Finding Its 'Place': A conversation with Mariza Craig, Economic Development Director at the city of University Place, and Steve Sugg, the city’s Assistant Mana

The city of University Place is the midst of an economic development effort that officials hope will transform its central district into a revitalized town center.

The city has designated the area between 35th St. and 44th St., along Bridgeport Way, as the Town Center Zone, and is developing the mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly Town Center project in the area.

According to planners, site demolition will start next spring, project design will be completed next summer, and construction will begin next fall. When the project is completed in 2007, the University Place Town Center will sit on 10-12 acres, and provide office, retail, and housing space.

I recently met with Mariza Craig, Economic Development Director at the City of University Place, and Steve Sugg, the city’s Assistant Manager, to discuss the status of this project.

TACOMA DAILY INDEX: Explain the city’s announcement last week to change from Robert B. Aikens & Associates to McCaffery Interests for development of this project.

MARIZA CRAIG: The city is moving into the third phase of the Town Center project. The first phase was visioning, where we did all the preliminary work, such as getting the site ready, acquiring the property, and completing the first phase of the Environmental Impact Statement. The second phase was getting together with the first developer, Robert B. Aikens & Associates, and testing our preliminary assumptions. I must tell you that Aikens & Associates really helped the project along in terms of validating the fact that there was so much interest on the part of retailers. As we started testing our assumptions, we also discovered a strong housing demand, even more than we had realized. We are now moving into the third phase of the project, which involves finalizing the site plans, construction schedule, and last details. It just became apparent that a more experienced developer, in terms of a mixed-use project, was what we really needed. McCaffery gave us a good proposal, and Robert Aikens decided, because of the aggressive timeline that the city is pursuing, they couldn’t really quite meet that deadline.

TACOMA DAILY INDEX: Recent newspaper articles noted that the project was reduced in size and the construction was delayed. How would you respond to these reports?

MARIZA CRAIG: Some of that information is not quite accurate. In terms of the size of the project, that isn’t quite right. When you are working with a conceptual site plan, those aren’t very definite and specific numbers. You’re trying to work through the project and design engineering, and validate the market studies. As it turns out, the site between 35th and 44th will still be available for development. But we have chosen right now to [develop the project] from 35th St. to 37th St. In terms of the project delays, there really haven’t been any. We have been moving right along.

TACOMA DAILY INDEX: How important is this project to the overall economic development plan for University Place?

MARIZA CRAIG: Very important. It’s one of the priorities and mandates under the economic development strategic action plan. It’s one of our blueprints for economic development direction and growth. We’re looking at the Town Center as a catalyst for redevelopment in a larger sense. We have the Town Center project, which we are talking about right now. We also have a Town Center Zone, which goes from 35th to 44th. The work that we have done on Town Center alone, and the anticipation of it, has really been instrumental in getting the other property owners within the zone to start redevelopment. From a larger economic perspective, we want to see redevelopment of the whole zone, a mix of uses, and better-quality tenants for that entire segment. As we are working on this project, we are always remembering that we are trying to create our downtown — the core, the heart of the city, and our sense of place. That’s the vision that our community wants us to pursue.

STEVE SUGG: A lot of commercial property owners are just waiting to see what will happen. This project will trigger other things to happen.

TACOMA DAILY INDEX: What happened to the businesses that were once located on the Town Center site?

MARIZA CRAIG: When we acquired the site, we had a re-location program. We hired a broker to help re-locate those businesses. We gave them an incentive to stay within University Place because we wanted to keep our local businesses. We were very successful. I think 56% either stayed in University Place or are still in business.

STEVE SUGG: These businesses were good, local businesses. But over the course of an entire year, they generated about $45,000 in combined property and sales tax. The projection for this development is that it will generate $2 million a year in combined property and sales tax. Clearly, this was underdeveloped property. Business owners were not performing at the level that the city needed for its core commercial interests. At the same time, these were good, local businesses with established customer bases. We worked very hard to encourage them to re-locate. Some business owners chose to take the re-location money and go out of business. Others located out of town for one reason or another. Quite a few relocated in the South Sound because their customers were here.