Development Commission halts planned highlands residences

December 22, 2009

By Warren Kagarise

Answers demanded about commercial development

Officials halted plans to build a proposed Issaquah Highlands residential complex last week, after city development commissioners complained about the pace of retail development in the highlands.

The decision forces a showdown between the Urban Village Development Commission and highlands developer Port Blakely Communities.

A proposal to add 240 units — including apartments, townhouses and stacked flats — on 9.5 acres in the highlands prompted questions about the balance between residential and commercial property in the hillside community. Though Urban Village Development Commission members praised the design, the commission halted the project to deliver a message to Port Blakely.

The commission, formed to oversee major projects in the highlands and Talus, heard from several citizen activists and highlands residents before the Dec. 15 decision. Commissioners did not deny a site development permit for the project. Instead, the commission indefinitely delayed a decision on the permit application.

Commissioner Nina Milligan acknowledged the odd situation the residential developer, Bellevue-based Devco, faced as a result of the delay.

“I like the proposal the developer has brought, and it’s unfortunate that they’re in the middle of a little bit of a feud here,” she said.

The proposed residences will return to the commission Jan. 5, when commissioners can approve or deny the application. If the commission cannot reach a decision, the matter goes to city Hearing Examiner Ted Hunter.

City Major Development Review Team Manager Keith Niven said the hearing examiner would read the staff report on the Devco proposal and watch the commission meetings related to the project. Then, Hunter will make a decision.

Although the highlands include several restaurants, shops and offices, residents said the reality differed from the vision offered by Port Blakely more than a decade ago.

Matt Barry moved to the highlands when the community was new. He described the wait for additional commercial offerings as frustrating.

“You had a vision when you moved in of an urban village and we received promises — maybe a judge wouldn’t find Port Blakely having made any strong promises in writing — but I think we all know that we were given some promises,” he said.

Barry referenced the previous Urban Village Development Commission meeting, where Chairman Geoffrey Walker said he was “ticked off” by the proposal to add residences to the highlands before additional commercial space.

“It’s very frustrating and I do not think Port Blakely has horns coming out of its head. I do not think it’s the personification of evil,” Barry said. “I’m sure they want to get this done and move on, and I’m sure they don’t want to see any more headlines with the chair saying how he’s ticked off. Having said that, enough is enough. Ten years we’ve been waiting.”

Before commissioners decided to postpone the residential project, Port Blakely representative Irma Doré said she would relay residents’ comments from the meeting.

“The message has been clearly conveyed back to Port Blakely,” she said.

Walker also prodded city officials to complete the urban village concept for the highlands, envisioned as a neighborhood with homes, offices and shops built together. He credited Port Blakely for some accomplishments, but faulted the developer for the commercial component in the highlands.

“Everyone was hoodwinked, in this case — real estate agents, people who wanted to build commercial and retail properties,” Walker said.

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