Target wants to build a store in downtown Covington, but the idea is easier said than done.
The property Target wants to set up shop on is a 20-acre parcel next door to Covington Elementary School, which is part of the Kent School District. The city would like the school site, which is 17 acres, and the neighboring site owned by Ashton Development to be developed together as a mixed-use commercial and residential project.
For years, the school district has considered relocating Covington Elementary to a new site, given the changing nature of the area surrounding it, which has morphed from a near-empty state highway to a rapidly expanding commercial core.
The trick, explained city manager Derek Matheson, is that the district owns the property and needs to make enough money when it sells it so that it can build a new school.
“The challenge has always been that the school district needs more than the appraised value for its property” in order to build a new school at the corner of 156th Avenue Southeast and Southeast 256th Street, just west of Kentwood High School, Matheson said. “We’ve always talked about strategies to make a development there work financially.”
The zoning there has allowed big-box store and strip-mall development. But the City Council has wanted a mix of retail, residential and office development with buildings up against the street with a public plaza – “something that’s more urban, something that’s as enduring as possible,” Matheson said.
About a year ago, Ashton Development brought in Regency Centers, a company that has built hundreds of retail shopping centers across the country, to help work on preliminary plans for the project. They have tentatively dubbed it Covington Town Center, according to a presentation by Regency representatives at last week’s council meeting.
Craig Ramey of Regency Centers said the company has worked with Target on a number of projects, and the giant retailer very much wants to build in Covington.
“We’ve worked with Target across the country and have formed a really strong relationship with Target,” Ramey said. “We realized that Covington was an area they wanted to put a store. One thing we tried to do is create a main-street kind of idea, with a parklike setting and a gathering place.”
Since January, the council and city officials have been working to strengthen requirements in the city’s downtown zoning ordinances which allowed for the development the council wants but didn’t require it. The result is an interim zoning ordinance for the site Ashton owns, which is formally known by city officials as the DN6 site. The council adopted that in June. At that point, Ramey said, “we all had to take a step back and say what does this mean and where do we go from here?”
The city wanted Regency to do more than just build another shopping center.
“Residential is required as one of the uses,” Matheson said. “It also requires the site be built around a public plaza.”
Dan Eernissee, a developer who spoke during Regency’s presentation at the council meeting, said the costs of building apartments or condominiums in the DN6 zone would cause most developers to take pause when considering buying the property from the school district.
“I love urban villages. I think they are terrific. They are real common in Seattle and Bellevue and Kirkland, so why don’t we slap one in here in Covington,” Eernissee said. “The costs, though, are really, really high, and these have continued to climb with the recent increase in steel and concrete prices.”
Besides, there are none of the same amenities in downtown Covington that one would find in similar urban villages in other parts of the region, like parks, trails, museums or theaters to add to the value, Eernissee added.
Bill Fuller, of Fuller-Sears Architects, showed the council renderings his firm developed as part of the preliminary planning for the site.
It would be connected to the road that leads to the Costco store that is slated for a grand opening Oct. 25, and it would have public gathering places in addition to small shops and Target. The retail businesses would be located in what is being referred to as Phase 1 on the Ashton site, while any residential development would be built later in Phase 2 where the elementary school is now.
But Fuller also suggested that apartments or condos aren’t really necessary for a successful project.
“The fact is, you can have a very active and animated and public place without having any residential. A good example is Kent Station,” Fuller said, referring to the commercial, pedestrian-friendly development in downtown Kent. “You can have an active gathering public space, but you don’t necessarily have to have a lot of residential.”
If both phases of the proposed project were developed as commercial-only, the site could generate over $1 million a year in sales tax revenue, according to Regency Centers.
None of the council members had any questions following the 30-minute presentation Sept. 23 at City Hall. Ramey said he understood they wouldn’t take action on the issue that night, but he wanted to move the conversation forward between the city, Ashton and Regency.
“Really, what we’re looking for is feedback and to see if there is an opportunity to work together to develop a project,” Ramey said. “We’d like to get started on Phase 1 and continue to work with the school district to see if, two or three years down the road, they do end up relocating and (plans proceed to) develop Phase 2.”
Matheson said there is much to consider.
“Do we do what’s best 20 months from now or do we do what’s best 20 years from now?” Matheson noted. “While the idea of a Target coming to Covington can be exciting, there’s a lot more to it before that can happen.”