A tale of two cities: High hopes and mixed results in Burien

Burien Town Square
Burien Town Square

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.

Burien City Hall
Burien City Hall

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.


  1. This is exactly why I am opposed to this whole civic center. There sits Burien a prime example of what we will look like. And we will pay for a bunch of empty building for the next 30 years.

  2. So, 4 years ago Burien was able to build a parking garage, library, and city hall for $17.5 million. MLT is budgeting $25 million for our city hall, a new roof for the existing Library, a slight expansion of the Police station, and a separate senior center building?…. If we used Burien’s plan, we could get a brand new library and city hall, and I’m sure with some space utilization plan make room for a senior center and new police station, for that 25 million… I can’t help but think that the current civic center plan is much more then our city needs.
    I’m in favor of a new city hall, and other civic center improvements, but I want to make make sure we spend our money smartly. I don’t want to see a taj mahal built for our city hall, I would rather see a strong, utilitarian public building built to last.

    • Mark, construction projects aren’t like going to the grocery store and picking which gallon of milk is cheaper. Prop. 1 opponents tried misleading people with the Kenmore comparison and those type of arguments simply don’t hold up (see https://yesformlt.com/faq/). And as far as I can tell the “Taj Mahal” component of the project that opponents keep referring to is the community center. That’s what they would like to see removed from the project. Doing so could decrease the cost by about 10% but most residents are saying that they would like the project to be more than just a city hall and have space for the public to enjoy.

      • Dustin, I understand that there are many complexities in building new buildings. I am neither representing the pro or con Prop 1 groups, so I cannot comment to either one of their arguments.
        As for the Taj Mahal comment, that was my own and is based on one of the original renderings that was presented in the “city Happenings” newsletter. This rendering showed a building with large glass walls, and seemed to me to be designed more around style then function. My hope is that we get a building that is more functional then stylish.
        My big issue with the senior center/community center is that in the original rendering this was a separate building. By being a separate building there would be many duplications including heating and cooling. It would be nice to integrate the new city hall and community center into one building. I realize that the building have not been designed yet, but I assume that the cost estimates were based on the concept rendering.

        I’ve lived in MLT for 10 years now. I grew up in Shoreline, and was looking there for my first home, but quickly noticed that property taxes for similarly priced homes in MLT were about $1000 less per year, and that became a large selling point. Then during the economic down turn I was proud to live in a city that did not need to cut our budget to the bone, or make large cuts to balance the budget.
        I want to make sure in the future our city continues to live within its means, and to not raise our property taxes so high that we can continue to be a valuable alternative to King County (and other surrounding communities).
        I believe in paying taxes. But I want to make sure our taxes are spent on the right projects.
        I feel a little bit like we are being bullied into voting yes on this project, and it is leaving a bad taste in my mouth. This very same proposal was voted down by the residence last year. Now the we are voting on the same proposal, but with threats of gloom and doom if we don’t vote yes this time. I would have been much happier if the proposal was amended in some way, or if we could have been given some choices in this election…

        One last thing, Thank you MLTNews for giving us this forum to discuss topics like this. One of the many things I love about living in this city!!

        • Mark, you make a lot of great points and if Proposition 1 passes I’d recommend bringing them up during the community input portion of the design. Fortunately, if with this small tax increase we’ll still have some of the lowest property taxes in the area. Remember that an overwhelming majority, 57%, said they approved of this project last year and if you listen to any public hearing on the matter between then and now you’ll see that what the public has been telling the council is we want the project to create something the community can use and benefit from. I wholeheartedly second your words about MLTnews, it is a great resource and one of the reasons I love living in this city as well.

        • City government needs a place to transact business. That’s a fact. Property owners in Mountlake Terrace will pay for it. That’s also a fact. Your only question (I own property in Mountlake Terrace but don’t reside there and can’t vote) is whether you will rent it or buy it.

  3. I again commend MLTNEWS for writing about another city’s experiences. And I agree with the city manager’s view that Burien is an apt comparison. I just don’t think the facts as reported in this story make the case, which also seems to be what Mr. Chapman is saying.

    Whether we like what is evolving or not, our expanded downtown is already well on its way to achieving the density goal set for Downtown back in 2007. Burien experienced little benefit from similar city amenities and also far less density than the experts predicted. At least we’re getting the density and we’re doing it without an expensive civic campus.

    For my part, unless MLTNEWS.com is also trying to mislead people, the Burien story is the cautionary tale which many fear. Mr. DeKoekkoek or anyone else can claim to know what “most residents are saying.” We’ll have to wait for the ballots to be counted to know for sure.

  4. Doug:

    More kudos. This has been a really good series, and your editorial choice of breaking it up into two articles effectively highlights the contrast between the two comparison examples.

    Upon reading this article, I am struck by similarities between Burien and Mountlake Terrace.

    Burien faces challenges attracting shoppers from nearby Southcenter, it was not so easy to displace a long-established commercial hub, or even to siphon off some of its business. Similarly, many of my shopping dollars and those of my neighbors go to next-door Lynnwood and Alderwood Mall, or even to nearby Costco across the county line. Having a new civic center in Mountlake Terrace will not change these shopping behaviors as nothing that has been described in the plans compares to the vast commercial concentration of our neighbors.

    Also, sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words. There is no one at all in the Burien Town Square picture above. A deserted farmers’ market is similarly depressing.

    The bigger issue here is a question of values. I do not understand the fetish for development or “progress” ascribed to proponents of Prop 1 in your opening paragraph. Mountlake Terrace is now and should remain a residential community, rather than a shoppers’ paradise or developers’ piggy bank.

    Thank you again for such good reporting.

  5. Welcome to the conversation, Vince. No argument with your basic point about either renting or buying. I was there arguing that renting was not a wise choice in 2008 when the current lease decision was made. You owned your building then, so maybe you remember the debate. I still believe it is bad economics for the city to keep renting.

    None of that has anything to do with how much we must spend to tranasct city business in owned space. As you know from your many years in real estate, choosing to move from rented space to owner-occupied space does not carry with it a pre-determined mortgage amount. A city like a small business must determine according to their avaiable means how large that mortgage will be.

    That crux of our debate is not about whether renting is dumb; it is first about how large a mortgage we can afford and, second, about how long it will take our city government to give us a choice of a mortgage we can afford.

    I’m also curious. Have you actually shone the Slupski brain power on the budget for Proposition 1?


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