Dirty word hints at Federal Way’s future turn-on

By Chris Carrel, Thinking Locally

By Chris Carrel, Thinking Locally

There’s a new dirty word in town. Well, in fact, it’s an old dirty word, but it has a new twist.

Twice in the last week, this particular word brought crowds of people to the Federal Way City Council chambers to speak out against it. For the purposes of this article, I’m going to have to use this word. I apologize in advance, but any sensitive types should probably skip to the sports page.

Density is the word at issue. Federal Way-ers most often encounter this word when property owners request the city council rezone their property to allow for more density — more houses, or even multi-family units — than existing zoning allows.

Such was the case last week, when a small crowd turned out to the city council meeting Tuesday night to inveigh against a request to allow for increased density, even perhaps apartments, on a strip of land near the Dash Point Village. Much to the neighbors’ satisfaction, the council denied the request. While we’re at it, for those of you who claim the council doesn’t listen to the public, this would seem to be an example of the opposite.

On Thursday evening, another large crowd from a different neighborhood again descended on the council chambers. This time, about 70 Federal Way-ers from the Illahee area came to a public meeting to learn about a proposal to rezone a much larger area west of 1st Avenue and south of South 356th Street — to allow more houses to be built.

The meeting was something of a trial balloon, a step before advancing a proposal to the city council. Public sentiment was as hostile to this rezone as it was to the Dash Point proposal.

Given the large opposition, the proposal may not make it to the council, but if it does, one can foresee it suffering the same fate. Score the week Federal Way-ers 2, density 0.

Federal Way’s incorporation was born out of our desire to stem the flood of apartments and subdivisions that were then exploding across the landscape like a 13-year-old’s acne. We’ve been kicking the “density can” since the early days. We didn’t like density back then, and we don’t like it now.

While that’s true, the world around Federal Way, and the laws that guide growth, have changed dramatically. Most importantly, in the mid-1990s, the Washington Growth Management Act began to exert pressure on cities to accept more density. The Growth Management Act focuses growth — with concurrent infrastructure — in Puget Sound’s urban areas, while blocking most development from eating up the region’s rural areas and natural treasures like the forests of the Cascades Foothills.

In other words, in the name of preventing Los Angeles-style sprawl, Federal Way and fellow cities have to add more people and become, yes, more dense. Under the law, Federal Way is required to grow by another 6,000 people by 2022. That state mandate to grow directly conflicts with our desire to block growth and protect neighborhoods.

The city council has, I think, wisely dealt with this conflict by focusing increased density in the downtown area. Fostering mixed use development — new commercial along with residential units — in the downtown area will strengthen the Federal Way economy while meeting our state-mandated population growth targets. This strategy, if it works, will take the pressure off the city to increase density in established neighborhoods. Last week’s council rejection of the Dash Point request follows this tradition of protecting the neighborhoods.

Beyond the realm of the Growth Management Act, though, something else has been happening that will eventually affect how dense cities grow. The world has woken up to the threat of global warming and the challenge of creating a society that can live in balance with the Earth’s resources. Land use — where and how compact development occurs — is one of the more effective tools for reaching this balance.

Denser cities are greener cities. They use less energy and emit less greenhouse gases per person. The more compact the city is, the more friendly it is to public transportation and pedestrian travel, thus reducing auto dependency and the greenhouse gases that go with cars.

Federal Way is taking a step in this direction with the Symphony Development, a 4-acre urban village featuring residential and commercial space in four towers that will rise as high as 24 stories. It’s hoped that Symphony will beget additional commercial and residential development, and thus move Federal Way toward the council’s vision of a denser downtown.

Regardless of how that turns out, it seems that increasing attention to global warming is going to increase the pressure to condense our living patterns.

It may be decades away, but eventually, higher density development will creep into the neighborhoods. Who knows, by then it may not be a dirty word anymore?

Chris Carrel is a lifelong Federal Way resident and executive director of the Friends of the Hylebos. Contact: chinook@hylebos.org.