Part two of two
Story and photos by Doug Petrowski
Mountlake Terrace voters have until April 23 to cast their ballots on Proposition 1, the $25 million municipal bond measure that, if approved, will fund construction of a new civic campus for the city. A new City Hall, new senior/community center, a remodeled and expanded police station, and the current library would call the campus at 232nd Street Southwest and 58th Avenue West home. Proponents see the plan as a step of progress for the city and an opportunity to show investors that the nearby Town Center District is prime for development.
But does spending tax money on large public capital projects lead to private money investing in a community?
When asked that question in January, the first example that Mountlake Terrace City Manager John Caulfield answered with was Burien. “Certainly that was a community that struggled for a long time,” Caulfield told the Mountlake Terrace City Council in January. “And what is happening there, not just with their new public facility — their city hall, but also their library — that has spurred some reinvestment and redevelopment from the private community.”
Burien, a city of 32,000 incorporated in 1993, did struggle for years with depressed home values, high crime, suffering businesses and no real “downtown.” What passed for the center of the city was a graded and asphalt lot that developers had hoped to build a regional shopping mall on in the 1960s; the project was abandoned and Southcenter Mall, a few miles to the east, was constructed instead.
The City of Burien bought those 10 acres of asphalt and dilapidated buildings more than 10 years ago, then entered into a $193 million public/private partnership to develop the land with a public building and privately-owned condominiums.
The Burien Town Square was a deliberate attempt by city officials to bring some economic development to the community. “We are trying to build building blocks in the community,” said Burien City Manager Mike Martin. “Anytime you’re building a public facility, you’re likely to generate foot traffic, and that foot traffic will spill over into the local businesses.”
Has the public investment paid off yet? “We have seen new business come into the area, but not as significantly as we had hoped,” Martin said.
In the block just north of Burien Town Square sits a mostly-vacant strip mall which once included a large grocery store. That big box store, and other adjacent space, are presently unoccupied. Across the street from the Town Square are some locally-owned small businesses, but also some more empty storefronts.
The city’s contribution to the Burien Town Square included an 88,000-square-foot structure to house underground parking, a new library on the first two levels and Burien City Hall on the top floor; the building was completed in 2009 at a public cost of $17.5 million. Next to the library/city hall is a 41,000 square foot outdoor plaza with lawn space, a fountain and a stage area that added to the taxpayers’ bill.
The library/city hall building, now four years old, is seeing foot traffic, but Martin admits the drawback of such a facility in terms of spurring business development. “Thousands and thousands are coming to the library – obviously not as many for the city hall offices. The down side is the library attracts people not necessarily wanting to spend money,” he said.
As for the outdoor public space, there is just one major weekend event scheduled so far this summer for the plaza, a community festival the second weekend of June.
The grand plans for 400 condos in the square were vital for achieving goals associated with the project, Martin explained. “You’re trying to create density,” he stated, recognizing that new residents in the project are viewed as potential customers to business owners. But only one of the three condominium buildings is completed, and that structure sits two-thirds empty.
In the original 2005 plans for the Town Square, all 200,000 square feet of residential units were to be finished by now; only 65,905 square feet are done. About 40 of the 126 residential units have sold, with many of the first-floor commercial spaces in the one completed building still vacant also. The available condos are being marketed at a 35-percent reduction of their 2009 prices.
The condo developer, Harbor Urban (called Urban Partners in 2005) of Los Angeles, defaulted on loans in 2009 and lost the property to foreclosure a year later. The City of Burien hopes a new developer will take over the land and build some type of residential housing on it.
The recession of late 2008-2009, and the continued slow recovery, obviously hurt the ambitious plans for new residents, increased economic investment and new life in Burien.
Despite the failure to complete the residential housing and the lack of any robust economic development around the Burien Town Square, city officials remain stalwart in their commitment to the project. “It hasn’t burst at the seams, but we’re moving in the right direction,” Martin said.