Be patient. Create partnerships. Ensure predictability. Be flexible.
Those were among the nuggets of advice offered by four panelists who spoke to city officials and citizens Thursday night about ways to attract future development opportunities to Mountlake Terrace.
The four speakers — with backgrounds in commercial real estate, urban architecture and design, and real estate development and investment — spoke at the invitation of the City of Mountlake Terrace, prior to Thursday’s night’s city council work/study session. Among those attending were members of the city council and planning commission, members from the council’s Economic Vitality & Town Center Task Force, and interested citizens.
The panel was moderated by Bill Trimm, former Mill Creek Community Development Director who was involved in the creation of Mill Creek’s Town Center project.
Trimm began by explaining the purpose of the meeting: “To gain an understanding of the major factors that these professionals in their respective disciplines consider when they identify places to invest, to develop such developments as the Town Center that are in a suburban market that is basically transforming into a more urban form.”
In fact, there is a new name for that surburban-to-urban transformation, noted speaker Brynn Estelle Telkamp, a retail brokerage consultant with BeRetail — “surban.”
“This is a dynamic time in real estate,” said Chris Fiori, principal and project director of Heartland LLC, a Seattle-based real estate advisory and investment firm. Noting that projects like the Mountlake Terrace Town Center can take several years to develop, he urged city officials to “be patient with the process.”
“It seems like a lot of pieces that have been put into play here (for the MLT Town Center) are good ones,” Fiori said. Often such projects require a “catalytic project” like Link Light Rail, he said. (The Lynnwood Link project is set to arrive in Mountlake Terrace in 2024.) The city has the large-scale zoning and vision in place to accommodate both private and public investment, he added.
“There’s a lot of promise here,” he concluded.
Bob Tiscareno, AIA, design principal and founder of Tiscareno Associates, pointed to the importance of “good quality transit-oriented development” that ensures “density is really good around transit.”
He also pointed to the importance of “placemaking” — an approach to the planning, design and management of public space — in creating a vibrant town center. It’s key, he said, to make sure “the design connects with the community.”
He also reiterated that every town center project “takes patience and it takes an element of a partnership between the public and the private” to make it work.
Speaker Joe Ferguson, co-founder and principal of real estate investment firm Lake Union Partners, noted that his firm is working with Sierra Construction on Terrace Station Phase 1, adding he “couldn’t be more excited to get that project kicked off and realize the vision that’s been a while in the making there.”
Light rail “is the catalyst,” Ferguson added, “and I think in an increasingly densifying city we’ve got those challenges for mobility that light rail can help alleviate and solve, and therefore becomes a competitive advantage for your municipality.”
Mountlake Terrace has “been working on a plan for a number of years and therefore you ready for it, but you want to stimulate that growth when it comes,” Ferguson said.
Noting that “with any growth comes tradeoffs,” Ferguson said that “the concept NIMBY — not in my backyard — has been replaced by YIMBY, yes in my backyard.” This is more common with the younger generation who may not own a car and instead be relying on transit, he said. “It is a demographic shift that has happened and is changing our cities and something to pay attention to.”
Brynn Estelle Telkamp, designated broker and retail brokerage consultant with BeRetail, noted that she is a soccer mom who can’t live without her car. “But I’m also not a millennial and so I have to think outside the box.”
In putting together retail projects, she explained, brokers work to maintain a balance between providing parking for those who need it, but recognizing that parking is also expensive for developers to provide.
Trimm then posed this question to all panelists: “What can the City of Mountlake Terrace do to attract individuals, business owners and companies interested in starting, locating or relocating a business?”
“Be creative in your approaches,” advised Tiscareno. “You want to try to create kind of a cool destination and build some energy around it.” For example, he pointed to such an approach in a Dallas neighborhood considered to be “on the wrong side of the tracks.” The owner wanted to create a destination, so took a couple of existing industrial buildings and brought in “some really cool restaurants,” along with micro retailers. “And the next thing you know, it’s the place to go,” he said. Big mixed-use multi-family developments followed, “and it’s taken off.”
“Sometimes thinking out of the box really helps, in terms of developing a destination and trying to create a buzz,” Tiscareno added.
Ferguson also stressed the concept of placemaking. “How do you distinguish an area with its own identity?” Retail is a critical element, he said, and so is arts and culture. “Whether it’s visual art or performance art, if the city can partner and find ways to provide venues for performance art, that’s certainly something that can draw from a wider region to help folks explore what’s new and interesting and appealing about the Town Center,” he said.
Telkamp advised the city to identify the personality of their development. While working on the Issaquah Highlands project, that personality was identified as the late actor Paul Newman. “We felt like he best represented our mission,” she said, to chuckles from the audience.
“That just gives everyone kind of a common train to ride to get to what the merchandising plan is going to look like,” she added.
“When you are starting with a blank canvas, which is really what you have here in Mountlake Terrace, it’s about, ‘what are the components that make up a Town Center, that make it healthy and thriving,” she said.
She advised looking at the current tenant pool, determine “what is not here that really is going to give the project heart and soul.”
Panelists agreed that cities that offer a more predictable, streamlined process for development will have an advantage over those that don’t.
They also cautioned that with light rail, residential is iikely to come to Mountlake Terrace first, followed by other commercial and retail uses.
When the discussion turned to building heights, Tiscareno said it was important to allow for flexibility. That includes maximizing “podium” type of development — a term for the number of stories over concrete. Seven or eight stories should be embraced and at the same time you want to focus on parking, which is a “key driver of multi-family projects,” he said.
Because construction costs are going up, “having a building code that allows for economical mid-rise development is really important,” he added.
Because parking is expensive to build, panelists agreed cities will remain competitive in attracting developers if they allow for less parking than is traditionally required in suburban areas — generally at about one parking space per housing unit.
“We’re in a huge transition in parking and how people use parking, with ride share and light rail,” Tiscareno added. “The purpose of parking garages is certainly changing. In our projects we are certainly approaching the design of podiums differently so these parking garages can be adapted to other alternative uses in the future as parking demand goes down and (there is) less reliance on cars.”
Ferguson said that Mountlake Terrace can potentially offer “a refuge for workforce housing,” specifically for families looking for an affordable home to purchase.
Another question asked of panelists: What are the incentives that the City of Mountlake Terrace could offer to attract development investment? The answers included offering affordable and predictable impact fees, and property tax exemptions.
“In terms of incentives, one way to look at it is to remain flexible,” Tiscareno said. Noting that the creation of districts like the Town Center take a number of years, he advised that the city should “be flexible to allow for that great proposal out there that could be an asset to the project,” even if it doesn’t strictly adhere to the city’s design framework.
As an example, he pointed to the City of Tukwila, which had a vision for creating a downtown and transit-oriented development district around light rail. The city’s height limit allowed for 100 to 120 feet but the project — a hotel and a residential tower — was 19 stories. The city council wanted the project — “they knew it would be an anchor for their downtown,” Tiscareno said — so they were flexible and allowed a development “that was much higher than the zoning code allowed,” Tiscareno said.
Ferguson cautioned, however, that the zoning code alone may not attract such investment, noting that the City of Federal Way has a 240-foot height limit in its core but has yet to have such a project. Infrastructure investment — such as the work the city is doing on 236th Street Southwest to connect the Mountlake Terrace Transit Center to the Town Center — is a key incentive, he added.
Moderator Trimm then asked about any barriers that panelists see to starting or relocating a business in Mountlake Terrace.
“I think it’s just the opposite,” Telkamp said, adding that the retailers she works with in Seattle are ready to leave for destinations north, south and east.
Fiori said the biggest barrier he sees is simply “getting the word out” about Mountlake Terrace so that businesses see the advantages for relocating here. “There’s a good story to tell, and it needs to be told probably more broadly,” he said.
An audience member asked what drives the concept of placemaking in creating the Town Center. “I think it starts with business owners,” Ferguson replied. The Town Center area that includes Diamond Knot Brew Pub and Double D Meats “is something that gets people talking, a place to meet and gather, a place to come from outside the area and experience what’s there,” he said. It creates “more storytelling and the more creation of that identity of what a neighborhood is, what a town center is.”
In addition, it’s important to have open space — “public gathering space, whether plazas or performance venues or more civic-led investments — walking trails, etc. — that can balance that density and growth we are talking about,” Ferguson added.
— Story and photos by Teresa Wippel