30th District: Car culture, urban aspirations and a big role in deciding state's political course

Cars today and what tomorrow? Federal Way and neighboring areas are looking beyond the suburban strip mall.
Cars today and what tomorrow? Federal Way and neighboring areas are looking beyond the suburban strip mall.

Editor's note: This story is part of our Meet the Key Districts coverage of the fight for control of the Washington Senate. For other stories on the 30th District, see the related stories box.

If there are vast parts of America that are "flyover" country, consider Washington’s 30th Legislative District "pass through" country. It is divided and framed by major highways: I-5, Highway 99, Highway 18 and Highway 167. Its largest city, the sprawling Federal Way, is named for the federally funded Pacific Highway South (99), and the community’s origins lie in the construction of a mid-19th-century military road. Its landmarks are what you see zooming by on the freeway: the hanging gardens of the Weyerhaeuser headquarters, or the colorful angles of the Wild Waves water park beckoning your inner child from the roadside. The 30th occupies a no-man's land of south King County where the Seattle sphere of influence fades to Tacoma's, as evidenced by the border-country names of a Federal Way mall called Sea-Tac and a bowling alley on Highway 99 called Seacoma Lanes.

The district ranges from the shores of Puget Sound to semi-rural Algona, Pacific and a small slice of Auburn on the east. It extends downward from Des Moines to Milton in northern Pierce County, home of freeway landmark Kanopy Kingdom. There are communities with a saltwater smell like Redondo in Des Moines. A wildlife refuge at Dumas Bay, north of Dash Point, is a quiet park and protected heron rookery. The countryside is dotted with small lakes. East of I-5, the 30th District has the feel of agricultural country overtaken by working sprawl: lots of trees but also tractor trailer yards and propane dealers. It's the blue-tarp suburbs where fences can hide pit bulls or the pony pastures for families who want to give their children an all-around upbringing. A sign at 2 Sisters Espresso in Algona recently proclaimed, "Literacy Day: 30 cents off if you show us a book."

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Redondo Beach's shoreline Zachariah Bryan

It's a district that will help determine where the entire state goes in the next few years on such issues as school financing, climate change and, perhaps closest to the daily lives of voters here, transportation. Democrats need to hold onto the district's Senate seat, but Shari Song, their candidate to replace a retiring Democratic incumbent, trailed Republican Mark Miloscia badly in the August primary. 

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A heron finds a perch Zachariah Bryan

The bulk of the district is Federal Way, a city moniker that Tacoma News Tribune business columnist Bill Virgin calls a "puzzlement-inducing name on a freeway sign." Puzzling it might be, but Federal Way is most definitely a place. With a population of some 90,000 it is the fifth largest city in King County and the10th largest in the state. It is diverse too. Thirty-seven percent of the voting age population in the 30th District is non-white. Two-thirds of the voters in the 30th reside in Federal Way. In the area just north of "downtown," the neighborhood is 37 percent white, 24 percent Hispanic, 21 percent Asian and 13 percent black. The city says that 115 languages are spoken in the homes of Federal Way students. It is a diverse, largely working-class suburban district and city. Think of it as where Walmart meets H Mart.

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A food display at H Mart Zachariah Bryan

H Mart is the pan-Asian grocery chain, a kind of super-sized Korean Safeway that features products for local Asian communities. The one in Federal Way features Korean and Chinese takeout (the chain's corporate home page features three language options: English, Korean and Chinese), sells insurance, Asian house wares like crocks and rice cookers, and produce not found in most supermarkets: huge jugs of kimchi, bags of pork belly, piles of banana flower and burdock root. A bulletin board outside is plastered with Korean language flyers, including a sign for Democratic candidate Song, who is Korean-American. Song has roots in the district with its strong Korean community. Like other clusters from Lynnwood to Lakewood, Federal Way features a Korean-Asian commercial district on the Old Highway 99 arterial, right next door to the Barnes & Noble.

If Federal Way has population and diversity, it is lacking both urban charm and a coherent center. Standing in what is called downtown — along South 320th Street between Pacific Highway South and I-5 — it feels like the most generic of commercial sprawl complexes, a collection of strip malls, parking lots, shopping centers and big box chains. Except for being plunked in a land of evergreen trees, it could be outer Phoenix. It’s low-rise and looks like it was thrown up overnight. Much of it seems to be undergoing renovation — redevelopment, new paint jobs — and there are some vacant storefronts too. It's an important market crossroads, clearly. But a downtown? A major shopping complex is called The Commons, just across from Sea-Tac Village shopping center. As is typical of suburban names, they do not resemble either a traditional commons or a village. Here, urban life seems to orbit around Target and Applebee's.

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If you're looking for a big chain restaurant, Federal Way is the place. Zachariah Bryan

If Federal Way resembles other mall sprawl, like South Center or Totem Lake, it also has the added touch of the smaller, entrepreneurial businesses that pop up along Highway 99, from tattoo parlors to noodle shops. These strips — and 99 is a very long one — always seem like they are about business and business alone, done as cheaply and efficiently as possible for a car-dependent culture. They appear to begin and end at "utilitarian," like frontier towns. Their isolation from urbanity is punctuated by the numbers: No street address seems to come without at least three digits. Federal Way’s S. 320th Street — the main drag — suggests a landscape a long way from the center of anything. At least Old Bellevue has a Main Street.

But Federal Way is undergoing a re-think that is worth paying attention to. For one, it is suburban, but it is also a city, at least since it was incorporated in 1990. It has recently instituted a "strong-mayor" form of government, meaning the mayor is an elected executive rather than a selected member of the city council. The city is growing, diversifying, and the 30th District, already Democratic leaning, is trending more that way as it grows. It's a blue swing district. Its major issue seems to be transportation, not surprising given the number of major roads and choke points there. There's broad political and business support for a state transportation package that will bring local improvements, even if that means raising taxes.

Federal Way is also anticipating the arrival of a Sound Transit light rail, once promised but delayed by funding shortfalls. They will have to wait for a ST3 vote (the earliest ballot would probably be 2016) and the rail alignment or timing is not yet certain, but the city sees potential for transit-oriented development around light rail. The Puget Sound Regional Council in its Vision 2040 plan listed Federal Way as a "core city," meaning one of a group of Puget Sound cities, like Redmond, Bothell, Renton, Burien, and Kirkland, targeted to accommodate a large percentage of urban growth outside Seattle. The regional consensus is that medium and small cities like Federal Way are places to funnel growth, not conventional suburbs that should be planned out of existence.

Indeed, today's Federal Way is less an affordable bedroom enclave — though it has those features — and more an aspiring city. Think of Bellevue of the 1960s — a shopping crossroads with plans to grow up. Or perhaps a suburban version of downtown Tacoma which has been revitalized by the emplacement of urban building blocks (museums, streetcar service, a University of Washington branch campus).

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Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell Zachariah Bryan

Federal Way's new mayor, Jim Ferrell, seems to embody a can-do spirit. A former city council member and onetime King County prosecutor, Farrell has been mayor since January, but already his office in City Hall is filled with pictures of the him and other city officials cutting red ribbons on new projects.

Two of those could prove transformative. Some vacant property in the middle of the downtown district, former site of an AMC theater complex, was acquired by the city and has been converted to a four-acre open public space called Town Square Park, which opened this summer. It's more of a demonstration project than a mature urban park, but it has features that suggest that its purpose is urban community building. It is the downtown’s first park, and there are barbecues, a small p-patch and grassy areas the mayor hopes to expand. In 2015, it will host a weekly farmer’s market. The city has been also sponsoring chess matches and open-air family movie nights. A recent outdoor showing of "Despicable Me 2" drew over 1,000 spectators, amazing for a city not known for pedestrians. Forget drive-ins like the south end’s old Midway; walk-in outdoor theaters are the new urbanist dream. Farrell isn't afraid to think big; he wants to create Federal Way's Bryant Park.

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Town Square Park Zachariah Bryan

Overlooking Town Square is the empty Toys 'R' US site, where ground has been broken for a new $33-million, 41,000 square foot Performing Arts and Conference Center. It'll feature a 700-seat theater, retail, an adjacent hotel and a nice view of Mount Rainier. The plan is to have it finished by 2016. "What's always been missing in this town is a center of gravity," says Ferrell. Federal Way is attempting to rectify that. The performance center adds to the urban infrastructure that already includes the world-class King County Aquatic Center, built for the Goodwill Games in 1990, and tournament quality ball fields. The complex is adjacent not only to the mall core, but Sound Transit’s bus center and nearly 1,200-space parking garage. Mayor Ferrell also would eventually like to see City Hall, which currently sits in a tucked-away office park, moved to the downtown.

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The big transit center clock overlooking the Federal Way Commons Zachariah Bryan

With the central business district property staked out for public benefit, and with transportation and transit improvements coming (fingers crossed), Federal Way hopes, in the mayor's words, to also "go vertical" with high-rise development.  A previous development plan for 35- and 45-story towers in the downtown fell through in 2011. But, the mayor enthuses, "Federal Way is a canvass on which a great story can be written."

One blank spot on the canvass is what to do with the Weyerhaeuser main campus. The company recently announced that it is moving its headquarters to Seattle’s Pioneer Square. With two years' notice, the city is looking at possible alternative uses of the site, but Ferrell says that the Weyerhaeuser they are losing is not the same company that arrived in 1971, when it vacated Tacoma. It has been reorganizing and downsizing for years, so the economic impact has been gradual. The property has the potential for redevelopment, and others have suggested the old, architecturally significant showcase headquarters would be a great site for a college. Farrell touts Federal Way’s location with highway access to both Seattle and Tacoma ports and its lack of a city business and occupation tax as among its attractions. The blank canvass aspect of so much of commercial Federal Way looks to be a major part of its appeal too. Still, bringing a sense of urban cohesion is a long-term challenge.

If the district leans Democratic, this year's Senate race pits Song against a former Democrat, Mark Miloscia, a longtime state representative from the 30th who recently switched parties to run to replace retiring Des Moines Democrat Tracey Eide. The race has been targeted as key to the Democrats' hopes of regaining control of the state Senate. Miloscia's performance in the August primary suggests he's in a strong position to win the general election. The Democrats will need to energize their base and minority turnout to turn the primary tide. The question is, if Republican Miloscia wins, will he be hamstrung on transportation by his newly adopted party, or will fellow moderates be able to negotiate a bipartisan package that proved so elusive under Rodney Tom’s GOP-dominated Majority Coalition caucus?

Party affiliations are loose in the 30th — Miloscia's switch seems to be familiar politics there. King County Councilmember Peter Von Reichbauer, who represents the area, was a Democrat legislator who turned GOP back in the 1980s and his conversion swung control of the state Senate to his new party. He was later elected to the county council and was a leader of the effort to make council elections non-partisan. Even Mayor Ferrell has switched parties. He considers Von Reichbauer and the late GOP King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng to be his political mentors, but he flipped from Republican to Democrat in 2012 because he felt his new party was more in tune with his self-described populist politics.

Even if the district is trending bluer — its Democratic tendencies have outpaced the state average since 1996 — it is nevertheless tax skeptical, conservative on some social issues like pot legalization and gay marriage, and values community connection over party labels. The 30th seems to favor politicians who have sunk their roots there, even while to those of us whizzing by on the freeway it might appear to be the epitome of a place with few roots at all.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.