Where economics, city government and progress all intersect in a young, upstart city like Federal Way, the wheels of change are slow rolling.
In 1998, Federal Way was the sixth-largest city in Washington state, with a population of a little more than 74,000 people. The city’s largest private employer was Weyerhaeuser, whereas the Federal Way school district was the city’s largest public employer.
To improve community appeal and alleviate a shortage of playing fields in the community, the city committed $8 million to build trails, access roads and four soccer and four softball fields at the 84-acre Celebration Park. The new fields were to be lighted so teams could play at night.
Farther up the road, the business sector along 320th Street was experiencing major growth with the construction of a nine-story Courtyard by Marriott near Interstate 5. A Comfort Inn was being built on 316th Street, and an eight-story Holiday Inn was planned near the new Marriott.
A piece of property off of 320th Street and 20th Avenue would be the future site of a Walmart. Those developments were intended to become the “cornerstones of a bustling central district.”
As published in the Federal Way Mirror’s inaugural edition Feb. 4, 1998, along with the community improvements and development, the city would have a clearly defined downtown sector and find its identity in its downtown core. To help that along, the city of Federal Way and Greater Federal Way Chamber of Commerce created a Downtown City Revitalization Program. According to the article, the program “aims to accomplish a couple of main goals: Make the downtown core around SeaTac Mall more pedestrian-friendly, and encourage new buildings to rise higher with more of a mix of retail shops, offices and hotels.”
A pedestrian friendly, visually appealing downtown
At the time, city and chamber officials driving the downtown revitalization campaign agreed that for downtown to thrive, it needed to be pedestrian friendly. That included cutting back on “a sea of signs and power lines” and billboards by passing a strict sign ordinance.
The new sign ordinance, among other things, prohibited billboard signs and required business owners to replace pole signs with monument signs. It also established permitted sign sizes and setbacks from the street. According to the Mirror’s first edition, the proposed new sign ordinance irked some downtown retailers, “but city leaders say they hope the results will give the city’s residents a greater sense of identity.”
A caption underneath a photo running with the front-page story said: “Looking north along Pacific Highway South, downtown Federal Way becomes a sea of signs and power lines.”
Recently retired deputy mayor Jeanne Burbidge, who has also lived in the area for over 50 years, remembers how awful the downtown looked with all the signs.
“The sign clutter was just incredible before we became a city,” she said, adding the problem was especially bad – and detrimental to businesses – along 320th and on Pacific Highway South from 312th to 330th. “When there is too much clutter, people tend to zone it out of their brain, and they don’t really see anything,” Burbidge said. “They just see a bunch of clutter.”
By enacting the sign ordinance, that stretch of Federal Way became more visually appealing and inviting for people passing by to stop, Burbidge said. She said to make the change easier for retailers, city officials gave business owners 10 years to come into compliance and gave bonuses to those who met requirements early.
Transportation project deja vu
According to the Mirror’s inaugural edition, city officials “hoped that a new, expanded Park-and-Ride lot, combined with thicker hotel traffic and pedestrian traffic around a redeveloped Celebration Park will sow the seeds of a mid-rise, more self-contained downtown to replace the city’s core of parking lots.”
Just as Sound Transit is now in the planning phase of a significant transportation investment in the form of a light rail station in the Federal Way downtown, back in 1998, the agency intended to build a large transit center with a park and ride and was determining the best location. City officials and developers hoped the new transit center would move away from I-5 and be located in the business center.
According to Mirror articles at the time, city officials were banking on the idea that an expanded park and ride and transit center, and nearby hotel and business growth, would generate considerable pedestrian traffic and lead to construction of nearby boutique stores and restaurants. Paired with hotel and business developments along with visually appealing, pedestrian-friendly streets, the transit center would become an anchor to a defined downtown core and centralized business district.
Twenty years later
Fast forward to 2018, and Pacific Highway and South 320th Street are no longer cluttered with signs. The sidewalks sport trees, practical and stylized light fixtures, baskets of flowers and other decorations during the year.
At the same time, major discussion topics still frequently published in the Federal Way Mirror include creating a centralized downtown core; the need for pedestrian friendly sidewalks and downtown streets that encourage shopping and foot traffic; more transportation options that cut back on traffic congestion; a major Sound Transit project that could change the landscape of downtown; and determining an overall city identity.
Burbidge said, however, it would be a mistake to presume that city officials never accomplished their goals in 1998, and said current plans and discussions are just a continuation of what was set into motion 20 years ago.
In trying to facilitate growth in the downtown over the years, the city has purchased additional property, including the former AMC movie theater at the site of the current Town Square Park. Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell has celebrated the completion of Town Square Park as a significant accomplishment to improving the downtown and making it more attractive for residents. City officials originally had other intentions for that property.
Burbidge said they had initially planned to partner with a development company to transform that property into mixed-use development and a park area. “They had some really intriguing ideas,” she said. City officials then had a landscape designer with roots in Federal Way come up with some conceptual drawings of what that area could look like.
In the end, nothing happened because the development company that had originally expressed interest in the property was unable to come up with the funding.
“Over the years, it’s been a combination of economies, who’s come forward and what they presented and, you still have to look at the challenges that the city of Federal Way has faced virtually since the beginning to the present in terms of availability of funds,” she said, adding most of the other cities in King County receive a higher revenue per person than Federal Way, which is approaching 100,000 residents.
Since that failed initial attempt at redeveloping what is now Town Square Park, Burbidge said city officials received other proposals for the site, but nothing ever happened due to lack of funding. The purchase of the nearby Target property and the addition of more acreage has since spurred other visions for that segment of the downtown.
“It wasn’t until we purchased that additional property and made the firm decision to build the [Performing Arts and Event Center], that we’ve had more significant investment in our downtown,” Burbidge said. The city, she said, has always been subject to the prevailing economies and funding available. Other ideas to increase shopping and foot traffic have surfaced, but many proved too costly.
One suggestion was to build a walking bridge over 320th Street to make it easier and safer for people to cross the street. As with many ideas, a walking bridge turned out to be unfeasible strictly because of the cost it would entail.
Engineering study costs alone to construct a walking bridge over 320th would have been huge, not to mention the cost of the actual structure. Burbidge said “what is known to be absolutely true” is shorter blocks are needed to have a pedestrian-friendly downtown that encourages foot traffic. “The only way a city can afford to have shorter blocks happens when you add more streets,” she said.
Most of the improvements for the downtown have come in the way of more streets, and those streets have only come with new development like Town Square Park and the Performing Arts and Event Center. Burbidge said all of the new streets added to the downtown in the last 20 years meet very strict standards for sidewalks, planting strips and special lighting.
Related to the diversity of businesses located in the downtown, Burbidge said the city is somewhat limited in that regard because that is at the discretion of the property owners and development companies that own the existing structures. With the construction of Sound Transit light rail in downtown, and the number of unknowns in regard to that project, Burbidge said she wouldn’t be surprised if developers are hedging their bets and waiting for the project to progress before making any significant investments. “If I were a developer there, I would be very thoughtful in my timing in putting up new buildings,” she said, “and also realizing the kinds of tenants I can attract.”