Many cities seek a community definition with the image their downtown presents. But Federal Way has evolved into what it is today, rather than having been planned.
So where do we go from here, and whose compass do we follow?
Everyone seems to agree that our city center needs significant improvement, not only to reflect what our community is, but to keep and attract tax dollars to provide public services.
A mixed-use development of housing, retail, commercial and recreation opportunities combined with a possible performing arts and conference Center could provide the energy that our vibrant population warrants. But what kind, and what will it look like? And who will lead this effort? Agreement to these questions within the community and among our elected leaders has been elusive.
Since we seem to have missed the opportunity a good economic climate provides, residents impatiently ask, when? When will we actually see some improvement in our downtown? Not just signs or banners or flowers, but real physical visual change?
Recently, we had the Twin Development option. It had some positives with open space and commercial offerings, but its 40-story buildings seemed to lack a symmetry with the rest of the central business core.
The Federal Way City Council repeatedly extended the time frame for the developers to raise the money, but they could never put the final financial package together.
A majority of the council supported the concept, but that support became more of a lukewarm “it’s all we have,” rather then the enthusiasm we would hope for. Eventually, the council’s patience wore out. The council then, in what some in the community found to be a surprising move, proceeded to start the process all over again with a Request for Qualifications to be submitted by interested developers.
Surprising, because many City Hall observers had expected the council to leave the issue in the hands of Mayor Skip Priest.
In a strong mayor form of government, typically the mayor would work with city staff, community leaders and outside consultants to develop a strategy for implementing the needed development, and present it to the city council for review and adoption.
Three interested parties submitted mixed-use concepts. One came from Twin Development, the same group that previously lacked funding. Another came from Williams, Dame & Associates from Portland, which highlighted senior housing. Finally, Arcadd Inc.Hisham Ashkouri Architects from Newton, Mass., submitted a plan focused on a Crystal Palace. Eye catching, but vague.
So far, consensus has been hard to find. No one really knows who favors what option and what Mayor Priest will support. There has been speculation that the council is split on the options, with some thinking a majority might still want Twin Development.
At a recent city council meeting, council member Linda Kochmar made a motion to substitute a full council study session on the three concepts for the previously planned council committee session on finance and economic development. Council member Mike Park chairs that committee, and it includes Jack Dovey and Jeanne Burbidge.
As the debate unfolded, it appeared Kochmar and others were concerned that under the committee system, only one preferred option might be recommended to the full council, thus depriving the remaining council members of considering all three. One council member even suggested three separate study sessions. Kochmar was also concerned about public participation in the process.
When the vote to substitute a study session for the committee meeting was called for, Kochmar was supported by council members Jim Ferrell and Roger Freeman. Council members Mike Park, Jeanne Burbidge and Deputy Mayor Dini Duclos voted no. With council member Jack Dovey out of town, Mayor Priest cast the deciding “no” vote. There are only a few specific items that the mayor can cast a tie-breaking vote on, and procedural matters is one of them. This effectively left the issue to the council committee, but also seemed to suggest that the political lines were drawn eerily close to pre-meeting speculation.
The committee met, and the council has now changed course again, and has scheduled a study session for July 19. What will they do then? Does a majority of the city council have a preferred option? After all the delays, is there really still support for Twin Developments? Is there support for anything?
Despite the concern expressed by some council members that a majority still want to go with Twin Development, it is hard to find any real support for any of the proposals from a majority of the council. And a 4-3 or even a 5-2 vote for Twin Development or any any other option wouldn’t inspire community confidence.
What will the council do? They can start over again: They can continue to study the three options and make a decision later, or select a preferred option and start the negotiating phase. Or, discard all three options, refer the issue to the mayor and ask for him to present his recommended concept and strategy for the future of downtown to the council within a few months.
Under the latter option, we would have a centralized starting point for debate, one hand on the tiller instead of eight, and the elected leader of our city pointing us in a direction.
There are risks in any decision, but the bigger risk is to continue to look at a downtown with wasted potential.