This editorial will appear in Tuesday’s print edition.
It’s take five for the University Place Town Center.
City officials, determined to salvage the $250 million project, have cut strings from their fourth developer in six years. Instead of relying on a single developer to create a true commons where people can shop, eat, live and just hang out, the city will sell off the 12 acres piecemeal.
A Seattle consulting firm will help find investors interested in developing or leasing out Town Center’s parcels. The city will retain the ability to choose tenants and to enforce design standards.
The new strategy is the latest twist for a project long frustrated by disagreements between the city and its developers and most recently by the credit crisis.
To critics, the change of course is further evidence of the city’s folly in betting on its ability to lure upscale development – a bet that we viewed as a justified gamble to expand the city’s threatened tax base.
In any case, what’s done is done. University Place leaders can no more turn back the clock than they can wish the Town Center dream into reality.
The former businesses that the city bought out to make the project possible are long gone, and the city has already sunk a lot of money into street and utility work and a pair of parking garages at the site. It’s also still on the hook to replace the library it demolished three years ago to make way for Town Center construction.
The project has simply passed the point of no-return. Walking away at this point would cost taxpayers the best shot at recouping their investment, at least in the short term.
City officials are probably guilty of making rookie mistakes, but they cannot be blamed for failing to foresee the collapse of the financial markets that has helped thwart the development’s progress.
Lenders are shying away from big commercial projects. Splitting up the project into smaller pieces gives developers a better shot at getting financing and allows the city to snap up tenants individually rather than waiting for one developer with the right plan and access to cash.
Town Center was always a gamble, but an ambitious one. University Place needs to lessen its reliance on property taxes, and it needs a central town square of sorts. This project would accomplish both. The city’s plan, beleaguered as it is, has demonstrated that the city can and should expect more for Bridgeport Way West.
The City Council and city manager haven’t hesitated to cut ties with potential developers or to take a different tack when the circumstances seem to warrant it.
To some, that looks like a strange combination of bull-headedness and floundering. But it also might be a resolute dedication to vision and the nimbleness required to get the job done.
We’re betting on the latter.