Kent city officials are looking to change downtown zoning regulations to allow light manufacturing businesses rather than restricting the area to retail, housing and commercial office buildings.
City staff discovered in trying to market the city-owned Naden Avenue properties that there’s little interest in building more apartments, stores or offices in the downtown area. Hotel developers are highly interested in 2 acres of the property just north of Willis Street and east of Highway 167, but plans are uncertain for the remaining 5 acres.
“It’s been quite an education as we go out to market and look at the property we are surplussing and what the market thinks,” said Matt Gilbert, city Economic and Community Development deputy director, at a City Council workshop last month. “It’s encouraged us to think about other possibilities.”
Bill Ellis, city chief economic development officer, told the council about the changing nature of retail (more online purchases, less at stores) that has left a glut of retail space on the national, state and local levels.
“And with Kmart now vacant several blocks away, the (Naden) site between Kent Station and the former Kmart property is not the best fit for retail,” Ellis said.
There’s plenty of commercial office space available in town as well, so initial city plans for offices and retail at the Naden site makes little sense. City staff also considered apartments for the property, but with three new apartment projects going up along Meeker Street and two housing projects already built near Kent Station, developers aren’t interested in building more apartments.
“We would like to look at our zoning codes and downtown design regulations and put guardrails on manufacturing uses so they are low impact,” Gilbert said. “We want to ensure trucking impacts are minimal, but most truck traffic is from distribution (warehouses) and not manufacturing. We think there is economic energy there that will create investment if we allow indoor uses more flexibility.”
Ellis said the Macrina Bakery that moved two years ago to Kent’s industrial area from Seattle is an example of the type of business that could be a fit for the Naden properties or other vacant sites downtown, if zoning allowed.
He also named the West Valley Business Park in Kent’s industrial area – with a mix of tenants from physical therapy, doctors, roofers, a wine tasting room and a laser equipment supplier – as an example of a potential downtown mix of businesses.
“Why not here,” Gilbert said. “Bill has talked about dynamic, attractive uses in Kent today and those could be tapped to help us vitalize our downtown. … Existing uses that are nonconforming that might like to expand if zoning allowed it.”
City staff said they wanted feedback from the council at the workshop about whether to pursue other options and zoning changes. The council gave staff approval to move forward.
“I think we can look at the possibilities and encourage us to open doors and see what we can find for jobs and revenue for that piece of land to be successful,” Council President Bill Boyce said.
Councilwoman Marli Larimer liked what she heard from city staff.
“I absolutely favor flexibility with the pace of the way things are changing,” she said. “I think Naden could be a great litmus test for that zoning change and see what interest that brings to us.”
Ellis said light manufacturing businesses would boost city tax revenue as well as bring jobs downtown to increase traffic to existing local restaurants and retail stores.
“From a revenue standpoint, there is a potential if we open ourselves to more industrial uses, understanding what industrial could mean today versus what it meant 60 or 70 years ago,” Ellis said. “There is a higher financial return for the city with land use from a productive revenue standpoint as well as from jobs and the walking distance to downtown.”
City staff plans to return to the council’s Economic and Community Development Committee next year with potential zoning change options.
The city began to purchase the Naden properties in 2002 with plans for an aquatic center. But city leaders later abandoned that plan because of the high costs and then agreed to partner with the YMCA to build a fitness facility on the East Hill that’s expected to open next fall.
Kent bought the properties for $7.2 million using $5.8 million in bonds and $1.4 million from other city funds, according to city documents. The city still owes $1.8 million in bond payments.