A trip to downtown Federal Way proves change is coming in 2021.
As local businesses grapple with surviving the COVID-19 pandemic and Sound Transit’s Federal Way Link Extension project begins to take form, Federal Way deserves a business re-envisioning, said Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell.
“I think right now the real focus points of our economic development efforts are, number one, to help The Commons property, but also to help transition other businesses as they think about coming into Federal Way,” Ferrell said.
The Commons mall, owned by Merlone and Geier, has slowly emptied over the past few years as stores come and go from the 781,791-square-foot space. Macy’s, one of the mall’s anchor stores, announced on Jan. 7 it would close by March of this year.
Another of the mall’s anchor store locations, previously home to Sears, is under renovation for an incoming grocery store. Despite numerous speculations, the incoming store will not be a Sprouts Farmers Market. On Jan. 11, a spokesperson for Sprouts said the supermarket company does not have plans to open a location in Federal Way.
Neither the city nor mall ownership have announced what business will be filling the space, but the mayor expects the incoming grocery store to open in fall or winter later this year.
Due to the eventual new business, The Commons mall leadership will also facilitate opening three additional stand-alone business pads (similar to the nearby Applebee’s or Mama Stortini’s locations). Two of the business pads will be on the west side of the mall along Pacific Highway South and another will be placed between the current Chase Bank and the Applebee’s locations along S. 320th Street.
These locations will then be leased out by the mall ownership, presumably to restaurants or small businesses, Ferrell said.
New retail businesses are set to open this spring including an Old Navy clothing store and a Sketchers shoe store in the Celebration Center (near the 1400 block of S. 324th Street).
“Unfortunately I think the state of retail is changing based on consumer patterns in regards to online purchasing and the way people engage in the marketplace,” Ferrell said. “But I still think there’s a need and a desire by people to do shopping in person.”
Other business fronts include a new DaVita dialysis building, which broke ground in May and is set to open this year. DaVita will eventually be the largest private employer in the city of Federal Way, providing more than 1,300 jobs, Ferrell said.
In addition, All City Fence recently purchased property in the northern part of Federal Way, Watson’s Greenhouse and Nursery is opening in the former Branches Garden Center location, and Eugene-based Papé Kenworth Northwest will be opening by consolidating facilities in Tacoma, Fife and SeaTac to a Federal Way location.
On the horizon, Ferrell noted early conversations with Smith Brothers Farms, which is interested in bringing their headquarters to Federal Way. Kent-based Smith Brothers farms did not respond to the Mirror’s request for comment as of press time.
Focused on retention, expansion and helping current businesses in the area thrive, Ferrell said the city is also dedicated to retaining and supporting minority-owned businesses, such as with the Federal Way Black Collective about welcoming a Black-owned bank into the city.
Here comes the light rail
With Sound Transit’s new Federal Way Link Extension station to open at the city’s core in 2024, this infrastructure investment needs to be matched by business investment, the mayor said, meaning people should have a reason to travel to Federal Way and not just hop on the train out.
“We want to make sure people can utilize a whole variety of services … whatever the businesses are that will help really create a vital experience,” he said.
Federal Way is dominated by strip malls. The city has worked to create common spaces and a sense of community in the city limits. While strip malls and the businesses in them are critical to the city’s development, the mall — as the city’s central business district — is an outdated model.
The Commons ownership previously invested $25 million into the structure, but Ferrell said evolution of the facility may need to look beyond a traditional mall model to more of a mixed-used commercial development.
Deemed “lifestyle retail” or “lifestyle centers,” the spaces offer a combination of business, retail, residential and outdoor experiences, similar to The Landing in Renton or Alderwood Mall in Lynnwood.
To do so, the downtown must be made more inviting, and requires an increase of housing downtown to create “passive vigilance” by density, Ferrell said.
“What we want to do is create a situation in which you have a walkable experience in our downtown, that there are services available for people, but what’s not conducive to a community is when you essentially have a downtown that’s vacant at night,” he said.
Eventually, Federal Way’s downtown will go vertical and as the city’s footprint rises, it is a necessity to have a variety of housing options for residents, he said.
Money has been allocated in the budget for a contractual city planner position, but officials are waiting for a housing study to be completed before discussions and visioning begins.
“It’s important for us that when private interest is expressed that we follow up and help them and that we don’t let the process be something that would discourage them,” Ferrell said.
In the short term, the city is focusing on filling business vacancies and supporting resident businesses. In the long term, the city is refining their vision of how Federal Way will look once the Sound Transit trains come in and buildings start to level up.