When Lynnwood wakes up every morning, this is what it sees:
Unmanageable traffic that seems to come out of nowhere.
It’s a city that is disrespected, unappreciated and, in a few short years, it’ll be 50.
All that this baby boomer has to show for itself is what many see as a soulless bastion of fast-food chains, big-box stores and single-story office buildings.
Most of South Snohomish County’s business is done here, but the people who visit during the day – nearly triple the city’s population of about 33,000 – leave before the sun goes down.
Lynnwood, born in 1959, is going through a midlife crisis of sorts.
What would it say at a neighborhood picnic, where Bellevue, Kirkland and Bothell would surely gloat about their successes in attracting high-paying jobs and developing thriving city centers?
Rather than dwelling on a past in which it has been incessantly mocked, Lynnwood is finally bringing its vision for the future into focus.
Officials hope a new city center – with tall buildings, wide sidewalks and street-level stores with apartments and offices above – will bring better jobs and help establish an identity for Lynnwood as more than simply the home of retail in South Snohomish County.
Plans call for the center to begin taking shape around 2020.
“I’ve seen things like this come around the pike before, but I think this one’s really going to work,” said Becky Janecke, a Lynnwood resident for 40 years. “I think we need something like this.”
The first report detailing the center’s impact on the environment, which is to be released soon, shows promise that this idea is more than the rhetoric that has circulated for several years.
“It will be good to get something out there officially,” Lynnwood Mayor Mike McKinnon said. “Hopefully, that will start more conversation and get more folks out there talking about this.”
How did it happen?
Lynnwood is like most suburbs its age.
“It’s just urban sprawl,” said Jim Cutts, Lynnwood’s planning director since 1997. “It happens all the time.”
The city developed as a bedroom community where people who work in Seattle or Everett could buy a good-sized home on a quiet street.
Toss in some grocery stores, chain restaurants, big-box stores and parking lots, and you’ve got a recipe for sprawl, which quickly makes one city look just like the next, eroding any sense of soul or place, Cutts said.
“It doesn’t have a heart, and it doesn’t have a skin,” said Lisa Utter, president of the Lynnwood City Council. “Where does it end?
Where is the center?
Some say it’s at James Village, a particularly large shopping center at Highway 99 and 196th Street SW, where Trader Joe’s is.
Others think it’s at 196th Street SW and 44th Avenue W. – the city’s busiest intersection and the corner with the Fred Meyer store.
On the other hand, most of the action is at Alderwood Mall, the one place most people identify with the city.
“I don’t know of anything else in the area that people would associate with Lynnwood,” said Ardith Forsgren, 67, who retired two years ago to Ocean Shores after living in Lynnwood most of her life.
The consensus, though, is that Lynnwood has some growing up to do.
Downtowns and city centers are found mostly in older cities that trace their incorporated roots back to at least the late 19th century.
Cities such as Everett (incorporated in 1893), Edmonds (1890) and Seattle (1869) feature downtowns that were developed out of necessity. Back then, cities were pulled together so people didn’t have to travel far to get to stores and services.
Suddenly, suburbs began sprouting up from, in Lynnwood’s case, old chicken ranches.
Even many cities that had downtowns effectively abandoned them.
Now, Lynnwood and others don’t have to look far to find the strip malls and huge parking lots that seemed like good ideas back in the 1960s and ’70s. They now fit and look about as nice as those old Nehru jackets, hot pants and go-go boots.
A place to call home
The city center plan, in many ways, is a throwback. While there’s little physical need to have everything in one place, there are emotional and economic reasons.
“You need a center in order to generate (city) spirit and that sort of thing,” said Janecke. “We’ve needed that ever since the beginning.”
The center will be the heart of what’s called the “Lynnwood Triangle,” bordered on the west by 44th Avenue W., on the north by 194th Street SW, and along the southeast by I-5.
It will include office and residential buildings up to 25 stories tall, with storefronts on the street level and extra-wide sidewalks encouraging people to walk from place to place.
It will also include what planners are calling a landmark element.
They don’t know what that will be. It could be a unique building. It could be a statue. It could be anything, but it ultimately should serve as an icon for the city.
Looking at places such as Bellevue as an example – where the Bellevue Art Museum sits at the core of a thriving city center – Lynnwood’s plan is for a place to work and play.
“We want to make this an 18-hour place,” Cutts said.
He envisions the place as somewhere that people will want to stay after work and have a drink, meet for dinner, or take in movies or plays.
Rather than grow out, it’s going to grow up, making the most of the city’s seven square miles.
The city will pay for traffic improvements – which could cost around $150 million –but developers will pay for their buildings. Developers could also help defray the cost of traffic improvements later.
What the city needs to do is ensure that everything needed to sustain the center, such as water and sewer lines, is in place. That could cost around $50 million.
It also needs to change the rules of land use it has played by since its incorporation in 1959. City codes don’t yet allow the kind of structures officials hope to see there.
Although demand for office space has dwindled during the present downswing in the economy, city officials expect that by the time the plan is finalized the economy will have recovered and demand will again be on the rise.
The city will encourage construction of tall office and apartment buildings that could open up space for as many as 14,000 new jobs and 7,000 new residents.
By attracting more “family-wage” jobs that offer salaries in the $50,000 range, officials expect residents will stay in town rather than commute out every day.
Almost two-thirds of Lynnwood’s jobs are in retail (39 percent) and finance, insurance and real estate (26 percent). “Better jobs is what the people here want,” said David Kleitsch, Lynnwood’s economic development director. “There’s no reason we can’t get our piece of the economic pie for quality jobs.”
Lynnwood’s prime location – 15 minutes from Everett and Seattle, at the junction of I-5 and I-405 – will help make it the center of the north King County and south Snohomish County region.
“Our future is to be more than just retail,” Kleitsch said. “People are starting to look at Lynnwood as an alternative to Bellevue or Seattle.”
Where will cars go?
Traffic is already a headache, but the city has plans for improvements that would result in traffic moving more easily than it does today.
The new Sound Transit center along I-5 will help alleviate traffic as well.
The transportation plans come with a hefty price tag, but they will be needed even if nothing changes. There are plans to widen 196th Street SW and 44th Avenue W. to seven lanes each, and widen other streets. There will also be new freeway ramps at I-5.
And one of the biggest improvements will be simply adding streets where they don’t exist now.
Lynnwood was developed with “superblocks,” which are generally quarter-mile chunks where there is only one street where there could be four.
The stretch between 40th and 44th avenues along 196th Street is an example. There is no 41st, 42nd or 43rd avenue.
The only major thoroughfare going east-west through Lynnwood is 196th Street, stretching from east of I-5 west into Edmonds.
The changes will make driving to the city center easier. Once there, the place will be an oasis of sorts. There will be some on-street parking, but the acres of parking that are commonplace now will be parked permanently in the city’s history.
People will stroll along the tree-lined streets, free from their vehicles, enjoying all that Lynnwood’s city center has to offer.