An alternative look at the state of Federal Way | Livingston

It is important to say that 100,000 people call Federal Way home and they need to be thought of as stakeholders to our present and bridge-builders to our future.

Managing expectations versus reality is challenging for every city. Our mayor gave the annual State of the City Address on Feb. 15 at the Federal Way Performing Arts and Events Center (PAEC), providing a perspective of where we are and where we are trying to go. If you missed it, you can watch it on the city’s YouTube channel. The mayor and his team are good at hosting this event and showcasing our city as a positive place to live.

This column is not specifically about the address. Due to publication timing, I am writing about the state of the city from the realm of predicting some of what may be said as well as presenting an alternate point of view. It is important to say that 100,000 people call Federal Way home and they need to be thought of as stakeholders to our present and bridge-builders to our future.

It is also worth saying that the city is managed well enough within the context it has created for itself – but well enough will not get us to the next level. Residents lean toward being change-averse, complacent, and may have low expectations based on interactions with city officials.

The public’s perception of our city focuses on the present and our wants – streets clean and maintained, kind neighbors, crime trending down, and being able to sleep in peace. Being reactive and complaining about immediate issues is what we do. Rarely do we appreciate the community-building process and how a city needs to constantly reposition itself to remain competitive.

The present we are living through includes multiple challenges — homelessness, crime, illicit drug use, car thefts, minimal accountability for perpetrators pre and post-prosecution, vacant office space, a new work-from-home economy, aging housing stock, aging infrastructure, second-tier retail options, poverty, and our business developments along major corridors all look dated and uninspiring — to name a few.

Pacific Highway has the feel of a downtrodden dystopia. It is hardly walkable, and if you try it, it is not enjoyable. As an outsider coming to FW for the first time, your visual experience will include a tired-looking mall on 320th Street supported by a mecca of strip center shopping, you may ask yourself, why choose Federal Way?

Crime never takes a holiday and aesthetics degrade without constant investment. People are fickle and looking for the newest object of entertainment while forgetting to support what they have. Then again if you are a gentrification refugee from a neighborhood on the rise – you may feel that this city is relatively affordable and feels like a town that appreciates the status quo. Comfort and expectations have many levels.

When guests come from out of town, we find ourselves entertaining elsewhere and taking in the depth of the region — Seattle, Tacoma, mountain hikes, Puget Sound views, museums and more. We may spend a few bucks eating at some local restaurants or take in a show at the PAEC or Centerstage, but our city is not a significant destination for business or pleasure. Should that be our goal?

City leadership is working on a vision for our future. It could be great or scary and it will take time and lots of money. Will building a new downtown core, improving parking around the PAEC, moving city hall, adding several thousand mid-rise housing units, creating a new traffic pattern by reconstructing the Commons Mall, taking advantage of being a light rail terminus for the next 10 years, and potentially adding a public market, be the catalyst our city needs to become a desired destination?

It will take years for any of this vision to come to fruition, but work is ongoing with all the land owners/developers who have a stake in the city’s urban landscape. If it goes forward, it will be transformative. It will be disruptive and create an urban focal point that is people-centered, mass transportation friendly, and rebuilt for a new generation of residents.

Just know that change is a deceptive mistress and may not live up to expectations. But doing nothing is conceivably worse.

While we enjoy the siren’s song of potential, we live in the present and are stuck managing a never-ending set of in-your-face community problems. The present is about managing our displeasure of seeing nothing but the expenses and feeling no real impact relative to the city’s effort to alleviate the degradation of what we value. This is the classic “while you are distracting us with future charms, we are drowning over here.”

Cities have to be security and services-driven. They have to have a “Swiss Army Knife” set of capabilities in the present and be able to upgrade to a knife with more utility as needs grow. Change is a proactive process and able to go forward when revenues and community pressures align. The sweet spot for cities is steady as you go driven by incremental change while trying to catch a bigger wave.

Will our past predict our future? Our old core of community thinkers is still active, and some are still on the council and they may not recognize that their “small” thinking ways set up the present, and if we do not get a younger generation — with “big” thinking capabilities — involved in our council leadership, we will be shortchanging our potential.

Federal Way was built as a suburban bedroom community without much thought of what being a community meant in our developmental years or the future. For the developers who built this community in the 1960s-1980s, they built a utility town of not much interest or opportunity. They created a decent place to live, but if we want to have lifestyle options beyond the mundane we need to challenge or change our leadership.

The mayor and his team are managing past and present choices while presenting new options, hoping to get Federal Way on the path to being a more desirable city. I do not know if our city will achieve the greatness it wants, but if we do not try, the abyss we face will look the same.

Keith Livingston is a retired municipal management professional, lifelong artist and Federal Way resident. He can be reached at