Hawaiian dignitaries flock to the Cinderella city: University Place


In the early 1990s, University Place (U.P.), and especially its Puget Sound shoreline, looked very much like a scullery maid overwhelmed by dust. That’s thanks to the 100-year-old, 600-acre Steilacoom gravel mine and sand pit that once defaced the old waterfront. No handsome prince cared to travel down U.P.’s roads back then, not when gravel borders lined the streets and not an inch of sidewalk could be found anywhere.

Yet thanks to a fairy godmother in the form of Blue Zones’ Director of Innovation and Inspiration Dan Burden, the city that was a destination point for nobody has been so fantastically transformed that it recently attracted 32 dignitaries from Hawaii, including Honolulu, Maui, Kauai, and Kona. The VIPs all purchased tickets to fly this way for a visit on July 12.

The visiting Hawaiians – planners, engineers, developers and elected officials – had all came to see the city that made bold moves to follow ideals communicated by Blue Zones, a company that believes people are made to move their bodies so a city’s native resources should be engineered to encourage such natural movement, with roads and structures landscaped to inspire healthy activities such as walking and bicycling.

While here, the Hawaiian dignitaries also visited other places that Blue Zones helped design such as West Point in Seattle, Bainbridge Island and Portland. Yet on July 12, U.P. was the highlight that no dignitary wanted to miss.


Burden had come to University Place back in 1996 and inspired city planners to make very tough financial, social and political decisions that dramatically transformed the dusty city into a shiny new one with glistening business opportunities that city leaders still feel confident U.P. will continue to attract.

“Bridgport Way in 1995 had no street lights. We needed to give space to pedestrians and cyclists, number one, because the Bridgeport spine was hostile and unfriendly,” said University Place City Manager Stephen Sugg. “The grand vision was to have not just a road but a parkway to make our street not only functional for all users but to also make them beautiful because we were without much park land.”

Sugg admitted that the redesign visually narrowed the roadway and that helped to slow traffic down. “It means we don’t have to have traffic cops out there using radar. People, for the most part, respect the speed limit now,” said Sugg.

Also in University Place, the dignitaries visited Pierce County’s  Chambers Bay Golf Course, that 230-acres of re-engineered shoreline that replaced most of the old gravel mine. Chambers Bay drew hoards of visitors, many with big wallets, when it hosted the United States Golf Association’s U.S. Open two years ago.

On July 12, with all the dignitaries gathered into a conference room at city hall for lunch, Sugg led a slideshow presentation. From those photos, he illustrated how University Place looked historically in contrast to how it looks now with new landscaping, significant building upgrades and newly constructed architecture.

Sugg also spoke about how things had progressed in a timeline. He said city planners arranged to fix Bridgeport first, then negotiated to purchase private lands, then construction of retaining walls ensued before underground garages could be built and those parking garages were purposefully designed to be kept out of the future pedestrians’ line of sight.

When Sugg showed photos from the old Town Center next to Bridgeport in 1996, it offered a stark contrast to how the new Town Center looks today.

“We believed in Daniel Burnham’s admonition not to make small plans,” said Sugg as he stood in front of another slide that quoted Burnham. “We had one shot at it to do it right, to set a very high bar and we believe you can achieve great things as a result of that.”

Yet University Place residents were not all gung-ho about the changes when plans for a city revamp were first declared. They worried about the enormous expense required for all of that visionary pioneering. Before Sugg’s presentation had begun, there had been private murmurings among city leaders about how hard it had been for them to get the community to see their mental picture for a city worth its saltwater.

When city leaders first communicated their plan to make University Place streets narrower, it caused community members to worry about increased congestion. When they said they were going to remove the center turning lanes in preference for landscaped barriers, protests erupted and again as planners decided to add roundabouts when residents were not even used to yield signs and sidewalks when hardly anybody in University Place walked anywhere. The backlash became more and more difficult to endure.

In a semi-private conversation with Sugg, Burden quoted Arthur Schopenhauer’s work called the “Three Stages of Truth.”

“Any change has to go through three stages,” Burden said. “The first stage is laughter and ridicule. The second is outright threat and actual attack and the third stage is acceptance…”

Then Burden shared a story about a University Place official who learned those three stages for launching community change on a very personal level. It was just when University Place was going through all the restructuring of its suburban infrastructure and some of the local citizens were more than just digging in their heels against the coming changes.

Burden said the official called him up and said: “Dan the riots have started.” Burden said there were tears in the man’s voice as he felt the protests were absolutely hostile toward all the city planners.

“What are you talking about?” Burden had told him. “You know you’re at the second stage now and the third stage is acceptance. ”


During his slide show, Sugg had been quick to admit that when planning began, the city officials had no rule book to follow and they just trusted their instincts to move forward. “You can’t throw something at the rest of the community and expect them to immediately embrace it,” Sugg said.

To better communicate to U.P. residents about how things would work, a few tests were run where the city installed reversible projects, like 67th Avenue. This was one such test site where the four-lane, high-speed roadway with high crashload was re-striped to change the traffic flow. The test went so well, reducing accidents for the cost of paint, that the city decided to go ahead and make the more permanent landscaping installations. Since then, the 67th Avenue redesign has enjoyed a new reputation for crash reduction by 54 percent.

Similarly, Sugg said U.P. has not had a two-car crash at the Grandview roundabout in 20 years, but before the redesign took effect accidents there had been rather common. “The roundabout has actually stopped drunk drivers and the police call it the DUI check point,” he said. “It’s like a silent police officer out there 24/7.”

Furthermore, since Bridgeport Way was reengineered, there’s been a 70 percent crash reduction.

The man who taught U.P. officials how roads could be improved by adding park-like road dividers, a bicycle lane and sidewalks, Burden, eventually took the podium and said that re-engineering a city takes amazing courage. “Of all the assets you can have in a community, courage is number one.”

Burden was merely reiterating what had already been part of Sugg’s message. “If leaders don’t have courage, if you’re just looking to come in and go about a nice easy day, don’t start a project like that.”

According to Sugg, city funds, state and federal grants were all used to create the new infrastructure. “We haven’t found too many city models like ours, where we did individual parcel purchases … so it was a lot public before it ever became public/private and now it’s starting to become more private/public,” meaning the city is getting out of the development business one private contract at a time.


Sugg said U.P. waited almost 10 years for an anchor business to come and stay. After the president of Whole Foods drove down Bridgeport Way, he communicated with University Place officials that he wanted to build his store here.

“He chose U.P. over other communities because U.P. had laid the groundwork, or set the table, so to speak,” Sugg said. “Now we have become a sort of specialty foods capital with Trader Joes, Whole Foods and Harbor Greens here.”

“The private sector did not believe in this market so, for city leaders, it felt like they were way out there and on our own but as the visionaries persevered, the community eventually got more behind them and finally put a stake in the ground.” Sugg said. “Fortunately it is working out and you can see the results.”

“By the way this project is not reversible,” Sugg said in conclusion of his slide show and the audience busted out with resultant laughter. “When you go in you go all in and there’s no turning back.”

Sugg said that due to the great work of city teams, and thanks to grants, University Place is well on its way toward meeting its goals and he estimated the work should be completed within the next 20-year period.


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