Eight square miles might not seem like much compared to big cities, but it’s all University Place has had to work with since it was declared a city in 1995.
However, over the last 18 years, it’s packed a wallop into its attraction factor in terms of commercial development. And, a residential surge has naturally followed.
“The development of Town Center in our downtown, as that unfolds, it’s a continuing story,” said city manager Steve Sugg. “And it’s a very positive story that’s bringing to reality the vision of the City Council. It’s now coming to fruition.”
What’s on those eight acres now is a far cry from the landscape that prior to the 19th century was the homegrounds for Nisqually, Steilacoom, Squaxin, Puyallup, and Muckleshoot tribes. By the mid-1800s, though, the coastal land was tapped for lumber, as a railroad center, and a gravel mining hub.
Now there’s inland independent small business aplenty, as well as the Chambers Bay golf course stretching along the waters of the Narrows channel in the former industrial area.
That Chambers Bay will host the U.S. Open golf tournament in just 20 months has also been a spark for development, said Assistant City Manager Mariza Craig.
“We had our first private developer put in $52 million in public investment in our roads, the Civic Building, and infrastructure,” she said. “Now we have a beautiful mixed-use, pedestrian friendly commercial downtown area that matches the City’s vision.”
That particular project is the anchor of the new “downtown” area, where several blocks include the new University Place library, police and government offices, and the $15 million mixed-use Clearview building. That alone has 100 units of above-market residential space, as well as more than 12,000 feet of commercial area.
“Now that’s done, we’re ready to start on the three-level garage on the south side, as well as the new Latitude 47,” Craig said.
The latter is a $30 million additional 150 residential units residential, underset by 20,000 square feel of commercial space.
“Just between one developer, that’s $45 million in private development,” pointed out Craig.
And, at the end of this week, the City will announce a key anchor tenant.
Others already surrounding the site include the 5,400-square-foot Applebee’s, which has broken ground and will be open by the end of this year; and the 6,500-square-foot Green Firs building, to which the beloved area Starbucks recently relocated, thanks to a City concession for a drive-through window due to the economy of the times.
Then there’s the Ale House, which is soon reopening after its fire; Grassi’s, which is moving into the Affairs building from its former Pacific Avenue site in downtown Tacoma; and the $1.3 million O’Brien Dentistry building, which alone brought nine jobs to University Place.
“We have more than 1,300 businesses, half of them unique,” Craig explained. “It’s such a testament when we see commercial developers and businesses reinvesting back into the community. That’s a very good sign for other businesses.”
Other areas in University Place seeing development include the 27th Street corridor, one of the city’s oldest commercial arterials, where there’s always been a desire to revitalize. Currently the city is adding subtle touches like fresh road crossings, tree plantings and distinctive district signage, a la the Tacoma neighborhood business districts.
Residential endeavors, too, are on the move, with a 7-acre, 5,600-square-foot, mixed use senior housing development in the works by a SHAG developer.
“That’s very exciting, because it will kick off revitalization for that distressed area,” Craig said.
Jeff Kraft, a vice president of Kidder Mathews’ brokerage division who’s working on the core downtown project, said that the city’s development progress has been solid. However, the current goal is to secure an anchor tenant that will be a draw to the city.
“We have a wish list to draw from, and in a perfect world would like to get a big anchor tenant that caters to the high-end market of University Place but who would also bring in tourism and residential traffic everywhere from Seattle, Tacoma and Olympia to Gig Harbor, Bremerton and Silverdale,” he said.
Whatever happens, though, University Place seems to have no problem attracting key tenants. Mark Grau, owner of Frog & Kiwi Cafe in the central Civic Center building, explained that the UP demographics let his site access the entire range of his customer base.
“There was also a great need to have a small, family and local coffee shop with quality products outside the typically chains,” he said.
He chose University Place, and the downtown Civic Center site for his cafe because it was “a clean slate,” meaning the future of the Town Center could be shaped with the help of Frog n Kiwi CafÃƒÂ©.
“Being the first retail establishment there, we knew we would help guide the growth and set the standard,” he said. “There were no issues of an area trying to re-invent itself, as there are with many strip-malls out there, and we wanted a distinctive environment. Besides, with the combination of the library, the apartments, the police station, and eventually the City Hall, we knew this would become the hub of the community.”
Grau’s take on the advantages of owning a business in University Place are many, including the opportunity to build a business community above normal standards.
“In today’s economy, people are careful with their income, and community support is amazing,” he said, “Our locals want and do support the small business.
“It’s extremely challenging running a small business anywhere, but having people who live nearby frequent our business helps ease some stress.”
As for the big picture for University Place, Sugg said that, despite the economic challenges, the city is finally seeing an uptick in development.
And that’s great, particularly given the U.S. Open deadline of June 2015.
“Although it’s taken a number of years, with the recession and economic downturn, we’re now experiencing clear progress,” he said. “And there are even more public and private projects in the planning stages, which shows that we’re doing a lot here in the community.”