What do we want? A Town Center that makes us proud! When do we want it? Now! When do we need it? Yesterday! Will we ever be downtown proud? Who knows?
Welcome to Federal Way’s saga of building a purposeful city-core at a time when our city’s crystal planning ball has no clarity, continues colliding with expectations, our past, present and the ever-changing variables of community building.
Cities are always on a circuitous path of creeping forward through multiple iterations of elected officials bringing forth their notions of the next best thing or pointing out what their peers or predecessors did wrong. Most cities never get it right, but it is a bigger failure to not try.
Our city council has authorized a letter of intent to begin negotiations with One Trent, a Seattle-based real estate development firm specializing in multifamily and mixed-use projects. Out of the six proposals received, their project is considered the best fit for developing the nucleus of a downtown core for our city on the property known as Town Center-3 (TC-3).
Like all proposals, it will go through the “everyone has an opinion phase” without anyone finding a better path. At the end of the discussion phase, I doubt Federal Way will fully embrace the recommended proposal — nor will a better option magically appear.
Federal Way has been trying to crack the formula of building a focal-point downtown about as long as people have been moving to this area. In the early 1960s, Old World Square opened to community fanfare, only to suffer a slow demolition beginning 10 years later to make way for something new.
In the mid-2000s, the city began debating a mixed-use high-rise development as the new focal point of Federal Way. Plans were approved and a developer was chosen in 2007, but the Great Recession dashed any hope of funding the project and the targeted development area continued to decline.
Dreamers continue to dream, and the next set of projects to grace the targeted town center area actually got built. They are the Performing Arts and Event Center (PAEC), Town Square Park and the grand staircase. These projects were done as anchor elements in support of future development. Sadly, like all things Federal Way, the hotel that was to be developed as a complementary support piece for the PAEC never happened.
Regardless of what any of us may think about the TC-3 proposal being discussed by our city, transformative energy is arriving in Federal Way in the form of light rail in 2025. The transit landing will be within walking distance of TC-3, which makes the seven acres of city-owned real estate a worthy risk for developers. The smartest thing the city can do is invest, show leadership, and be the example for how it wants the other property owners in the area to think about what could be a better path forward for what they own.
There are a fair number of “ifs” in the city’s public-private partnership worthy of discussion for the TC-3 acreage. Will the proposed project complement and expand the PAEC’s usability as well as provide a quality walkable experience from the transit center to new mid-rise residential units, ground floor retail, and PAEC performances?
As the public partner in this plan, will Federal Way be able to fund and bring to fruition the essential elements that are its responsibility, such as sufficient parking for the PAEC, a sky bridge to the transit landing, the public plaza and other infrastructure support elements? A new city hall has been discussed as a possibility for the site.
The biggest “if” of all — will the residents support the proposal and be willing to invest the capital needed, which at minimum could be close to $32 million, depending on choices made for the city’s phase one development responsibilities? If the city commits to relocating city hall to the site in a later phase, costs will be higher. The developer’s hard costs, as the project is currently proposed, are north of $250 million. Clarity for the city’s funding sources, costs, and debt structuring will continue being defined as negotiation continues.
Phase one is where the majority of the city’s essential development obligations are met. What gets built are 358 parking stalls needed to support the PAEC, public plaza, a sky bridge and infrastructure support. This phase also builds 335 residential units, retail space, and 257 parking stalls for the building’s residents. Phase one completion is targeted for the end of 2026.
Phases two and three add another 569 residential units split between two buildings. Each multifamily structure will have sufficient parking for their residents and retail space fronting the public plaza. Estimated completion for phase two is 2028, and phase three is 2030.
Phase four is the least defined. In the proposal, it is designated as a condo/office/hotel. This phase is scheduled to begin in 2031 with completion in 2032. This gives the city and developer time to decide what ultimately is the best option for the site. A new city hall is a possibility, but that would require capital funding as well as a groundswell of community support.
This proposal presents an exciting opportunity to begin revitalizing Federal Way’s 400-acre-plus urban/retail core. Light rail will serve as a catalyst for bringing people to our city to live, work and play. Our urban core is in dire need of transformation to accommodate the needs of the next generation of individuals, families and commuters seeking a different lifestyle.
Federal Way was built mostly as a bedroom community with minimal thought about vital human linkages, lifestyle and cultural needs. Suburbs are more insular in lifestyle. Urban residential areas have a more defined vitality and a greater need for adjacent public spaces, walkability, easy access to retail, food services, mass transit, and entertainment serving as lifestyle extenders.
Like all proposals, there is a lot to digest, appreciate, embrace and negotiate before the dust settles on what TC-3 will become. The greatest challenge of all is getting the community to understand that it has to invest in the future of our city. Without community support, our elected decision makers will continue being trapped in the decision paradigm of “could we, should we and will we invest in making our city downtown proud?” Who knows?
Keith Livingston is a retired municipal management professional, lifelong artist and Federal Way resident. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.