The benefits of a public market in Federal Way | Livingston

Federal Way is an enigma. As a planned community built on corporate ideals, we have become a city of just over 100,000 in population with no clear sense of place or vision for where we are going. We cling to our founding laissez-faire values of being an affordable starter community with minimal governmental direction and investment. Our journey to date has created a city with an empty soul.

In 2024, light rail is coming. It is an opportunity for change and an opportunity for reconfiguring a not well thought-out city core. Change is coming, but is the change we need coming?

We want to believe Federal Way has the potential to be a premier city. Our vacuous leaders know how to sound positive and futuristic while passing on opportunities, knowing politically that the majority of people who live here are change adverse, less educated, not community sophisticated, and have a lower household median income than the state average.

As light rail arrives, will our planning efforts create a unique, walkable, and user-friendly city core with a positive public identity? Or will we be just a commuter stop? Do we want to be a city with a sense of place, purpose and valued as a destination? Based on our council’s past performance we are in trouble.

Successful cities are crucibles of energy, jobs, education, culture, art, music, performance, food, architecture, identity, customs and people seeking to be with one another. Cities succeed when they have a proper sense of place. Cities grow and expand when they build opportunities for stimulation, interaction, relaxation, and community.

We have a responsibility to reimagine the developments in and near the transit center, soon to include a light rail station, into a dynamic public space. Or we can sit on our hands and encourage commuters to leave and go home as quickly as they can.

The city has done some haphazard development that may coalesce into being the nucleus of what is needed for defining an essential public space near the transit center. The Performing Arts and Event Center (PAEC) is located strategically to be an easy destination for rail and bus riders coming to our city. Town Square Park is good for day use and moderately sized outdoor events.

The downtown staircase has the potential to make walking the area pedestrian friendly but at the moment they feel orphaned. What is lacking is a sense of place to tie any of this together. At present we have no public spaces where people will linger, gather, shop, decompress and bring our city core to life.

If Federal Way is going to make the PAEC a valued regional facility, it needs to be surrounded by strong public space elements as well as hands-on focused shops and services. Seattle has Pike Place Market as its number one dynamic people attraction. Olympia has a year-round covered farmers market as a solid resource. Wenatchee has its Pybus Public Market as a community builder. We have nothing that defines place or community.

Light rail is coming and presents opportunities to consider. One of them is adding a public market to our beleaguered city-core. Building one comes with risk, but not adding a solid people-connector to what has been done so far assures that Federal Way’s path forward will continue being small and definitely not dynamic.

We need to have a reason for Federal Way to be a target-worthy — full-day-destination. A public market could be a strong resource. Light rail is coming and we do not want trains full of commuters leaving the station in the morning and more or less empty until the end of the work day.

Our city leaders currently think the best way to get ahead is to continue encouraging affordable housing to be located in and around the transit center. More people with lower economic means near the transit center may be good for whisking people to job centers north of here but it also means that any hope for building a quality people-scape to support a potential city-core will not happen. Visualize a dysfunctional core based on get-in and get-out activity with no reason to stay and those living there choosing lockdown for their safety.

The benefits of a public market may not be immediately clear, but according to Cornell University’s Cooperative Extension: “As more money stays in the local economy, more money is spent by and at other local businesses. Known as the multiplier effect, for every dollar of income earned by a farmer at a farmers’ market, other local businesses generate $.48 of income.”

Federal Way’s demographics may or may not support a public market based on our household median incomes and below state average college education profile. People with greater time flexibility, education and income tend to value these types of markets and meeting places. Light-rail is essentially a game-changer when properly surrounded with amenable pedestrian and locavore shopping opportunities. With light rail we become a destination city not totally reliant on our immediate population for community building.

A public market serving as an additional city-core-catalyst begins to establish a synergy for events to come to Federal Way’s PAEC. Another consideration that has been mentioned periodically is relocating city hall to this area. This would provide a solid jobs base and facilitate a transition to redefining the core as a business center with a community purpose.

So far our city’s leadership efforts have built a city without a sense of place or soul. We do

well at process but at the end of the day our commuters commute, come home, stay home, and do most of their experiential living outside our city.

Our light rail station will serve as the end of the line for about eight years. We can use this time to get our city on the right track, change our public image, and redefine our city-core into a viable place defined by people engaged in local activities or choose to become a transit stop for people taking their talents, dreams, dollars and experiences elsewhere.

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