City Council votes to extend height limit on land near park & ride

May 26, 2009

By Warren Kagarise

Officials took steps last week to allow new construction in the Issaquah Highlands: taller buildings near the Highlands Drive Park & Ride and a gas station.But the City Council debated how development on a parcel near the park & ride should progress — as a commercial building, residential units or a blend of the two. Council members eventually voted 4-2 to approve an amendment to the development agreement between the city and highlands developer Port Blakely Communities.

“We cannot really predict what’s going to happen on the site,” said Councilman Fred Butler, who cast his vote for the amendment. “The only thing we can do is establish the rules, express a desire and hope it turns out the way we would like for it to turn out.”

An amendment to allow construction of a gas station in the highlands was referred to the Council Land Use Committee for further discussion.

Council members spent more than an hour May 18 debating the amendments; the bulk of the discussion related to the parcel near the park & ride. They eventually voted to allow residential units on the property, expand nonresidential square footage to 25,000 square feet and increase the building height limit to 65 feet.

Port Blakely is in talks with a potential buyer for the property, city officials and the developer said.

“I’m happy to tell you that we have a buyer we’re working with currently, who has a proposed commercial component he would like to pursue,” Port Blakely representative Chris Hysom told the council.

Other developments in the highlands — including a proposed grocery store — have stalled amid the economic downturn.

“We all know that we’re in an economy that is tumultuous and I think that we fully expect the buyer to close,” Hysom said.

He said although he expected the deal to close, he welcomed comments about adding residential units to the property. He said Port Blakely intended to build modular units if a residential component were added to the site.

“The reason for that is because the modular component is more efficient, sustainable in its construction,” Hysom said. “It’s a lot quicker to put together. It’s in line with what we expect to have.”

Port Blakely bought the parcel from King County last May. Port Blakely planners recommended several options for the land, including developments with residential units above ground-floor commercial or retail space.

Council Land Use Committee members discussed the amendment May 5. Council President Maureen McCarry, a committee member, referred to the meeting during the debate about the measure.

“My concern is that we clearly said in the committee that we do not want modules,” she said May 18.

Councilman David Kappler said his colleagues should consider delaying a vote on the amendment so council members could gather more information about the land. He noted the tight timeframe with regard to the pending sale, and suggested holding a special council meeting. But his proposal failed to gain support.

“We were thinking that this site was a great place to put people with lower incomes, residential right there with the park & ride,” Kappler said.

Committee members had recommended allowing residential units above street level.

“The proposed 65 feet here, I think, is more in keeping with the rest of Issaquah Highlands,” said Keith Niven, program manager for the city’s Major Development Review Team.

County officials asked city officials to include a provision to allow solar panels atop buildings at the site.

In response to concerns about the property being developed into a commercial building, Niven said the amendment gave Port Blakely the option of building residential units on the site. Such development would not be possible without the amendment, he added.

Butler endorsed the amendment, noting how the change could lead to residential development on the property.

“These are difficult economic times,” he said. “We’ve seen — certainly with respect to Talus and the Issaquah Highlands — that what we thought was going to happen at either one of those urban villages doesn’t always play out the way that we thought it was going to play out over time.

“It seems like this change gives Port Blakely the flexibility to do some of the things that we would like to do,” he continued. “But there is really no guarantee that in this economic climate that that’s going to happen.”

McCarry and Kappler voted against the amendment. Councilman John Rittenhouse did not attend the meeting due to illness.

Residents who spoke at the meeting also endorsed residential units on the parcel.

“I think that this will allow for better use of the park & ride by providing housing for people who do not have to drive to the park & ride,” highlands resident Chris Hawkins said.

Port Blakely executives also asked city officials to consider adjusting their development agreement to allow construction of a gas station in the highlands.

When the agreement was drafted, officials said they worried that contaminants from a gas station could infiltrate the nearby Lower Issaquah Valley Aquifer, because of the location of the development and the geology beneath the site. Advances in technology and increased knowledge about the geology rendered the concerns moot, officials said.

Council members unanimously referred the measure to the Land Use Committee, which will consider the amendment next month.

Port Blakely President Alan Boeker told committee members last month how Port Blakely envisioned an eco-friendly gas station designed to blend in with the surrounding community.

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