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Federal Way might want something else

The initial reaction among many to the news of a proposed 45-story condo-and-hotel tower for downtown Federal Way was, “Wait a minute. Federal Way has a downtown?”

A set-up line in which the words “Federal Way” and “downtown” are used in close proximity proved just too inviting for unkind remarks about the agglomeration of strip malls resembling Southcenter without the charm.

But such jibes obscure a larger, more serious issue facing cities large and small, old and young, successful and failing. Upon further reflection, the relevant question is not so much whether Federal Way has a downtown, or whether it could ever hope to achieve a downtown, but “Why does Federal Way want one?”

Tacoma has a downtown, for all the good the millions of dollars and hours of effort that have been expended in trying to figure out what to do with it over the last three decades have done. Like many American cities, the rise of the suburb, the interstate highway, the office park, the chain store and the regional shopping mall combined to suck shoppers, retailers and workers from Tacoma’s central business district.

Seattle has a viable downtown, which makes it an anomaly among big American cities. But its downtown too is feeling strains and pressures. The recession has done no favors to retailing or office occupancy, and the new urbanists who were leading the reverse migration from the ’burbs to the city have discovered that life in a real downtown, even one with the advantages of Seattle, is not quite the idyllic cosmopolitan-lifestyle theme-park experience it was made out to be.

Bellevue has a downtown, one that is replicating the building-lined canyons of traditional city centers and updating it with an atmosphere that some dismiss as sterile but others welcome as dodging some of the more unpleasant aspects of urban living. The recession, and its impact on the aforementioned real estate and retailing sectors, will delay an accurate reading of whether Bellevue can make a go of creating a downtown.

Dozens of cities around the Puget Sound region have downtowns of sorts, which they’ve tried to prop up with waves of redevelopment programs and the requisite accoutrements of hanging flower baskets and outdoor sculpture. Some do it better than others; many have a hanging-by-a-thread, maybe-the-next-fad-will-work air to them.

What all these communities face is a conundrum of what a downtown is for or supposed to do.

In the traditional model, the answer was everything. People lived downtown, they worked downtown, they shopped downtown, their entertainment was downtown. It was the center of government and commerce and manufacturing and trade and just about everything else short of agriculture.

But it wasn’t necessarily by choice that people’s lives were lived downtown, and they weren’t necessarily enthusiastic that it was. Even before the automobile era people were moving out along the streetcar lines to get away from the city center. When the car made it possible to get away from crowded and expensive housing, noise, crime and questionable schools and local government, they got. And when they did, they took a lot of what they needed in life – including work and shopping – with them.

Which left a lot of planners trying to figure out what they were left with downtown and what to do with it. Beyond government offices, a few banks (most of whom had big self-named downtown towers out of ego rather than any operational advantages) and some professional firms, it wasn’t a lot. Some cities like Seattle and Bellevue tried high-end retailing and corporate centers (while Bellevue and Federal Way are comparatively young communities, Bellevue has an advantage of having much more of a corporate presence with which to drive office space). Some like Tacoma tried cultural and entertainment districts. Some (like many towns around Washington) tried small-town quaint. Some tried a mix of those ideas. The planners figured that between cajoling people to the city center, and increasing the hassle factor of living in the suburbs, they’d drive enough people downtown to preserve it.

So the suburb-dwellers went downtown, looked around, said “that’s nice” – and went right back to their auto-centered lives well away from city centers, which was just how they liked it. Towns such as Federal Way will never win awards for urban planning or aesthetics, and that’s just fine with the people who live in them. If they’d wanted to live, work, shop and relax cheek-by-jowl, they’d live in Hong Kong. They don’t – so they don’t.

Boosters of new urbanism might argue that the problem is in the term rather than the concept. Call it what you want – an urban center, a regional center, high-density development – the new concept looks remarkably like the old-style downtown.

Right now we’re not even certain whether that old concept will still work in places that were built as downtowns to start with. Trying to impose a traditional-downtown template on a new-era community like Federal Way, by sticking a high-rise condo tower in the middle of it, could work about as well as revitalizing downtown Tacoma or Seattle by bulldozing the buildings and replacing them with a handful of strip malls.

Bill Virgin’s column on business and economics appears Sunday in The News Tribune. He is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.

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