Big ideas for a Town Center of the future

Diane Larson of Mercer Island Florist says business has seen an uptick in the last year. Larson attributes that mostly to her loyal customer base: “We had the best year, we’ve ever had. Business is excellent and I’m very grateful to the community for that.”

Mercer Island Florist is one of two tenants a little enclave across from the Islandia Shopping Center, which in the last few weeks has seen vacancy signs by Wallace Properties.

It’s all part of a changing Town Center and visioning efforts the city last Wednesday, May 21, discussed with local business owners residents and councilmembers at a lunch meeting.

Among those changes is the closure of Club Emerald in October. Co-owners Bryan Welch and Ginny Pietila,who have been a part of the community since 1993, have plans to split up the gym business.

“I think businesses come and go for a multitude of reasons—it could be personal, it could be the volume of business. But it’s greater than just what it seems,” says Larson. “[You always hear] businesses are leaving Mercer Island or everyone is coming. But there are many reasons Islanders come and go. We sit down in our little spot by the bookstore and do the best we can.”

Planning for a revival of the Town Center has been a goal of the City Council and staff for the year ahead. The city outlined the issue at a planning session at the beginning of the year.

One of the ideas put forth by Representative Tana Senn was a booster committee to address small improvements while the city shaped its long-term vision.

The early stages of that process started last week, as community members assembled to share their voices. They were only high-level talks, but the hope is that last week’s discussions will be brought before Council at a planning session Jun. 14, as a sort of “menu” of options the city can choose from.

“The idea is to synthesize some of these make the vision for Town Center reflect current values and desires,” said Councilmember Benson Wong, who lives himself  in Town Center after a fire severely damaged his South-end home in April.

The city has invested over $5 million in streetscape improvements like additional trees, ornamental pavement and more pedestrian-friendly crosswalks. The ideas that surfaced during Wednesday’s meeting ranged from a walking trail to wayfinding signs and the reoccurring topic of more parking. Loftier ideas were also entertained like  changing city code, attracting certain businesses or hiring a part-time economic development manager.

“Nothing is set in stone,” said Wong. “One duty of this exercise is that we’re asking people to dream up what they’d like to see down there.”

Under the Growth Management Act (GMA), Mercer Island will need to provide 2,000 more housing units by 2031. Current zoning would allow for the added berth, said senior planner Shana Crick and land is ripe for development.

There are now about 1,000 residents in the Town Center, a number that could classify the growing downtown corridor as a neighborhood. Wong said that his recent move has forced him to think about the changing social fabric.

“Is it a neighborhood? It very well could be,” he said. “I think we need to be cognizant of the fact that these are not just businesses, but there are a lot of residents and kids living there. [That means] safety and something the city might have to take a look at.”

Recent Town Center projects have added 960 new housing units, 124,000 square feet of retail, restaurant and commercial space and 2,250 new parking spaces. Still awaiting completion is the Legacy mixed-use project, a five-story building that will, when it opens in summer of 2016, include 209 apartments and 10,000 sq. ft. of commercial space, a public plaza and parking. East Link, scheduled to begin construction as soon as this year, will bring its own growth.

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