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Originally published June 10, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 28, 2007 at 1:50 PM


Southeast Opinion

From down in the valley to the valley's downtown

King County's oldest cities grew up around industry and commerce. Timber, banking, gold and goods. These cores were surrounded by communities...

Seattle Times editorial columnist

MAPLE VALLEY — King County's oldest cities grew up around industry and commerce. Timber, banking, gold and goods.

These cores were surrounded by communities. Seattle became the dominant regional downtown, with a large residential population. There are other smaller classic downtowns with smaller populations. Think Enumclaw.

Cities are growing much differently now than during the 19th century. Former suburbs such as Bellevue now have their own suburbs in the foothills of the Cascades. As metropolitan areas grow, the countryside has become a blanket of rooftops.

Housing in rural King County has been built at a pace developers love — that is, fast enough to fill most of the holes within the Urban Growth Boundary. This consuming build-out has changed how cities develop and look.

These new cities are often a patchwork of neighborhoods with no clear center — a park or strip mall, maybe.

This structure is changing as the new suburbs slow down and take stock of their anatomy. The cities that grew up around mortgage payments and "For Sale" signs are building or planning to build downtowns.

Maple Valley is in the early stages of such a process.

This Southeast King County city of 19,140 incorporated in 1997. Ten years and nearly 10,000 new residents later, Maple Valley is 5.8 square miles of subdivisions smashed up against the growth boundary to the east, and Covington to the west.

There is no downtown. City Hall is in a strip mall on the Maple Valley Highway in the north end of the city.

With the city nearly built out, and room for only about 25,000 people, city officials want to create a downtown Maple Valley on 54 acres that extend from the shores of Lake Wilderness, a perfect location at the heart of Maple Valley.

Lake Wilderness and its lodge have always been the natural center of Maple Valley. City Manager Anthony Hemstad calls the lodge the city's living room. The natural beauty of the lake, with Mount Rainier's reflection and shores frequented by fishermen and families, will continue to be the image of Maple Valley. But it cannot replicate a downtown, a place where businesses can grow and city decisions are made and felt.

The 54-acre site, which would likely consist of a new City Hall and a mixture of retail and businesses, would be joined via a corridor to Four Corners in the southern part of the city. Ideally, this corridor will link the retail of Four Corners to downtown, with businesses populating the route.


"It would be great to have an appropriately sized urban area," Hemstad said, "a place where you could stroll and have coffee and dinner."

Maple Valley's new downtown will mold how residents and outsiders view the city. The city has been an attractive place for families because of the Tahoma School District, low crime rate, and the amount of house that can be bought relative to Seattle and the Eastside.

These factors coupled with Maple Valley's lack of retail and employers means a lot of residents commute long distances to work. New businesses between downtown and Four Corners would create a place for businesses to locate, maybe keeping some residents in town during the day.

A downtown, whether created or organic, helps solidify a city's personality. Some are an unruly stew of mismatched roads and architecture, others safe and staid.

Downtowns are not created quickly or easily. Hemstad understands this.

"If we don't do it now, it will be another generation before we do anything," he said.

That would be a shame.

Ryan Blethen's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is

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