November 6, 2008

Town centers are a new catalyst for small cities

  • The U.S. is reaching the end of a chapter ruled by cars, cheap energy and wasteful land-use patterns.


    Across the Puget Sound region, a growing number of small cities have a new vision for their downtowns: One of a vibrant, mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented center that provides an authentic social heart for the community, as well as a focus for renewed economic vitality.

    Residents and civic leaders alike are realizing that a sprawl of strip malls tends to be a dysfunctional community center, and that redevelopment has the potential to create an energetic central place that nourishes both the social and economic aspirations of their cities. In short, cities want a traditional town center fashioned for contemporary reality.

    There are at least 18 cities in the Puget Sound region involved in some form of town center development project, ranging from initial conceptual planning to completion. What follows is a discussion of the driving forces, the key elements for success and a regional example of town center development.

    Why build new town centers?

    Image courtesy of GGLO
    Burien Town Square is being developed under a public-private partnership. When finished, it will include 400 housing units, a public park, city hall and library.

    At root, the burgeoning interest in town center revitalization is a manifestation of major societal shifts. It is becoming clear that the United States is reaching the end of a chapter ruled by cars, cheap energy, wasteful land-use patterns and a demographically monolithic suburbia.

    Changing attitudes and trends are fueling the desire for new town centers. Some of the driving factors include: a heightening awareness of global environmental issues and the corresponding recognition that dispersed, suburban-style development is unsustainable; an increasing preference for the urban lifestyle, with its cultural amenities, mix of uses, and 24/7 energy; and a growing desire to have places that engender civic pride, strengthen community bonds and provide a sense of place. Concurrently, shifting demographics are stimulating demand for a more diverse range of higher-density housing types.

    Here in the Puget Sound region, there are also powerful economic factors contributing to the attraction of town center redevelopment. In recent decades, the region has experienced rapid population growth combined with a strong economy and job market. These trends, in turn, have led to a relatively high cost of housing and commercial real estate in the biggest cities, which boosts the appeal of smaller cities. Meanwhile, the state’s growth management policies are an ever-present impetus for dense development.

    Successful town centers

    Town centers can vary considerably in size, form and content, but typically consist of a mix of commercial and residential uses, along with a public gathering space that serves as the central focus of activity. Commercial uses are most often retail, but may include office and hospitality. In some cases, town centers are weighted heavily toward commercial, and may not contain any residential uses at all. Ideally, a town center integrates a significant civic anchor, such as a community center, library or city hall.

    Art comes to Burien
    The Burien/Interim Art Space (B/IAS) is a year-long experiment that will occupy a temporarily vacant one-acre parcel of Burien Town Square. B/IAS is envisioned as both a showcase for art, and as a gathering place for Burien’s citizens. Striving to combine and transform the concepts of art, temporary green spaces and community gathering, the space will be a working canvas transformed by the efforts of both artists and the community throughout the year.

    In December, B/IAS will celebrate its opening with the installation of “The Passage,” a sculpture depicting a mother and child walking together to share and explore life. The figures — created by Dan Das Mann and Karen Cusolito for the 2005 Burning Man Arts Festival — stand a dramatic 30 feet and 20 feet tall and are fabricated out of recycled and scrap metal.

    B/IAS is a collaboration between the Burien Arts Commission, Urban Partners, GGLO and Ignition NW.

    The most important component of a town center is the public realm. Throughout the history of cities, the public realm has been a potent wellspring of human energy and social unity. Consisting of streets, sidewalks, plazas, parks and public buildings, the public realm sets the stage for a synergistic mix of commerce, leisure and everyday life, while the presence of people works like a magnet to attract more people.

    Because new town centers lack the history that helps establish authenticity, careful consideration of the public realm is even more pivotal. Key features of a successful public realm include:

    • Activated spaces that are designed to accommodate events and are well-integrated with adjacent uses.

    • Accessibility and connectivity, both within the site and to the community beyond.

    • Human-scale elements and site design that enhance the pedestrian experience.

    • An inclusive, civic identity that feels like a public space even if it’s private.

    • High-quality buildings lining the public realm’s edges.

    Town center implementation

    18 local projects
    Auburn: Downtown plan adopted in 2001, public-private partnership established in 2008 to develop a 200-unit, mixed-used project adjacent to the Sounder commuter rail station.

    Bremerton: Conference center with hotel, 15,000 square feet of retail, 10,000 square feet of office, government center, 200 condos, waterfront park, marina, parking garage; initial phases in construction; valued at $250 million.

    Burien: 10 acres, 400 condos, 51,000 square feet of retail, 700 parking stalls, city hall, city park, county library; first phase in construction; $145 million.

    Des Moines: 10.5 acres, 1,600 housing units, 40,000 square feet of retail, 90,000 square feet of office, 2,750 parking stalls; development agreement signed in November of 2007.

    Federal Way: 4.1 acres, four high-rise towers with a mix of retail, office and residential, 1-acre public park; developer selected; $227 million (sale of property delayed until summer 2009).

    Issaquah Highlands: 500 acres, 3,200 homes (single- and multifamily), 500,000 square feet of retail, 3 million square feet of commercial, 1,000-stall park-and-ride garage; two-thirds complete.

    Kenmore: 10 acres, 400 condos/apartments (25 percent affordable), 100,000 square feet of retail, 800 parking stalls; development agreement signed.

    Kent Station: 18.2 acres, 470,000-square-foot mixed-use (retail, education, entertainment and 140 residential units), 30,000-square-foot public plaza; second phase in construction; $100 million.

    Lacey Gateway: 2 million square feet of retail, 1 million square feet of office, 7,000 housing units; retail anchor opened in 2007; estimated full project completion in 2020.

    Lake Forest Park: 16.5 acres, approximately 300 units, 27,000 square feet of retail, 700 parking stalls, renovation of existing retail and pedestrian environment; entitlement in progress.

    Mill Creek: 32 acres, 26 buildings, 400,000-square-foot mixed-use development with retail, office and 38 condos; completed summer of 2007.

    Mountlake Terrace: Town center master plan published in February of 2007. Puyallup: Library, events pavilion, activity center with 37 condos, public park, city hall; completed 2008.

    Redmond: 120 acres, 200,000 square feet of retail, 500,000 square feet of office, 200,000 square feet of residential and 500,000 square feet of mixed-use, including a hotel; opened in 1997.

    Renton: Downtown redevelopment plan adopted in 1993; King County Metro Transit Center, 255 housing units in three mixed-use projects, streetscape improvements and a new city park.

    Sammamish: 240 acres, 20-year master plan for 2,000 housing units and 600,000 square feet of commercial.

    Tukwila: 6 acres, library, neighborhood center, retail, public meeting space, outdoor plaza, option for residential; developer team selected September of 2008.

    University Place: 12.6 acres, 650,000 square feet of mixed-use (retail, office, hotel), 1,460 parking stalls, city hall, library, public square, transit center; negotiating with developer.

    As with any development, the first imperative is to respect the market realities. For a mixed-use town center, that means understanding both the residential and commercial markets, as well as the more subtle issues of how the different product types are likely to play off one another, and how each will fit in with the overall character of the center.

    The development of a town center is an inherently complex endeavor: The large scale, the mix of building types, the integration of the public realm and civic uses, long development times and the potential need for phasing all pose unique challenges. Typically, community support and collaboration with local government are additional prerequisites.

    A public-private partnership is often an appropriate strategy for addressing the above challenges, enabling the public and private interests to share the risks and rewards. As noted in the 2007 City of Mountlake Terrace Town Center Plan: “The city is able to achieve goals that would not be possible through public funds alone, while developers benefit from increased certainty (decreased risk) and assistance in navigating regulations.”

    Burien’s town center

    Burien Town Square, under construction in downtown Burien, is perhaps the best regional example of a development that has potential to deliver the ideal vision of a new town center. Developed by Los Angeles and Seattle-based Urban Partners, Burien Town Square occupies a 10-acre site, and when complete will consist of three mid-rise mixed-use residential buildings with a total of 400 housing units, a King County Public Library and Burien City Hall, all surrounding a one-acre public park.

    Burien Town Square is also a salient example of the role of public-private partnerships in town center development. On the public side, more than a dozen federal, state and local agencies supported the project. Meanwhile, Urban Partners provided the bulk of the $145 million investment, but also participated in more than 50 public meetings and met with hundreds of community members.

    Former Burien city manager Gary Long and Urban Partners principal Dan Rosenfeld agree that the most critical ingredient for the project’s success is a deep-rooted and enduring vision. The city’s vision for a new town center was established in 1993, and was consistently supported by strong civic leadership and a well-organized community. The city adopted a new downtown plan, acquired land for the project, implemented streetscape improvements, secured funding for new streets within the development property and offered a 10-year property tax abatement to new homeowners.

    Sustainable development

    Town center redevelopment is born of the desire to restore the economic and social health of communities, and as such, directly addresses those two key components of sustainability. Furthermore, a properly designed town center has the potential to shrink our environmental footprint by reducing car dependence and relieving development pressure on ecologically sensitive land.

    Consideration of town centers through the lens of sustainable development only emphasizes their promise for contributing to the evolution of our built environment toward a form that makes sense for the 21st century.

    Dan Bertolet, LEED AP, is an urban designer with GGLO, where he has worked on town center redevelopment projects in Lake Forest Park and Kenmore.

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