What is downtown Federal Way's future, and who's leading? | Bob Roegner

The future of downtown Federal Way has suddenly moved from behind the scenes political chatter to the front page.

Several parallel events have merged into one major question: What is the future of our city center?

The community has been waiting years for an awakening that brings a vibrant, attractive downtown of shops, restaurants and culture worthy of this growing and diverse population’s aspirations, needs and goals.

A city on the cusp of adulthood, Federal Way is well situated to become the regional hub that links Seattle and Tacoma.

But will it?

Along the way, we have been teased with ideas and pretty pictures while other cities have moved their visions from paper to reality.

Are we finally going to see movement? What are the challenges? Are we being teased again?

At a special council meeting last week, we were reminded that a new performing arts and conference center at the old Toys R Us site has moved closer to being a part of our downtown.

Two firms responded to the city’s request for proposals. But one, ARCADD of Massachusetts, has already tested the city’s patience.

A year ago, ARCADD wanted to buy city land and partner with City Hall to energize the central business core.

The dramatic pictures of the Crystal Palace were the talk of the town. But ARCADD missed the deadline for providing the city a check for $150,000, seemingly small change in a project of this magnitude, and the identity of the major investor was elusive.

Last January at the mayor-council retreat, economic development director Patrick Doherty showed the council staff concepts for downtown. This seemed to be a fall-back position and suggested that confidence in ARCADD was slipping.

At last week’s meeting, Dr. Hisham Ashouri from ARCADD flew in from Boston to reiterate his company’s interest. He announced that ARCADD would have the earnest money check delivered to City Hall by Oct. 2. Some city council members, who are losing patience, thought it would have been smart to bring the check with him that evening. There also seemed to be questions about whether there is a new major investor.

Lorax Partners has entered the fray as a contender. Lorax has a lot of regional experience with downtown areas. However, they inadvertently provided the humorous moment for the evening as their Powerpoint presentation led up to their “vision for Federal Way” with everything but a drum roll. But the air went out of the room as their next slide was blank!

They explained it was a “blank slate” that the citizens could fill in to determine the future of downtown, but after the build up, it raised questions of how much creative thought they had put into understanding Federal Way and its needs. The council was again shown the planning department’s drawings as other options to consider.

Can ARCADD, which has yet to produce, or Lorax, which didn’t bring anything applicable to Federal Way, really be the answer to our downtown needs? There is a lot of hope riding on the answer.

There is also a feeling among some that the city is adrift with options, but no clear vision is coming from the administration. The council is cautious about ARCADD and Lorax, and remains confused by the role of the city’s new lobbyist to the economic development discussion.

There are other concurrent challenges facing the city. King County believes a new garbage transfer station is needed. Where will it go? There are five possible sites. One is in Federal Way just across the freeway from downtown. And there are two locations in Auburn under consideration. Leaders in both cities don’t seem to want it because of its potential impact on their business districts. But it is our waste. What will we do with it? Will city leaders work together to find a constructive regional solution? Or will it deteriorate in to another NIMBY debate?

An even bigger decision for downtown’s future is approaching: where will the south link of Sound Transit go after it leaves Highline Community College? The general concept was to proceed down Highway 99/Pacific Highway to S. 272nd Street near Federal Way’s northern city limits, then on to Tacoma.

The mayor and council want it to go down I-5 because they think it will be faster and cheaper. But others want it to continue on Highway 99, as it may provide the best opportunity for energizing downtown with commercial growth and jobs. Sound Transit is conducting a study that should provide critical data for the discussion.

Behind the scenes, the community is losing patience with the lack of action from City Hall. The city council is losing patience with ARCADD, and looking to the mayor to provide clear direction.

Some regional business and political leaders are starting to wonder, what’s going on in Federal Way? They will watch closely to see how our local leaders respond to all these challenges.

Will ARCADD produce a check on Oct. 2? Even if they do, will the council feel confident enough to finalize an agreement? Will the council members feel they have enough information to determine whether ARCADD or Lorax Partners have shown enough to consider either one for a future partnership at the Oct. 16 meeting?

Then where does the transfer station go, and, what is the best route for light rail?

These are big challenges, with big opportunities, that will require unusual leadership and vision. But another year has passed without progress. The pressure is on to produce, or the feeling that we were teased again will strain city government’s credibility.

Much of this will play out against a backdrop of politics. Next year, the mayor and three members of the city council are up for election.


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