“We don’t build walls; we tear them down.”
That’s what Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell told attendees of his 2020 State of the City address. It’s a statement that rings true for the city in more ways than one.
Backed by capital investments to create an attractive downtown, ethnic and cultural diversity, and a diverse economy, to name a few, city officials are tearing down the old and breaking molds to pave the way for a new vision in this South King County city of nearly 100,000.
Incorporated only 30 years ago, Federal Way began in the late 1800s as a logging settlement. Over the years, significant change ensued. Take, for instance, the completion of Highway 99 by the 1920s, a commercial district with a shopping center and family-oriented theme park by the end of the 1950s, and rapid retail and residential growth during the 1970s and 1980s.
Today, Federal Way is home to several major businesses — such as DaVita, a provider of kidney care services; St. Francis Hospital; and Wild Waves water park — and houses more than 300 businesses in its downtown area. Despite its growth, one significant challenge had remained — the lack of a “center,” or traditional downtown.
“That has actually been the driving philosophy of my term as mayor. I actually led the effort to create the elected mayor system 10 years ago because I felt like what was really needed was a strong executive to champion the cause of a downtown and economic development,” said Ferrell, who has served as mayor since 2014. “If you’re familiar with Federal Way, the old quip is, ‘Where is downtown Federal Way?’ That’s actually really the focus of why I led the effort to change the form of government and the efforts that we’ve made over the past six and a half years.”
Given this, what residents and businesses have seen in recent years is an investment to transform the city center and create destinations that people would drive to, rather than drive through. Take the opening of the Performing Arts and Event Center for example; a longtime vision that became a reality when it opened in 2017.
This city purchased property that once housed a vacant Toys ‘R’ Us store, which has since been demolished, to build the 716-seat multipurpose facility, helping to establish a core identity and focal point.
“It is the centerpiece of the recovery of our city,” said Ferrell of the $32 million facility.
City officials also set their sights on the development of the 4-acre Town Square Park to further anchor the revitalized city core. The sprawling park — which features zip lines, a children’s play area, basketball court, picnic area, and seasonal splash park — is located at the site of a defunct AMC movie theater that was wrapped in cyclone fencing and debris before it, too, was demolished.
“Every great (city) has a park or amenity to draw people to its center. We actually designed it internally, and we set aside an entire 4 acres for our Town Square Park, and it is absolutely beautiful,” Ferrell said.
More recent is the completion of the Town Center Steps project to help improve the walkability of downtown Federal Way, while connecting the PAEC to Town Square Park and the nearby Transit Center.
The seven-month-long project entailed knocking down an imposing 23-foot-high wall and replacing it with a crisscrossing connection of ramps, steps, sitting places, and a small plaza.
The sweeping staircase, which offers views of Town Square Park below and Mount Rainier in the distance, is the city’s most significant urban design development to date.
“What we are really creating here are spaces, and we’re creating locations where people gravitate toward,” Ferrell said.
These investments to establish a heart of a downtown are only part of the city’s unique fabric, however. What some might not realize is that Federal Way is a melting pot rich with ethnic and cultural diversity.
“There’s been a long tradition of the city of Federal Way really welcoming people of different backgrounds,” Ferrell said. “I think that the diversity is really reflected in the number of restaurants and businesses, and I think it’s a really strong aspect of our community.”
In fact, up to one-third of the city’s residents are of Asian American, African American, or Hispanic American background, and according to the Federal Way School District, there are 111 languages spoken in the student households.
The diversity also is reflected in the city’s restaurants. According to the city’s 2019 Market Overview: Downtown Federal Way report, there are nearly 40 restaurants in the downtown area that serve Asian-influenced cuisine. Those who also fancy Italian and Latin American cuisine will not be disappointed, either.
“We are truly one of the most diverse (communities),” Ferrell said. “I think it is actually really a great melting pot. It is a great location for investments.”
What will the city look like 30 years from now? Only time can tell. But, some predictions will be made when the city plants a time capsule in Town Square Park this summer. The plan is to open the capsule in 2050.