By Tom Boyer
Seattle Times business reporter
This city along the Green River was once defined by what it made — from steel garbage cans to plywood glue. The breeze sometimes smelled of sauerkraut and beans from an old cannery.
Now the biggest reminder of downtown Kent's industrial past is the shriek of freight locomotives chugging through town. Even that could change soon: The city is trying to persuade the railroads to silence the whistles at night.
With movie theaters and a shopping center about to open and a hotel and condos planned, the city and developers are transforming a formerly industrial section of downtown into a lively, pedestrian-friendly place that won't go dark after 6.
Kent is one of nearly a dozen Puget Sound-area cities trying to remake themselves into smaller versions of the "live-work" downtowns that have drawn so many people to condos and apartments in Seattle and Bellevue.
It's the emphasis on attracting permanent residents that makes these projects different from urban renewal projects of decades past.
For towns such as Kent, which grew up in the automobile age, Main Street meant stores and warehouses, maybe with factories down the block. People settled away from the sound and scent of industry, usually on open land outside of town.
But now, high land prices and the state's growth-management act, which channels new development into urban areas, are forcing builders to redevelop city land because so little is available for traditional suburban single-family homes.
"I've been waiting for 15 years for this to happen in Seattle," said economist Matthew Gardner, who analyzes the financial feasibility of projects for developers. "You've now reached the urban-growth boundary."
At the same time, Sound Transit's new commuter-rail system, despite disappointing ridership, is clearly paying off as an economic-development tool for cities along the line. In more than half a dozen downtowns, transit stations have provided a focal point for new retail and housing — in much the way train stations did a century ago.
"We're very pleased to see this because it's what public policy was trying to create," said Norman Abbott, director of growth-management planning for the Puget Sound Regional Council, a research and planning agency run by local governments. "If we can make these places successful, it will not only create more livable and walkable places for people, but it will also have regional benefits for the transportation system."
The first big step in Kent's redevelopment is Kent Station, a $100 million project taking shape beside the new Sound Transit rail station.
First phase opens
The project, which began opening last week, includes a 14-screen movie megaplex, restaurants and shops, and Green River Community College classrooms, which will take advantage in the evening of the huge parking garage built for Sound Transit commuters.
"We're going from an eight-hour-a-day downtown to an 18-hour-a-day downtown," said Kent Mayor Jim White. "I don't picture us being Bellevue. I do picture us being a very exciting urban center that's a great place to live, and I think we can accomplish this without losing our small-town feel."
For White, it's the culmination of more than 20 years of work trying to spark redevelopment in Kent. In the late '90s, he led negotiations with Borden Chemical to close the company's resin plant, the last major factory in the downtown area, by having the city buy the property from Borden.
"Kent has been very supportive of manufacturing uses, family-wage jobs — just not in the middle of our downtown," said the city's economic-development director, Nathan Torgelson.
The city spent $16 million to buy and clean up 20 acres that included the Borden plant, then selected Tarragon Development of Seattle to build the retail/theater complex beside a new Sound Transit commuter-rail station. Kent is selling the land to Tarragon in stages as Kent Station is built, and city leaders expect their investment to pay off from the enhanced tax base.
It has always grated on city leaders that the city's 85,000 residents, most of whom live on the city's East Hill, drive right past downtown Kent on their way to shop or go to the movies in Tukwila or Auburn. Now the multiplex and shopping will be right in their path, just 10 minutes from home.
Joe Blattner, Tarragon's president, said Kent, the county's third-largest city after Seattle and Bellevue, had just the right combination of things needed to make Kent Station happen.
"Everybody wants University Village in their downtown — you hear that over and over," Blattner said, referring to the thriving outdoor shopping plaza in Northeast Seattle. "Very few municipalities have the ingredients that Kent did — the combination of the density, the income levels, the daytime population and the transportation. It takes a bunch of things to make it work."
While the first stages of development are retail-dominated, Torgelson is now recruiting developers for what he hopes will be a wave of apartment and condo projects walking distance from the new Sound Transit rail station, which is a 22-minute train trip from downtown Seattle.
"Retail and housing tend to feed off each other," Blattner said. "As the retail becomes more of a destination, you're going to find that housing is going to be much more prevalent in that area than it's been in the past."
Kent Station helped attract another developer, former Microsoft engineer Ben Errez, who is planning a downtown hotel, senior housing and condos on what is now a parking lot.
Outdoor plaza to be built
In an agreement with Errez, the city is building an outdoor plaza next door that would serve as a community gathering place and home for the local farmers market — right beside Kent's King County library branch. Errez, using land provided by the city, has agreed to build a parking garage for his development as well as visitors to downtown events.
All this is happening a few blocks south of Kent's shopping and restaurant district. Merchants there say they have mixed feelings.
There seems no doubt that the project is going to bring thousands of new shoppers. AMC theaters, operator of the megaplex, is projecting 90,000 moviegoers a year, more than Seattle's Pacific Place. And a significant percentage of those visitors will be looking for a place to eat before or after the movie.
But Mark Handman, proprietor of the Wild Wheat Bakery Cafe, is worried that the thousands of visitors will stay in the new development and won't venture the few blocks south to Kent's historic district.
"They've built a beautiful spot there," Handman said. "It looks wonderful. I hope it does what they say it does, but I'm concerned, of course."
Judith Bakkensen, owner of New Woman Books, said she's happy to see Green River Community College with a presence in downtown Kent.
"The rest of it's going to be corporate stores coming in, raising the rents for the rest of us," Bakkensen said.
Torgelson agrees that getting shoppers to walk a couple of blocks south is "one of the things we're concerned about."
"How do you get all those new people coming downtown to discover the REST of downtown?" he asked.
To that end, the city is building more pedestrian-friendly street crossings, adding signs and building the plaza to help create a visual bridge between Kent Station and the historic downtown.
But Mayor White says it will also be up to the merchants to take advantage of the new crowds.
"I tell people, 'You can be a winner or you can be a whiner,' " he said. "They need to merchandise, and let folks know that they're welcome in their business."
White acknowledges that all this development means downtown Kent could begin to experience the urban problem that plagues the Puget Sound area.
"We'll have traffic congestion," he said. "Hopefully."