– both of which have closed or are closing –– paid closer to $70,000 a year.

That means the council’s efforts to revitalize the downtown area could ultimately have a positive effect on people’s pocketbooks and on the city’s ability to provide services. But people need to know that, Faison said.

Developers’ perception of Federal Way “drives home values, which in turn drives revenue, which drives city services,” he said. “There is an interest in economic development among local residents, but they need better communication.”

For five years, city officials have been trying to make it easier to develop in Federal Way and counteract the city’s anti-business reputation.They increased height allowances, enacted a 10-year property tax exemption for mixed-use developments that include housing, and launched a city-led environmental impact study (EIS).

“The EIS was a very expensive project and one we all thought was positive,” Faison said. “The delays are huge.”

Patrick Doherty, the city’s economic development director, said the study is an “ambitious transportation analysis, but in doing so, we’re coming up with a model of planned action.” When the study is finished, he said, developers will have “much less work to do.”

The council also resurrected a streamlined permit process, conducted surveys, hosted developers’ forums, and hired a part-time staff member to contact business owners one-on-one. The city flew urban-design expert Bob Gibbs to Federal Way to give a presentation on lifestyle market development, and then hired the Leland Consulting Group to study whether the city could support so-called lifestyle development, and, if so, provide strategies to make it happen.

The city also brought in urban-design firm RTKL Associates to help outline ideas for public open space or a town square.

Officials say this year’s work will be equally difficult, but in a different way. Now is the time to encourage something to happen downtown, Dohertysaid. For some on the council, it can’t happen soon enough.

“I want to start seeing things in our city. Maybe I’m being a little aggressive, but I want to see something happen,” Councilman Dean McColgan said.

Last year, the council authorized the creation of a city center revitalization fund and allocated $5 million to get it started. But council members haven’t criteria to allocate the money, what sorts of public projects they’d help a developer pay for with money from the fund, or how much of the fund they would use at one time for any particular project.

Councilman Jack Dovey said he wants to have that discussion this year. He also suggested the council talk about how to add money to the fund for continued revitalization.

Doherty said the council will have to formalize some policies so officials will know what to do when opportunity knocks. “We need to work through some issues so we’re not wowed and snowed by it all,” he said.

Despite the city’s efforts, there’s still the lingering issue of ownership. The city doesn’t own the land downtown.

“As the public sector, we can’t dictate to private developers,” Mayor Mike Park said. “We can be ready to accommodate, but we should not cross the line. Other developers might think the city is willing to initiate development.”

As city officials tackle some of the new challenges this year, Dovey said he’d like his council colleagues to keep in mind another question that could determine how long the city will keep offering incentives to encourage growth: “Have we done enough to get to where we want to go? Do we have enough carrots to offer to get something started?”

Staff writer Erica Hall: 925-5565, ehall@fedwaymirror.com

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