No disrespect to the people who helped build and grow Federal Way into the city it is today, but it is important to begin challenging all business leaders, residents and especially our city’s elected officials to think bigger and realize we are not small anymore.
This city is transitioning through a population threshold of 100,000, and that requires going forward with a different caliber of thinking.
Sadly, I am not sure this city is ready for that discussion. Federal Way is trapped in the land of competing personalities and agendas with a tinge of small-town pettiness. But it needs to be looking at the full landscape of ideas and resources necessary to facilitate this city’s growth and sustainability. A fellow Mirror opinion writer tried appropriately to start the visioning discussion but chose the small-town path.
The way he presented his point was that the city’s mayor appears to be more concerned about a hamburger joint choosing not to build here while he should be focusing on economic development and being more supportive of companies like DaVita, who is choosing to make Federal Way its corporate headquarters.
Visioning has very little to do with hamburger joints and the companies who may choose to leave or move to Federal Way. Of course, the city trots out a response that is possibly a more accurate retelling of what occurred but is less interesting only because it is a reaction to the food being thrown.
What we all need to appreciate is that visioning is one of the toughest challenges that confronts all cities. It is like someone asking you to tell them specifically where you will be in 20 years and explain how you plan to get there. Oh, and while you are talking about your future, please do it in a room full of people who may or may not want you to achieve your goal. The desire for community conformity and safe thinking is often a cruel mistress to the visioning process.
If the residents of Federal Way want a visioning discussion, I suggest that we as a community first understand the three critical visioning and growth cycles that have occurred. They basically are what took place prior to 1960, 1960-90 and from incorporating as a city in 1990 to present. Each period has its own development flavor. But all three time blocks have the distinct hand of Weyerhaeuser steering much of the process. The hand of Weyerhaeuser is now gone, but the legacy will persist.
Pre-1960, they owned much of the land and treated it as a resource to be mined later. The community that developed took advantage of the many lakes for homes and the idyllic rural beauty, a few support jobs and commute access to Seattle and Tacoma. By 1960 the Federal Way Planning District, as it was defined by King County, had grown to a population of 14,000. As an unincorporated planning district of King County with large tracts of land owned by Weyerhaeuser, Federal Way’s fate and growth would be decided by politicians in Seattle and resource managers at corporate headquarters in Tacoma.
Bellevue, Washington in 1960, as a point of comparison, had a population of 12,000 but was incorporated, which gave it the ability to manage its growth and development at a local control level. Today it is a city with a population of 141,000, while Federal Way has grown to 97,000. Both cities have enjoyed significant growth. Bellevue became an economic powerhouse and jobs center, while Federal Way became a bedroom community and suburban city with no clear vision or community synergy.
While I am not as familiar with Bellevue’s history, what can be stated honestly is that the decisions made in the early 1960s set the trajectory for each city’s growth. Weyerhaeuser as Federal Way’s primary developer first mined its timber land and then chose to repurpose the land as a new suburb, a suburb that became home for Weyerhaeuser’s multiple businesses, and eventually its corporate headquarters This new suburb was designed to overcome many of the shortcomings of the unimaginative first growth post World War II tract home developments. As corporate planners, they built a community and to some degree a company town.
By 1970 Federal Way was in full development mode and growing fast. What Weyerhaeuser could not foresee and may not have cared about the reality that Federal Way was being created as a libertarian experiment. A community designed to evolve organically without any significant governmental oversight and citizen planning. Growth and development were strategic when it made sense to Weyerhaeuser and a bit wild West or laissez faire when overseen by King County. King County’s real interest prior to incorporation was encouraging development for property tax valuation.
A primary catalyst for incorporation in 1990, after multiple failed attempts at incorporating, was the excessive growth of multifamily units. It had become obvious to many Federal Way residents that King County, overseeing Federal Way as an unincorporated area, cared more about increasing the tax base without any real concern for building a quality community with superior support services. Local control and direct citizen involvement was needed.
When Federal Way became an incorporated city, it had a population of 67,000. The challenge of becoming a city late in the game is that you have to establish community confidence and control, ordinances for governance, transition to local policing, land management policies, a vision for the future, elect officials and hire a staff. It was a very steep learning curve, and from my observation it is still an undercurrent being dealt with today.
Adding to the challenge in 1990 was the reality that Federal Way’s primary creator, Weyerhaeuser, was beginning to reconfigure its core business strategy and started selling off or relocating some of the satellite business it owned and operated in Federal Way. From nearly day one of becoming a city, the city experienced an exodus of residents with management experience, and with them went their middle- to upper-middle class incomes, quality jobs and the dollars needed to sustain and support the growth of a new municipality.
Make no mistake, great progress has been made. But the legacy of the past needs to be understood and overcome in order to articulate a better future. Part of that challenge is redefining the current physical footprint to being more traffic and transit fluid, pedestrian and cyclist friendly as well as becoming more neighborhood continuity focused and valued.
In the past 27 years, Federal Way has weathered a slow economic depression resulting from its benefactor and primary corporation leaving, a real estate bubble and crash, and the great recession of 2007. Recessions and slow economic growth tend to make elected officials very nervous about the future. Regardless, decision paralysis is not an option.
The future will happen with or without elected officials having the visioning discussion or defining decision targets and destination goals. Just realize if you have no destination, there is no path. Failing to plan is not a good option.
The catalyst for the next cycle begins with improving and valuing the schools. Not directly in the city’s control, but great schools attract quality job providers, which, over time, reduces the city’s 15 percent poverty rate and improves property values. Understanding that going forward means reimagining and undertaking the challenge of how to reconfigure a suburb into a self-realized city. A city that will continue growing in population density and diversity. And doing it in a way that builds recognizable value. This growth process must include an emphasis on creativity, art and cultural opportunities.
Federal Way can go from being a good place to live to being some place special. It takes a can-do spirit and a positive attitude. Those are just a few of the visioning challenges. It will include many twists and turns, and it is OK to wish for a good hamburger joint as part of the process.
Keith Livingston is a longtime Federal Way resident and community observer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.