Livingston: Will Federal Way residents accept any change?

How tall is too tall?

Another way of framing the question: What is the acceptable density for construction of combined retail multifamily units and business high-rise? Or, is the future going to be warehouses in Federal Way? The hard question may be, will Federal Way residents accept any change? Regardless, changes are happening.

During a meeting at City Hall, I encountered Tim Johnson, Federal Way’s economic development director. He stepped into the conference room, not even saying hello, and demanded I meet with him.

He was as subtle as a sledgehammer. When we met later, during the refined moments of conversation, his style grated like course sandpaper, but he was full of ideas on how to position Federal Way for a better future. His energy and ideas may all be for naught if residents refuse to dialogue, be active participants or choose not to visualize a coherent path forward.

First, he wanted me to know about the economic impact of Federal Way hosting several events of the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games. Specifically, softball at Celebration Park, swimming at the Weyerhaeuser King County Aquatics Center and a fan experience at Town Square Park. The Games will bring 4,000 athletes, 10,000 family members and 70,000 spectators to the Seattle area, and Federal Way is a host city.

Then he explained the city is also hosting a portion of the 2018 16-A Girls Fast Pitch National Tournament. Both events will fill Federal Way’s hotel rooms, restaurants and stores with activity and have an economic impact on this community in the millions of dollars. Kudos to all involved in making these events happen here this summer.

Events like these are possible due to the facilities that a continuum of city councils, in spite of vocal opposition, have built into the fabric of this city. This city has some very attractive resources such as the Community Center, Celebration Park, Town Square Park, and Performing Arts and Events Center, to name a few.

However, the real issue on his mind was that Federal Way’s property desirability is changing. Federal Way is becoming a destination city and more attractive to developers. Sadly, the high-end developers are not as likely to invest until they see more upside potential and community buy-in.

Industrial Realty Group, the developer who purchased the Weyerhaeuser property, specializes in adaptive reuse of commercial and industrial real estate throughout the country. Another way of saying it: They specialize in distressed and hard to develop properties. You may not think of Federal Way as a distressed city, but since it is a city without any intellectual tissue, strong community economics and cache, it is.

This city talks like its goal is to have middle to high-end investors be part of this community. But if the community is not proactive, what will come will be the bottom feeders and low-end investors. By the way, they are already here.

One of the transition concerns Federal Way residents and our elected officials should be talking about is blight migration or poverty moving south from Seattle and to some degree north from Tacoma. If our City Council listens to only the moat builders and anti-development theme messaging that is often heard at their meetings, the bottom feeders will win and quality invests elsewhere.

A quick look at census data and you see a city that is below the state’s average for college educated residents, and the same is true for income level. To a developer, it screams no disposable income along with distress and low-end investment opportunity. Just realize, a new suitor’s first impression of this city is strip malls, used tire and car lots, multiple storage centers, discount stores, and multifamily housing — new and old, designed in a way that inspires no one.

As many Seattle residents are priced out of housing, they are moving anywhere they can afford. This might be seen as a positive for Federal Way, but if what comes is more poverty, it will have a long-term negative community impact. South Sound affordable housing and project dumping is impacting this region negatively.

Back to Tim Johnson. He understands that the best way forward is not investing in low-end opportunities. He believes that making Federal Way a better city means hosting major events like the Special Olympics, sports tournaments and the arts. By consistently showcasing this city’s capability, quality will follow.

As part of his job he contacts developers and special event organizers all over the country and talks about Federal Way as being the place for their event or next project. He also has to sell this city as a “value proposition” to developers – a city of opportunity on the rise.

That is an easier sell than you might think because of the PAEC, Community Center, Celebration Park, Town Square Park, Knudsen Theater, and light rail coming to the city’s downtown core. This city has a lot in place to help it become a desired destination, but more is needed to attract the higher-quality jobs and new residents that value education, cultural activities and a community that has a sense of place and purpose.

However, community change and transition can be a precarious process. You want your leadership to have some grit. I believe the economic director has some, but do our elected officials have any grit for a vision that affirms a process forward that includes taller structures in the city core, building more retail-multifamily combination units, additional cultural infrastructure and support, while seeking development that brings jobs requiring a highly-educated citizenry to Federal Way?

Bottom feeders and low-end investors need and like communities without intellectual tissue because they are easier to exploit. The Federal Way City Council needs to find some vision and backbone or this city will succumb to a future of mediocrity. Federal Way has a flicker of hope, but poor choices in the present can easily derail Federal Way’s future.

Benjamin Franklin once said: “Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning.”

Keith Livingston is a longtime Federal Way resident and community observer. He can be reached at