Nearly every parking space at Mill Creek’s Town Center is occupied on a sunny afternoon. New mothers parade their babies up and down the sidewalks, while frantic professionals race in and out of Starbucks — lattés and cell phones in hand.
It hasn’t always been that way, said Royal Reinsch, who opened Belle Provence with his wife, Diane, a little more than two years ago.
About half of Town Center’s office and retail space is vacant, reminding merchants, like the Reinsches, that putting themselves on the map is easier said than done.
Business owners were therefore surprised when they heard of a proposal from the city’s community development staff to establish a mixed-use development, similar to Town Center, along Mill Creek’s east border.
“People have referred to it as the other Town Center,” Reinsch said, shaking his head. “How can a city that isn’t even four miles long from one end to the other support two downtown cores? Town Center isn’t even running full tilt yet, so a lot of us are concerned about the competition from a second development at the other end of town.”
The community development department in June proposed amendments to the city’s comprehensive plan, creating a zoning designation for village centers, or mixed retail and residential developments that provide opportunities for recreation, community gathering, shopping and other activities in one location.
The proposed amendments will allow the city to rezone a 50-acre parcel of commercially zoned land, known as East Gateway, along 132nd Street Southeast between 35th Avenue and Seattle Hill Road.
Officials say the rezone will hold developers to higher design standard and give the city more control over the project, including the types of businesses that are allowed, residential density and traffic flow in and out of the site.
Of concern to many residents is a proposed Wal-Mart, said to be the project’s anchoring retailer.
“I like what they’re planning for the site as a whole, but I’m concerned that a Wal-Mart will chase away the type of high-end retailers we have at Town Center,” Mill Creek resident Marina Storaker said at an open house last week hosted by the city’s community development department. “That’s what everyone says, ‘I like the concept, but I don’t like the Wal-Mart.’”
Residents worry a big-box store will create traffic problems in their neighborhoods and jeopardize the safety of students going to and from Archbishop Murphy High School.
“It’s a little scary,” Mill Creek resident Karen Lowe said. “If we’re not careful about managing the increase in traffic we’re going to have a very dangerous situation on our hands.”
Lowe is member of Citizens for a Better Mill Creek, a grass roots organization that formed about two years ago when the city annexed East Gateway.
“We’re most concerned about Wal-Mart,” she said. “We moved here to get away from big stores like that. We moved here because of the pedestrian and bicycle paths —because you don’t have to jump in your car and drive everywhere.”
Lowe acknowledges, however, the East Gateway project as proposed by the city may be a valuable addition to the community.
Except for Wal-Mart, the development offers all the amenities she expects from Mill Creek — parks, wetlands, paved paths for biking and walking, a farmers market and a number of open spaces for community events.
“We (Citizens for a better Mill Creek) are glad Mill Creek is controlling the development of this area rather than Snohomish County,” she said. “Everyone in Mill Creek’s community development department is easy to work with. And, overall, Mill Creek’s standards are much higher than the county’s.”
Residents seem cautiously supportive of the project and impressed by the city’s efforts to engage the public in the planning process.
Since June, the community development department has met with the community several times, allowing residents to comment on the proposal and create and submit their own land use plans for East Gateway.
While the invitation for public input has mitigated to some degree the concerns of neighboring residents, business owners at Town Center remain a bit skeptical of the city’s plans.
The planning and implementation of Town Center from concept to construction took more than 10 years, with the first business opening in 2004.
“Before we dive into something new, it would be nice if we fixed the problems that exist here,” Reinsch said. “There’s a lot of confusion among business owners right now about this East Gateway project. We need to get Town Center on the map first.”