University Place Towne Center moves forward

Motivated by a combination of financial need and a vision of the future, the City of University Place is pressing forward with plans for its University Place Towne Center, a mixed-use development that includes residential units, speciality retail shops and upscale restaurants.

City officials hope the $100 million project will establish a successful retail base and thus increase tax revenue.

“What we’re building here is a regional attraction,” said Mayor Pro Tem Ken Grassi, during Friday’s press conference at City Council Chambers.

City officials are hoping to lure shoppers to the planned Towne Center for a much-need infusion of money.

“I firmly believe the market’s already here,” City Manager Bob Jean said. “We just need to give them a place to shop.”

University Place was hit hard by the 1999 approval of Initiative 695, which eliminated the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax in favor of $30 car tabs, with the city losing 25 percent – $3 million – of its general fund budget. (The Washington State Supreme Court declared the initiative unconstitutional in 2000, but the state Legislature passed a law essentially reinstating that portion of the initiative.)

“It’s a huge loss,” Grassi said.

Consequently, the city has made cuts in every aspect of operation, with the exception of police services.

“We’ve never compromised public safety, and we’re not about to start now,” Grassi said.

While the city is able to pay for limited services over the short term, a long-term solution is needed, city officials say, and that solution is the University Place Towne Center.

Grassi said University Place collects a low amount of sales tax revenue, with $2 out of every $3 in sales tax paid by University Place residents going to businesses outside the community.

University Place receives about $45,000 per year in total tax revenue from existing businesses within the project area. The Towne Center, Grassi said, is predicted to generate over $2 million per year in tax revenue within a couple of years.

“Broadening and diversifying the tax base will help services,” Jean said. “It’s also about building a financial base.”

The additional funds generated by the Towne Center would be used to pay for road improvements, parks, police, schools and other community services city-wide.

The project is expected to add 1,500 new jobs to the local economy, Mayor Jean Brooks pointed out.

Beyond the project’s hoped-for economic impact, city officials want the new Towne Center to foster a sense of community. City leaders envision a neighborhood that resembles University Village near the University of Washington in Seattle.

With its high-quality residential units – including flats, townhouses and lofts – located above 325,000-square-feet of specialty shops, restaurants and a parking garage, as well as new streets, sidewalks and a public plaza, University Place Towne Center should become the focal point of the community.

“There’s really nothing quite like it in the Pacific Northwest,” Grassi said.
Councilmember Linda Bird agreed: “This will be a unique place.”

“People in the community will have a reason to stay in the community,” observed Caroline Belleci, University Place Planning Commission.

Other changes include the moving of the city’s library to the Towne Center, as well as the possible relocation of City Hall.

So far, University Place has spent $9.1 million to purchase land for the project, as well as tenant lease buyouts and relocation assistance. Plans call for the Towne Center to be financed by a low interest rate loan, with all project costs to be repaid from project revenues – rents and sales of surplus land – and not tax dollars.

Based on several retail and housing studies, as well as interest from various companies, city officials are confident of the project’s success. The city is not, however, without a backup plan in case the project does not materialize as expected. The city will sell off the land incrementally to repay the loan, Brooks said.

The city will host a series of community meetings to seek public input on the selection of a preferred developer. The City Council hopes to select a developer by November. The meetings are as follows:

– Monday, Sept. 29: University Place Community Center, 2534 Grandview Dr. W., 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.;

– Thursday, Oct. 2: New Tacoma Cemetery, 9212 Chambers Creek Rd., 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.;

– Tuesday, Oct. 7: Central Baptist Church, 5000 67th Ave. W., 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.; and

– Thursday, Oct. 9: University Place City Hall, 3715 Bridgeport Way, 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Located west of Tacoma and incorporated in 1995, University Place is a city of some 30,000 people.

University Place Towne Center will be located north of the current City Hall, on the east side of Bridgeport Way, from 35th Street to 37th Street.