Opinion

Downtown Federal Way: What might have been | Bob Roegner

The recent Federal Way City Council discussions on a performing arts center have caused many in the community to ponder what might have been.

Residents see the striking downtown city-led resurgences of Kent, Renton, Burien and Puyallup — and ask, why not here?

Federal Way has the location, resources and interconnecting land parcels that conjure up a vision of immense possibilities for a downtown in need of leadership to fulfill its potential. Currently, a majority of the city council members support building a performing arts center, although begrudgingly in some cases. They also support building it downtown to help with economic development. Their recent discussions have also added a conference or cultural center. That addition and downtown location will increase the cost dramatically and potentially tip the balance scale the other way in these tough economic times. The debate resurfaces similar discussions on other projects, and raises the question of where we are going.

The next time you are at Borders book store, look north across 320th Street. What do you see? You see seven different shopping centers with stark gray asphalt that require a car to visit. They have no relationship or connection to one another. No theme or purpose.

Now close your eyes and think about what might have been.

With a little more foresight, we could have created the vibrant city center we desperately need. Now keep your eyes closed and envision Celebration Park parallel to 320th Street with its green trees, open space, and baseball and soccer fields. A tree-lined urban oasis that calls for activity against a serene background. To the northwest, anchor your new utopia with the community center and its eye-catching architecture. To the north is City Hall, the police station and municipal court. To the northeast is your new performing arts center with access to the transit center, and to the east is your transplanted King County library — completing the circle back to Celebration Park.

Systematically interspersed among these municipal improvements are Billy McHale’s, the Outback steakhouse, Red Lobster and Ivar's. Include Starbucks, Trader Joe's, a new Federal Way Mirror office and a mixture of existing businesses.

Your streets are redesigned to slowly meander to discourage through-traffic. A mini version of the concept already exists at Gateway Center. The village feel that encompasses Marlene’s Market, Cold Stone Creamery, the Great Northwest Harvest Bread Company, See’s Candy and the Marriott can be replicated.

But what if we move some of them to our new development and build condominiums above them to provide built-in shoppers who will use our newly available municipal services, without having to get in their cars? Resurrect the Symphony high-rise project, but maybe not quite so tall. Now you’ve created a vibrant, stimulating, readily-accessible city center that calls out for events that appeal to our sense of history and community.

Maybe restart our community festival with a new theme and call it “Hylebos Days?” I can think of several people who could wear the salmon costume.

Now open your eyes. It was better when they were closed, wasn’t it? This was all possible. It may not be now. But each time over the past 20 years our leaders looked at a project, they blinked at the increased cost of the downtown price tag. That’s really not surprising when the decisions on projects are made individually rather than with an overall vision. And politics being what it is, elected leaders always want to keep the cost down or the voters get surly. Or in the case of the library, the users wanted it left right where it was because of safety fears if it were near the transit center. But if we had built City Hall (which includes the police station) nearby, it might have eased that concern.

Can we still create our urban utopia? Yes, but we’re running out of time and options. Most of the city council isn’t all that enthralled with a performing arts center anyway, and when they see the updated price tag, there will be a collective gasp, and it could be set aside or possibly built in a cheaper location.

And downtown will continue as is — a place of “what ifs” and “what might have beens.”

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