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August 8, 2002

Creating a town center for Mill Creek

  • 16 acres of forest to become city's central gathering place
    Journal Real Estate Editor

    Bill Trimm shows where a new Main Street will flow through new apartment complexes and the Mill Creek Town Center, on which land development recently began after nearly a decade of advance work.

    Mill Creek never had a creek by that name. Nor did it have a mill, on any creek.

    What is now a growing, incorporated city about to hatch its own downtown in South Snohomish County didn't start with hard-scrabble pioneers scraping out a homestead in the rain 100 years ago. It began as a Japanese developer's plan to convert 1,073 acres of thick forest into a golf course and 4,600 big commuter homes 30 years ago.

    The name of "Mill Creek" sounded high-end enough to United Development Corp.'s marketing team. Some think it invoked Mill Valley in Marin County north of San Francisco, the early days of which the leafy, modern-day Mill Creek is starting to resemble. It was plenty easy to put up a mock wooden paddle wheel on the bank of a detention pond to simulate the one-time existence of a mill.

    Thus Mill Creek was conceived in a UDC marketer's test tube.

    Now the city of 12,000 will synthesize for itself a pedestrian-oriented downtown, too -- or at least try to.

    Building an identity

     Mill Creek Town Center
    Grading and other land development recently began for building Mill Creek Town Center on 16 acres of forest.

    Until recently, more thick forest covered the 16 acres where Mill Creek Town Center will sprout up along a soon-to-be-laid Main Street. Developers Bill and John Buchan have begun clearing away the firs, hemlocks and ferns to put in water pipes, a section of Main Street and other infrastructure, known as land development. Then they'll sell permitted sites to others to construct and lease 10 buildings totaling 233,000 square feet.

    The design calls for traditionally urban-style ground-floor retail, built out to sidewalks adorned with benches, light posts and planters. A couple of stories of small offices will go above the retail. Restaurants and a movieplex are envisioned, too.

    All the touches will be geared to furthering Mill Creek's emerging upscale identity, from specified landscaping and precise architectural requirements to public plazas and feature treatment for a stream at the middle of a small greenbelt running through the town center.

    The center will be "an identity piece," said Greg Nelson, Buchan's executive in charge of land development.

    Think Kirkland with more gleam, and more trees. Pleasant, clean, small-scale and heavy on connections to nature, in keeping with the woody, manicured tone of the single-family neighborhoods that UDC put together with the original master plan.

    "We don't have a view of the ocean," said Bill Trimm, the city of Mill Creek's long-time economic development director who has led methodical planning for the new downtown for nearly a decade. "We don't have a waterfront or a riverfront."

    Mill Creek doesn't have a major transportation corridor through it, either. No major freeway, river or railroad tracks put it on the map.

    "It just has mature vegetation," Trimm continued. "Preservation of the environment is the image of Mill Creek. It's all we've got," so that's what the city has been building itself thematically around.

    Downtowns emerge

    The creation of downtowns, and in other cases upgrading of them, is repeating itself in suburbs throughout the Puget Sound region during this era of growth management, large population increases and mind-bending traffic congestion. And each municipality tackles it a different way, defined mostly by what they have to start with.

    Lynnwood and Federal Way face converting automobile-dominant strip shopping center districts into something resembling traditional downtowns that include offices, government buildings, multifamily housing, entertainment, pedestrians and public gathering places.

    Renton, meanwhile, started with the neglected rudiments of a blue-collar downtown that had been overrun by car dealerships. The city put in an intermodal transit center and a public "piazza," moved the car dealers out and aggressively courted condo and apartment developers.

    Bellevue had a huge, automobile-oriented shopping center as the core of its downtown to contend with and has put in a park, museum, library and other pedestrian-oriented developments around it.

    Redmond took the route of ushering private construction of a massive new downtown shopping center designed in a new-urbanist, open-air configuration to serve as the core of its downtown.

    Mill Creek, meanwhile, can plan it all literally from the ground up.

    Urban planning specialist Mark Hinshaw said while that poses some problems, such as overcoming a soul-less, sterile quality, it also has advantages, notably not having to work around existing difficulties.

    "It's easier to control," Hinshaw said. "The transformation elsewhere will take a lot longer and be more discordant, because bits will change and some parts will stay the same."

    Mill Creek can follow the latest and best in the art of downtown planning.

    "The disadvantages will be it won't see this sort of incremental patina develop," where the old, new, clumsy and elegant intermingle in downtowns that have evolved, Hinshaw said. "It can seem a little contrived, a little fabricated. But it doesn't have to. It's just a different kind of thing. It's like comparing (the city of) Snohomish, which is this small town that has become sort of graceful with smart development, and DuPont, which just sort of sprang out of nowhere but has the appearance of being small-town by borrowing from traditional details."

    Hinshaw, a one-time Bellevue planner, works as a principal for the Seattle architecture firm of LMN, which produced the master plan for Mill Creek Town Center for the Buchan brothers several years ago.

    The 'country side'

    The impending arrival of a Mill Creek city center "does and doesn't" surprise Randy Blair, whose links to Mill Creek go back to UDC's earliest days.

    "I was going to college and lived right down the street from where Mill Creek (as UDC's master-planned golf course residential community) was planned," recalled Blair. "One day I was at a stop sign at Ninth and 164th, which was two lanes then. A helicopter came down. A couple of men got out with rolls of paper. They looked around and then took off. A couple weeks later the Everett paper had a big headline that said the Japanese were going to build this new town."

    Blair became a design engineer and in 1975 began working for the engineering firm that had started planning that "new town," Mill Creek, with UDC in 1973. The firm was Wilsey & Ham then and is W&H Pacific now, with Blair among its principals.

    UDC planned to build a 37-acre lake at the southeast edge of the golf course, within the Mill Creek master-planned 1,000 acres. That didn't happen.

    UDC didn't envision a downtown coming in, either. It marketed the residences as "the country side of town," Blair said. "They were trying to induce people working in Seattle to commute out to Mill Creek."

    "The master plan of a city was not really in the concept," said Rick Lennon, a veteran developer of similar master-planned communities, including Klahanie on the Sammamish Plateau in the 1980s when he served as Northwest president for Lowe Enterprises. "They were building a golf course in the middle of nowhere. UDC's major claim to fame was that they were able to get a sewer line built out there. It was a very long extension (that UDC paid for). Most people would not want to pay that much up front. They did it."

    UDC is an international real estate and resort development subsidiary of the Japanese railway company Tokyu Corp. UDC impressed observers by keeping its commitments throughout the life of the Mill Creek project, Lennon, Trimm and others said.

    Yet, Lennon said, Mill Creek wasn't "successful" for UDC, in that it didn't generate its targeted return on the initial investment. Recessions, the remoteness of the location and other obstacles made building it out take so long, he said.

    Blair recalled that the project's initial pitch for Seattle commuters ran headlong into the mid-1970s oil crisis. "People were standing in line for 1.5 hours for gas and you're trying to get them to commute out to Mill Creek," he said.

    UDC closed out the project earlier this year, 15 years, or twice as long, as originally projected.

    Having completed all the residential development, UDC sold the golf course to club members and UDC's residential sales office became a Windermere outlet.

    Enacting the plan

    Mill Creek incorporated as a city in 1983 and has grown to 2,000 acres, with future annexations likely to take it to 3,000 acres.

    Trimm became the city's economic development director in 1988, coming from a post with the city of Bellingham.

    "My sense when I came here was it was kind of a heartless community," Trimm said. "It was just suburban housing. There wasn't a city center. No parks. Zero. Zip. It was a satellite. A bedroom community. It really needed a heart, a center, a vibrant focal place."

    Planning for that heart began in earnest in 1993, after the city had written its first comprehensive plan under the state Growth Management Act. The city assembled a steering committee of land owners, planners and other residents, and it hired architect John Owen of Makers to work with them.

    Owen assembled the committee in a room and asked everybody to say what they would dream of having in their town center. He drew a quick sketch of each suggestion and posted them on the walls. "Pretty soon we had drawings all over the walls" depicting families on benches, in restaurants, shopping, strolling and playing, Trimm said.

    The city has some of those sketches hanging on frames in the lobby of its City Hall, housed in a non-descript low-rise building amid the strip shopping district south of the former forest where the new town center and Main Street will go.

    The city sent out 500 brochures to developers asking them to bid to develop the downtown. The developers all said first the city had to bring about a huge amount of residential development, most of it multifamily, close to the city center site, as well as get the Bothell-Everett Highway, aka Highway 527, widened from a pokey two-laner along the east edge of what would be the town center site.

    Trimm and the city set about doing it.

    The city conducted a "planned action environmental impact statement" covering a broad redevelopment area, wrote design guidelines and took other steps to make private development easy, steps that Owen described as keys.

    "That's what jump-started it," he said. "It smoothed out a lot of roadblocks."

    Developers flock

    A protected greenway now follows North Creek north and south along the city's western boundary. No less than 1,150 high-end apartments are built, under construction or planned in four large complexes extending for more than a mile north of the town center site, between the greenway and the Bothell-Everett Highway. Along with the apartments, another 60 condos are proposed, and the Buchans built a neighborhood of 52 luxury homes called River Crossing, with another 10 planned, west of and across the North Creek Greenway from the town center site.

    In addition to Main Street flowing through all but the single-family project, a pedestrian walkway will meander along each project's west side, along the greenway, down into the town center.

    The luxury apartment developer JPI built 388 high-end apartments called Jefferson at Mill Creek, and plans to add 100 more. Wakefield Homes has 284 more luxury apartments under construction fronting both sides of the planned Main Street. The Wakefield project, called the Gables, adheres to a new urbanist style, in which garages are in the back, so that porches and yards front Main Street between the town center site to the south and the JPI complex to the north.

    Lozier Homes plans 118 units immediately north of the town center site. Devco proposes 266 further to the north.

    Another roughly 1,000 multifamily units, including a retirement home, went in earlier on the east side of the Bothell-Everett Highway.

    "They needed that density to support the costs it can take to create a high-class urban environment," Lennon said.

    The city also promised to build a community center south of the town center site, in the coming years.

    The Buchans, who committed themselves to the town center project in 1995 by buying the 16-acre site, a couple years ago started concluding that the needed critical mass of residences close to the site would become reality. They hired Randy Kite to plan out Mill Creek Town Center.

    Kite led development of Redmond Town Center in the 1990s as an executive of Safeco's Winmar Properties. He now works for Langly Properties and the Buchans hired Langly as their consultant. Langly is also working with Tarragon Development on Kent Station in Kent.

    Hinshaw, Lennon and others said the fact that Mill Creek started without there even being a creek by that name, but rather as a marketer's invention, is hardly unique or onerous. Many cities have dubious beginnings, or odd chapters along the way, all of which simply add color to their stories, they said.

    Seattle started under the name of New York, and then New York-Alki, grew through the environmentally disastrous sluicing of Denny Hill and the Dearborn Cut, and isn't even an accurate representation of its eventual namesake, Chief Sealth, Hinshaw said.

    All sorts of names "are done primarily for marketing purposes," Klahanie among them, Lennon said. Klahanie, in fact, was the first name that UDC's marketing pros selected for Mill Creek before changing to Mill Creek, according to the project's 1974 master plan.

    Two years ago the city rectified the matter. Smokehouse Creek -- the trickle that will run through Mill Creek Town Center with walkways, tall trees and seating areas around it -- officially became Mill Creek.

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