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Wednesday, October 9, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Mill Creek

In Mill Creek, a 'community focal point' starts to take shape

Times Snohomish County bureau

MILL CREEK — Driving around Mill Creek, it's easy to lose track of where the city ends and the shopping centers begin.

The city's public library and post office are scattered among drive-through lanes and strip malls. Even City Hall, which is Mill Creek's de facto gathering place for community events, is tucked in a cul-de-sac behind an office building.

Designed in the early 1970s as "a city in the country" for commuters, master-planned Mill Creek grew up around a golf course. Planners never imagined Mill Creek would be anything more than a bedroom community, and so they neglected to give it a downtown.

Now, nearly 20 years after its incorporation, a 23-acre site west of the Bothell-Everett Highway is gradually transforming in the first phase of the long-awaited Mill Creek Town Center. Sewer lines and water connections have been laid. Sidewalks are going in this week. Development lots and roads have been plotted out. The foundation for the bridge that will span Mill Creek, planned as a natural landmark feature and gathering place for Town Center, is complete.

"All of it is starting to come together," said Greg Nelson, spokesman for the project.

Nelson is director of land development for Buchan Brothers Investment, the development corporation set up by builders Bill and John Buchan, who have built homes in Mill Creek for years and entered a partnership with the city in 1994.

The private developers, along with city officials and residents, are hoping Mill Creek Town Center, 10 years in the planning, will be a true commercial and social downtown, a traditional Main Street-style core with all the density and pedestrian-friendly trimmings. Town Center also could be a way for Mill Creek to retain more local retail dollars.

"The whole intent here is to provide a community focal point," said Bill Trimm, Mill Creek's director of community development. "Right now, I don't think there is one."

The plan was initiated by a citizens panel after the adoption of Mill Creek's comprehensive plan in 1992. Buchan Brothers Investment owns the land, but the project required major work with the city, from annexation to zoning amendments and environmental-impact studies.

"It's been such a long process because of the complexity of it," said Nelson.

The land is one of the last commercial areas in the city, Nelson said, and as such it has generated a lot of local interest from investors and tenants. Two deals are set to close soon, and Buchan Brothers is negotiating with several prospective tenants, including a bank and a grocery, with announcements to come in the next month.

A steering committee studied other cities, some of which had retrofitted themselves with downtowns. Trimm and other city staff visited Seattle's University Village, Redmond Town Center and Seattle's Fremont, Wallingford and Capitol Hill, calling the experience " the good, the bad and the ugly tour."

"We learned some lessons," said Trimm.

The vision for Mill Creek Town Center is a walkable, livable environment, Trimm said. The buildings go right up to the sidewalk. There will be on-street parking, public plazas, generous sidewalks, architectural lighting, transit stops and long-lasting building materials such as brick and steel. The development will be constructed to preserve the salmon-spawning stream, wetlands and other sensitive areas, he said.

Mill Creek Town Center is divided into two phases. The first includes up to 300,000 square feet of retail, office, restaurants and public space. Phase II is proposed to include retail shops, offices and a city-operated community center. The City Council is discussing a bond to pay for the community center, Trimm said.

Plans for two buildings are being assessed by the design-review board, with more to follow. Developers estimate a 10-month construction period after they obtain permits.

Trimm is confident that people will get out of their cars and walk, even in the suburbs. The development is ringed by compact neighborhoods of multifamily housing.

Town Center developers hope nearby residents will be a built-in customer base of regular shoppers and diners.

Caitlin Cleary: 425-745-7808 or ccleary@seattletimes.com.

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