Planners eye future of city’s commercial area

March 17, 2009

By Warren Kagarise

central-plan-zoning-2009030Future development in Central Issaquah — 915 acres straddling Interstate 90 and the city’s commercial heart — should be balanced with preservation, city planning commissioners said last week. By marketing its small-town character and suburban setting, officials said the city could lure developers.

They offered suggestions last week as the Planning Policy Commission met to consider proposals for the Central Issaquah Plan, a document that will outline growth and redevelopment in a broad swath of the city. Staffers hope to submit a proposal to the City Council by the end of the year, Long-Range Planning Manager Trish Heinonen said after the March 12 meeting.

In 2007, the officials designated the commercial area as the Central Issaquah Sub-area. Planners envision the district evolving in the span of a few decades from a corridor bordered by strip malls into a pedestrian-friendly town center connected by mass transit. Heinonen said the Central Issaquah Plan would map growth over a long period — about 30 years.

Redevelopment could be a challenge “because those current uses perform pretty well as is,” said Doug Larson, a project manager for Heartland, a Seattle real estate consultancy working with the city.

Officials said redevelopment should occur alongside preservation.

Areas such as Front Street, which are not part of the Central Issaquah Sub-area, were eyed for preservation. Downtown is an important part of the city’s character, planning commissioners said.

“If we lose the character of downtown, then we’ve lost Issaquah,” Commissioner Joan Probala said.

Larson also suggested using the city’s setting as a selling point to companies and residents seeking to relocate here.

“You really are the gateway to the Cascades,” he said.

The area includes nine of the city’s 10 largest employers and most of the city’s 2.5 million square feet of office space. But most of the space is occupied by the owner or built to suit current tenants, factors that elevate rents. Making rents more affordable is a key part of the vision, officials said.

Planners also want to attract residential development to the area as part of their mixed-use vision. In its present configuration, the area is dominated by office and retail space.

Though the recession hobbled demand for real estate, Heinonen said the slowdown afforded city officials an opportunity to update growth plans. When development begins again on a larger scale, the city will be prepared, she added.

Financing problems snared other construction projects, but a planned Swedish Medical Center campus in the Issaquah Highlands is moving forward. Larson said the expansion could boost demand for medical office space near the medical center site.

“I think it’s fair to say that we’re doing much better than the rest of the country,” he said.

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