Issaquah Highlands residents await retail development
December 8, 2009
By Warren Kagarise
When Issaquah Highlands developer Port Blakely Communities announced plans for a neighborhood movie theater in late summer, highlands residents were told the proposal for a long-promised grocery store would be revealed within several weeks.Instead, residents waited — and waited — for the announcement. The year will end with residents left to wonder when — and whether — a grocery store will ever open in the hillside neighborhood.
Highlands residents — among them, many people lured to the neighborhood with promised retail options — will enter another year with questions about commercial development in the highlands, a prospect now stymied by the bad economy.
Negotiations with a grocery chain to build a store in the highlands halted after the unnamed company decided against building there. After the latest frustrating delay for Port Blakely, the highlands developer entered discussions with yet another grocer. The latest — and unnamed — chain is the third potential grocer courted for the highlands since spring, when plans for a Central Market collapsed.
Port Blakely President Alan Boeker said the most recent grocer appeared to be a good fit for the community, but he kept the optimism in check. He declined to name the grocery chains, and said the grocer would handle the announcement and rollout.
“I feel even more strongly about this one as the last one, but we’re not done yet,” Boeker said.
Commercial development has long been hailed as a key part of the urban village concept, with homes, offices and shops built within close proximity. When the decade-old community was new, high-end retailers, like Whole Foods Market, were discussed as possible tenants. But a roiling economy and shifting landscape for retailers slowed the plans.
Boeker said additional homes would provide the engine for future commercial development.
“You need the rooftops to support the businesses,” he said.
When a 240-unit residential complex reached the Urban Village Development Commission for discussion last week, commissioners responded with a familiar refrain.
“I’m going to be as transparent as possible: I’m ticked off about it,” commission Chairman Geoffrey Walker said. “I’m not happy to support anything that is going to bring additional residents before we see a commitment to commercial space.”
Amenities not included
Walker moved to the highlands in 1998 and was among the first families to settle in the development. He said neighbors shared the frustration about the slow pace of commercial development in the hillside community.
Walker recalled the planned amenities used to attract prospective residents to the highlands.
“Well, six months before I even moved in, oh, retail is right around the corner,” Walker recalled. “We’ll have restaurants, we’ll have shopping, we’ll have a grocery store, we’ll have this, we’ll have that — 11 years later, there’s nothing on the horizon and I continue to see building of residential properties.”
Early focus groups with highlands residents indicated a willingness to wait for a high-end grocer. Walker, however, said he and other highlands residents had grown impatient.
Boeker, in a follow-up interview, said the highlands contain about 1 million square feet of commercial, or about 2 million square feet if the local Microsoft campus is included in the tally.
The developer pointed to the shops and restaurants open in the highlands, and large-scale developments under construction.
A Swedish Medical Center campus under construction and slated to open in 2011 would draw about 1,000 people to the highlands each day. A self-storage unit is planned for the highlands. A request to amend the agreement between the city and Port Blakely to allow construction of a gas station in the highlands is under consideration by the City Council.
Regal Entertainment Group signed a lease for a proposed theater with 14 screens, stadium seating, and digital projection and sound slated to open in May 2011.
Boeker also acknowledged the problems associated with commercial development, and the slow-to-materialize retail complex meant to anchor the highlands: The High Streets retail development, a planned pedestrian-friendly “lifestyle center” with shops and restaurants connected by sidewalks.
“We’re frustrated, too,” Boeker said. “We would like to be further faster.”
Dr. John Milne, an urban village development commissioner, described The High Streets development as “fallow” and expressed doubt about the future of the project.
“Who knows when and if that’s going to materialize?” he said.
Microsoft pulls plug
Besides the unrealized retail hub, development of a proposed Marriott hotel has slowed as a result of shaky financing.
Milne raised the commercial development issue when the 240-unit residential complex reached the commission last week. Devco, a Bellevue developer, hopes to break ground on the project in late 2010. The proposal returns to the Urban Village Development Commission next week.
Milne asked why the Devco parcel was under consideration for residential development, when the original plan included commercial construction at the site. Milne asked if the residential complex would a good fit in the area.
“As the market has evolved over the last year, year and a half, different uses have been more marketable for Port Blakely,” Lucy Sloman, a planning consultant with the city Major Development Review Team, said during the Dec. 1 commission meeting.
City Major Development Review Team Program Manager Keith Niven said highlands residents “are getting more frustrated by the moment” because commercial development slowed.
“From a commercial standpoint, it would be tough to say [Port Blakely is] not behind the curve,” Niven said.
Disappointment is nothing new for highlands residents and Port Blakely. Microsoft pulled the plug on a proposed 150-acre campus in the highlands. The software giant scaled back plans for the Issaquah campus in 2004, and the land was released for other uses.
Meanwhile, city officials seem resigned to the imbalance between commercial and residential development in the highlands. The residential proposal before the Urban Village Development Commission last week would be built on land once intended for the Microsoft campus.
“While I’m not opposed to higher-density residential units being added to the highlands — I’m not, I think it’s great, I think it’s a great location — I am extremely disappointed and really not happy about the fact that we’re looking to do this before any commercial has been put in,” Walker said.
Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or email@example.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.