Top 10 news stories of 2008

December 29, 2008

By Staff

2008 news stories revisited

From an increase in robberies to the demise of the proposed Southeast Bypass, 2008 was action packed in Issaquah. Lightning and snow storms, a stronger Moroccan connection and business closures all made headlines.

In no particular order, here are updates on our pick of the top 10 news stories of the year:

Food Bank needs, feeds more

Bare shelves plagued the food and clothing bank at Issaquah Valley Community Services months before the holiday season came into view.

With soaring gas prices this summer, home repossessions and stocks fluctuating wildly, Issaquah residents and businesses couldn’t stock the shelves fast enough to fill the growing community need.

For the start of school, the food and clothing bank’s shelves were without basic breakfast and lunch necessities for students, backpacks, clothing and school supplies.

Thanks to quick community thinking and large donations from local businesses, local school children were able to return to their desks that first day with plenty of supplies.

But as the recession deepened and several major area employers began laying off employees, the holidays began to look increasingly dim for the food bank, as the shelves emptied faster than employees could fill them.

Each of the Issaquah School District’s 24 schools hosted food and clothing drives benefiting the food bank and most adopted local families in need through Issaquah Valley Community Services Adopt-A-Family program.

In addition, several Issaquah residents hosted a Harvest Dance benefiting the food and clothing bank. Many local businesses donated additional food from their stores, and churches, neighborhoods and nonprofit organizations hosted food drives, collecting thousands of pounds of food.

What’s next: Winter is far from over, and the food and clothing bank’s shelves are still in need of cash, food and clothing donations. Donate or learn more at www.issaquahfoodbank.org/donations.html.

Rash of robberies are committed

The statistics are not yet compiled, but a rash of robberies in 2008 made it at least appear that crime was on the rise in Issaquah, including:

4In March, a man robbed the Washington Mutual Bank in the Issaquah Fred Meyer store.

4Two armed suspects robbed the El Abuelo market on Front Street North in May.

4A man got away after brandishing a knife at Fred Meyer employees after trying to steal two TVs in July.

4Three pre-teens were robbed at knifepoint in July behind the Klahanie QFC.

4Two men were arrested for beating and robbing a taxi driver in October.

4Two men were arrested for the armed robbery of an am/pm convenience store in October.

4Last month, four men were arrested for the brazen, broad daylight theft of armloads of merchandise from Joe’s Sports, Outdoor & More.

4An armed man made off with prescription drugs at Walgreens this month.

Issaquah Police Commander Stan Conrad said that he couldn’t say if this year was any busier than previous years.

“But, in general, in my 20 years here, we anticipate a 5 percent increase in calls across the board,” he said.

To combat those increases, the department has more officers to commit to preventative patrols. And alerts are sent to business owners by e-mail detailing crime trends in their areas.

What’s next: Conrad said when 2008 statistics are available, department officials will be better able to direct their efforts where they’re needed.

Issaquah Transit Center opens

Commuting to Seattle, Mercer Island and Bellevue got a little easier in 2008.

A 819-stall, multistory parking garage, named the Issaquah Transit Center, opened in July. The $29.8 million center with more than double the parking capacity of the old surface parking lot features shelters, bike racks, benches, artwork and a police office.

“With so many more people using transit to beat high gas prices, we expect this facility to be very popular with area commuters,” Issaquah City Councilman Fred Butler said at an Aug. 6 groundbreaking ceremony.

The city contributed $1 million toward the project. The remainder of the money came from Sound Transit in the form of sales tax receipts for regional transportation projects.

Three Sound Transit express bus routes and seven King County Metro routes serve the center.

“This important project represents a new approach to funding transit projects in our region, which our community really needs,” said state Rep. Jay Rodne.

Perhaps it was only fitting that a bottle of Issaquah Brewhouse ale was used at the christening.

“Usually, I’d hate to see a good ale spilled, but it was for a good cause,” King County Executive Ron Sims quipped.

School construction hits snags

School construction was a top priority for the Issaquah School District this year, and several major projects got under way with taxpayer money from a 2006 bond issue.

Issaquah and Skyline high schools were set to start demolition and remodeling work when the last bell rang in June. But construction permits in both school’s cities got hung up.

Skyline construction workers began developing the site for the parking lot prior to permit approval, which is illegal and caused more delays with the work.

By early October, the permits were approved and demolition and construction work has run smoothly since with foundations for new class wings being added.

Issaquah High School’s permits still have not been fully approved, partly due to indecision regarding traffic mitigation for the school and partly because the master site plan has yet to be approved by city officials.

Because the permits haven’t been approved, district officials moved the conversion of the Pacific Cascade Freshman Campus to a middle school until 2010 instead of 2009, as originally planned, and schedules for team sports events, which were supposed to happen at alternate locations, have moved back to IHS until substantial work can be done.

Issues at Issaquah High should be resolved in the first few weeks of 2009. After that, district officials will open the project for public bidding and assign a general contractor to start work.

What’s next: Planning and permitting for Elementary 15 in Sammamish is still under way. Construction work at the site should begin in spring.

School boundaries get review

On Dec. 11, Superintendent Steve Rasmussen approved new boundaries for schools in the Issaquah School District. The new boundaries will go into effect in fall 2010.

The approval wrapped up nearly a year of study, review and consideration by district officials and the Boundary Review Committee, made up of parents and principals.

The comprehensive kindergarten through 12th-grade review was necessary to accommodate several construction projects, like the remodeling of Issaquah and Skyline high schools, and the shifting of student populations within the region.

The new boundaries changed for the district’s 15 elementary schools, as well as the five middle schools, with the conversion of Pacific Cascade Freshman Campus into a middle school.

However, high school boundaries remained the same.

The boundary process wasn’t without concern. Members from several communities were upset by their children having to change schools for a third time in about five years, while others were concerned about the equity of education between the high schools.

District officials are working to review each high school’s curriculum and service options to ensure equity, since Issaquah and Skyline will have populations of about 1,800 and Liberty High School’s population will be about 1,200.

What’s next: Officials, with help from parents and students, will create transition plans for families to help ease the stress of changing school communities before the move. New information will be posted on the district’s Web site www.issaquah.wednet.edu.

Many businesses close

Several Issaquah businesses — some national chains and a few homegrown — closed in 2008.

At the beginning of the year, the owner of Allen’s Furniture, announced he was closing after 32 years. The location on Front Street had been a furniture and appliance store dating back to the late 1950s. The closing was the first of many in the city.

In April, Albertson’s grocery store closed its East Lake Sammamish Parkway location.

National chains such as Linens & Things and Chili’s restaurant also locked the doors one last time. Other businesses that closed include the Tiger Mountain Grill restaurant, Tiger Mountain Tea, Extremely Board, Pacific Fabrics and the ARCO gas station at the corner of Front Street and Gilman Boulevard. While others closed, there were new businesses that opened.

Developers say transportation impact fees for potential businesses along Front Street discourages prospective tenants and redevelopment. Robert Ittes, incoming chairman of the Greater Issaquah Chamber of Commerce, said chamber officials are working with city officials to streamline the permitting process for new businesses.

What’s next: In 2009, the chamber will continue to lobby for lower business taxes, work with the city on sign ordinances and encourage citizens to shop locally, as opposed to driving to Bellevue, Ittes said.

“Nobody has the crystal ball,” he said. “We also need to focus on supporting local businesses and bringing business to Issaquah.”

Weather becomes more fickle

It was an uncharacteristic year for the weather, especially since it bucked regional trends.

The year kicked off unseasonably warm, with a late arriving winter snow just before spring. Groundhog Punxsutawney Phil’s prognostication didn’t foresee winter overstaying its welcome well into April, which included a day of a light dusting of snow.

In the middle of the year, unexpected lightning storms lit up the skies and tore up the ground, with strikes causing damage to some area homes.

The snow returned in force in December and was on the ground for nearly two weeks, causing garbage collection to be cancelled and leaving many people unable to get to work for days. The snow arrived early and often, jumping the gun before the official start of winter Dec. 21.

According to the National Weather Service, this has been the heaviest snowfall on record, with some areas netting as much as two feet.

In response, the city of Issaquah began running regular updates on its Web site in a special area — www.ci.issaquah.wa.us/winterweather — including road closures, progress of road clearing crews, status of city meetings, tips and even signs to watch for overloading roofs and other structures.

ZHome, YWCA deal is struck

While Issaquah already is known for its high-density “urban villages” of Talus and the highlands, a new type of development project put the city on the world map of “green” building in 2008. It is zHome, a complex of 10 townhouses to be built in the highlands that incorporates the most energy-efficient and environmentally friendly construction yet attempted.

On an adjacent parcel, the YWCA plans a complex of affordable apartments that will incorporate as many of the green building technologies as it can afford. Somewhere between 145 and 165 units are to be built as one- to four-bedroom apartments affordable to households earning 30 percent to 50 percent of the median income in King County.

Construction should begin in 2009, although no date is set.

The zHome, originally the Zero Net Energy Project, is designed to produce as much of its own energy as it uses over the course of a year. It is also intended to be carbon neutral, producing zero net carbon dioxide emissions in the same period.

The buildings will incorporate nontoxic materials, to ensure healthy indoor air, and will make use of solar power generation, ground water heat pumps and rain water collection.

To be built by Howland Homes, zHome is a partnership of the city, Built Green, King County, Port Blakely Communities, Puget Sound Energy and the Washington State University Energy Program.

What’s next: An official groundbreaking for zHome took place Sept. 29, but site work has not actually begun. The project is still on track, however, for construction and opening in 2009, but no starting date or month has been announced.

Southeast Bypass gets nixed

This was the year the Southeast Bypass was put to rest by the City Council, which in March voted for the no-build option.

Originally proposed in 1996 as a way to shunt traffic between the Sunset Interchange on Interstate 90 and Issaquah-Hobart Road, the bypass consumed a dozen years of study and $4 million of city money without ever starting construction.

For a number of reasons, the City Council concluded that the project was not worth pursuing further. In particular, council members said the road would not do anything to fix traffic congestion.

Other reasons were that it was not consistent with the city’s Comprehensive Plan, it did not address transit needs, it would have adversely affected downtown businesses, it did not support the city’s goal of sustainability and it was not reasonably funded.

What’s next: The Federal Highway Administration’s Olympia office will issue a record of decision to formally close the project. A draft of the document is under review by the council, which will propose edits and corrections in January.

Moroccan connection deepens

Following the establishment in 2007 of a formal sister city relationship with Chefchaouen, Morocco, Issaquah’s connection with that faraway town deepened in 2008.

The mayor of Chefchaouen, Mohamed Saad El Alami, visited Issaquah in March with his wife, Zahra Akesbi, and three other officials. They were given a red-carpet welcome, including a formal dedication of the traditional Moroccan blue door prominently displayed near City Hall. And they were treated to an exhausting itinerary of visits to Seattle and the state Capitol in Olympia, tours of Issaquah and Microsoft, a visit to Tillicum Village on Blake Island, a visit to the Museum of Flight, and numerous official breakfasts, lunches, dinners and receptions.

Less formal exchanges also took place. A rock band from Issaquah, the Astro Cats, raised money to fly to Chefchaouen and perform in an annual music festival there, while a French class at Liberty High School linked up with counterparts in Chefchaouen for a live conversation via Web cam.

Even Mayor Ava Frisinger visited there on vacation this year, following her leadership of an official Issaquah delegation to Chefchaouen in 2007. That visit included members of the City Council, business and cultural groups.

What’s next: Further contacts are expected in 2009. The successful American Moroccan International Exchange, which organizes visits to each country by groups of high school girls, plans to bring a group of Moroccan girls here in July.

These updates were compiled by reporters Chantelle Lusebrink, David Hayes, Jim Feehan and Jon Savelle. Comment on this story at www.issaquahpress.com.

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