Downtown Village Project
As city manager I get asked a lot of questions about different Kent issues, but one of the more frequently asked is “how’s the downtown retail project going?” so I’ll try to share the latest on what I know about this important private development in downtown Kent.
So What’s Been Happening?
The developer (who includes the original California group using the name Right Dimensions, the original local group called Haymaker Development, and the new majority equity partner Contrende/Catlin) has been trying to reach agreement with all the private property owners in the project area to buy their properties from them and/or relocate their businesses. The point is you can’t bring in new retail until you have buildings to put them in and you can’t get the buildings until you own all the properties.
What’s Taking So Long?
This first phase of the development project has been underway for 18 months which is longer than either the city or the developer expected when this project began. That being said, when I first arrived in Kent people kept saying that this project sounds good but the reality was it would “never happen because the current property owners will never be willing to sell.” Never is a long time but from everything the developers have said and from meetings I’ve been in with the representatives of the current property owners, I think agreements are within reach at this point. The city owns a couple of parcels, the university owns some land and the rest is divided amongst local property owners some of whom run their own businesses out of the property and others that rely on the properties for rental income. Trying to agree to a price on how much a piece of property is worth (both in terms of existing income and potential future income) is never easy and multiply that times the number of owners in this project and you can begin to understand the reasons why this is taking so long.
Are the deals done?
Some yes, some no. I’ve personally sat through meetings between the developer and the property owners and I’ve had several discussions one on one with the owners representatives, and while it’s not a done deal until all the names are signed on the bottom of the page, all of the discussions seemed amicable and very reasonable, and they all ended with agreements in principle. That’s what I saw and heard at the table with the respective parties. Now what rumors float around and what the owners or the developers say outside of those meetings for they’re own benefit I can’t speak to — all I know is that I sat and listened as the respective parties agreed in principle to terms with direction to have lawyers finalize documents. Certainly people can change their minds but based on what I heard I was left with the impression that things were just about done.
So what’s the time frame for the next phase of the project?
To some extent work is already underway in all of the phases of the project that would lead to construction. The property negotiations are underway, the developer has hired a leading retail brokerage firm to market the property, the city and developer are working with our attorney to outline a “developer’s agreement” that would lay out the details of financing, land transfer, schedule, etc, the architects continue to work on alternatives based on the different needs of prospective retail tenants and the developer is getting construction quotes from firms. The current Memorandum of Understanding between the developer and the city expires June 16th so we need to have the terms of the developer’s agreement worked out before then. I think that is very doable given our progress so far. In order to agree to that agreement the city would expect all of the properties in the project to be owned or under options by that time. If all that fell into place I think some demolition work might occur late this year with the majority of the construction occurring in 2007.
What stores will be part of the project?
The developer’s concept for this project is to be a “life center” style of mixed retail and residential properties so I’d expect to see some restaurants, small retail and other specialty type stores that builds on the unique downtown stores niche. It’s important to land a good anchor that would pull more foot traffic downtown. I know the retail broker has been talking to all of the good local and regional restaurant owners to see if they’re interested and they’ve definitely expressed an interest. No one that I know of has officially signed a letter of intent to be in the project but I think that’s more because of the delays in property acquisition rather than lack of interest in being a part of the project. I know the development team was out in Las Vegas last week at the national trade show for retail trying to market the property and although they were exhausted from a week of selling, they were pleased by the level of interest. I recommend my favorite places from all the different cities I’ve lived in or traveled to that I think would be a good fit downtown, and I’d recommend you do the same here in the blog.
Please send me your favorites and I’ll be sure to pass them on as well.
The Bottom Line
If we’re looking for a 100% guarantee that this project will happen, I can’t give it. Development is highly speculative, that’s just the nature of the beast. I can say that this developer and the city and the local property owners have been very busy trying to give the project a chance to succeed. For some reason this project draws a lot of rumors and at times I wonder if people are more interested in seeing this fail than seeing it succeed. All I know is that its going to take someone, whether it’s this developer or not, to take some risks to reinvest in our downtown. If we want Kent’s downtown to be vibrant again we need to do everything we can to support anyone who is trying to make that happen.
The city is happy to work with anyone to make our downtown great and just because we’re spending time with this group doesn’t mean they’re the only project we’re working with or the only developer we’re interested in. They may be the most talked about but they’re far from the only game in town. When it comes to rumors people often advise me to dump this project because they’ve got a better developer waiting in the wings who’s just dying to be in Kent. I’m thrilled to hear that but let’s skip the waiting room and get right in the mix. If someone’s interested let’s talk, otherwise I have an obligation to work whatever project is on the table. If it was your project you’d expect nothing less from your city than our best effort and that’s what we’re going to deliver.