Clickity-clack, light rail is coming. Our city’s future is being discussed in coffee shops, the back rooms of City Hall and in developer offices that have an investment stake in Federal Way. The better-late-than-never planning car is on the tracks for seven-acres the city owns out of a 400-acre mostly urban retail core intermixed with multifamily, senior housing and aging homes centered at the intersection of 320th Street and Pacific Highway.
Reality says that inertia generally rules the day, which is why change is hard. Federal Way is stuck living in the past, but there are an enlightened few who are trying to find some imagination and energy within our mostly complacent community currently enduring a steady addition of economically challenged residents.
The mayor and his team of planners are seeking input toward retooling the city’s bedraggled urban retail core into a desired destination. They understand light rail is coming and know the city needs to reimagine the existing footprint and retail offerings surrounding the transit center and future light rail station with support from the community, land owners and developers.
The challenge begins with the reality that Federal Way never envisioned the possibility of being anything other than a suburb and never had a concentrated old-style downtown or central business district. With a population just over 100,000 tucked into multiple single-family home subdivisions and multifamily housing complexes, it is a city without any real sense of purpose or place. It has minimal pedestrian walkability and is not bicycle friendly, even though many streets are paint stenciled to encourage cycling.
The city’s planners are trying their best to help us re-envision the city and are currently focusing on seven acres the city owns adjacent to the Performing Arts and Events Center (PAEC), the old Target building and Town Center Park. What exists in this urban retail core is a hodge-podge of low-end retail, grocery and big box stores, a struggling shopping mall, a fair number of local and chain restaurants, affordable senior and multifamily housing complexes, a bus transit center soon to be joined by a light rail station and a small University of Washington satellite classroom cluster.
What exists in this area currently captures no one’s imagination. When we need to be in this area — we tend to do what we need to do and get out. What makes great urban spaces work is having people-focused amenities, support services, diversity of businesses and retail, quality residential housing, residents and visitors with disposable income, visible governmental support, a generational mix of people, entertainment, interaction opportunities, walkability, and low crime.
Federal Way’s challenge is to create a space designed around the future. Those currently seeking housing and urban access may not choose to own cars. Light rail access will be critical in the choices they make. The current millennials and generations that follow are not necessarily interested in the less-than-dynamic suburbs that allowed their parents’ generation to decompress and raise a family. Their chosen lifestyle is different.
A lot is being asked of these seven-acres. Can they be a catalyst to bring people, jobs, quality housing, positive energy and economic vitality to our so-called urban-retail-core? When developed, will it be a place that captures the hearts and minds of the next generation entering the workforce or young families looking for a quality place to have an expansive lifestyle in an ecologically responsible and smaller footprint?
Ideas for these seven-acres include a new city hall, a parking garage, pedestrian plaza, and public market. Developers and current landowners would need to become willing partners in supporting a new vision for the entire area as well as upgrading what exists to accommodate mixed use residential and higher quality retail.
If we go big, we could experience a transformation similar to how Seattle’s Northgate Mall was cut into a multidimensional mixed-use retail, residential and business community with a smaller retooled mall, and dynamically redefined streetscape. Collectively, we must understand and appreciate how complicated this challenge is, especially if we go big and developers choose to realize the benefits of a new vision.
We should not pretend that Federal Way, a city/suburb developed with no clear focus, that has become largely working class with a sizable economically stressed population, will be seen by developers as a good investment. As residents we must see the value in changing our spots and working to attract quality businesses and individuals capable of elevating the stature and future of our city as a way of convincing the developers that we are worth the economic investment.
If we do nothing to establish a clear vision, the current property owners, potential developers or Sound Transit will fill the planning vacuum. If that happens, our city will feel the continued sting of more subsidized housing, lesser quality retail, and experience the lackluster business development that seems to be prevalent along the light-rail transit corridor south of downtown Seattle.
Our city’s planners understand that pursuing dynamic change for an identifiable and valued urban core is a necessity for our city’s future. Like many of our city’s projects, its success potential is vague, based on a lack of public interest and the reality that our city council collectively has the personality of Winnie the Pooh’s Eeyore — scared of change, preferring an easier path and a photo-op. Add our lame-duck Tigger of a mayor to the mix, currently seeking his political future elsewhere, and it is a tough crowd with minimal capability to be facilitators of a difficult change process.
Federal Way needs to take on the persona of the “Little Engine that Could” and challenge our leadership to own the problem and be a catalyst for a better future. We are not building for those who already live here. We are building for a new generation, but we must do so in a way that entices all who live here to value the change and what we can become.
The majority of people who live in Federal Way love this city, but there comes a time when we must also recognize that it is being loved to death and its future strangled. Our leadership needs to lead and as residents we need to implore our elected officials to embrace a different future. Otherwise, our city will continue being an afterthought and what we may choose to call paradise will be a strip-mall parking lot.
Keith Livingston is a retired municipal management professional, lifelong artist and Federal Way resident. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.