Highlands’ future is focus of meeting

February 2, 2010

By Warren Kagarise

Judd Kirk returns to answer questions

Judd Kirk

Port Blakely Communities executives will re-engage Issaquah Highlands residents, as the developer works to answer questions about the community’s future.

The outreach follows a busy year for the highlands developer, when officials broke ground on large-scale projects in the community, and residents grumbled about the highlands’ lack of retail offerings.

Judd Kirk — a Port Blakely senior vice president, the chief real estate strategist and a key player in establishing the vision for the highlands — spearheaded the outreach effort.

Kirk and René Ancinas, the president and chief operating officer of parent company Port Blakely Companies, assumed responsibilities for the highlands after former Port Blakely President Alan Boeker resigned Jan. 15.

Kirk will outline a development strategy for the highlands in meetings with community leaders and residents.

The initial meeting, held Jan. 27, included executives and community leaders. Port Blakely scheduled a Feb. 3 town hall meeting as well.

Kirk will detail the long-running efforts to attract a grocery store and other retailers to the community, and answer residents’ questions about future development.

The recession sidelined a planned Regal movie theater. Initial plans called for the theater to open in May 2011; the soonest crews will break ground for the theater will be this fall. City officials continue reviewing a building permit application for the theater, despite the uncertain timeline. The city also expects to receive a building permit application from the developer of a planned storage facility within the next few weeks.

Meanwhile, Port Blakely and a grocery chain continue the latest deal to bring a grocery store to the highlands. City Major Development Review Team Program Manager Keith Niven said the deal heads — within the next several weeks — to grocery chain executives, who will then decide whether to build in the highlands.

Port Blakely and city officials also drafted a revision to the development agreement between the developer and the city to add a gas station to the highlands. The gas station will be on the docket when Kirk meets with residents.

The developer aims to develop the periphery — the areas along the margins of Highlands Drive Northeast and Ninth Avenue Northeast — in order to encourage further development on the blocks within. The acres of vacant land in the planned commercial core deter potential tenants.

Kirk cited 240 planned residences — including apartments, townhouses and stacked flats — and a proposed gas station at the southern entrance to the highlands, at the fork in Highlands Drive Northeast, as examples of the periphery strategy.

Supporters envision the gas station as a cutting-edge “energy station” with alternative fuels and electric-vehicle charging stations.

The linchpin for future development, however, is the long-promised grocery store. Kirk said talks continue between Port Blakely and a grocery chain.

The developer and city officials remained tight-lipped as negotiations with the latest grocer unfolded. Kirk said certain details must be kept confidential in order not to put Port Blakely at a competitive disadvantage.

“We try not to go public with names of tenants, or be too optimistic about dates, because until they start building the building, it’s not 100 percent. There’s always things that can happen,” Kirk said. “We have to balance that with our desire for transparency for the residents.”

Port Blakely initially pursued specialty grocers after early focus groups with highlands residents indicated a preference for a high-end store.

The developer talked with representatives from Whole Foods, Central Market and the now-defunct Larry’s Market years ago, but a deal failed to materialize.

Kirk noted changes to QFC, Safeway and other mid-range chains, like more high-end food and wine offerings. Industry trends also influenced smaller grocery stores. The changes could make the other grocers a better fit for the highlands, he added.

Niven said a grocery store could help satisfy the highlands residents who complained last year about the pace of development in the neighborhood.

The layout and plan for the highlands would differ if Microsoft had completed a sprawling complex in the community, Kirk said.

Microsoft pulled the plug on a proposed 150-acre campus in the highlands in 2004. After the software giant scaled back plans for the Issaquah complex, the land became available for other uses, like the Swedish Medical Center campus under construction. Dignitaries broke ground on the hospital in October.

Port Blakely banked on the Microsoft campus as the economic engine for the community, and the developer suffered a blow when the tech company changed course and added office space in Redmond instead.

Get involved
Issaquah Highlands town hall
6-7:30 p.m. Feb. 3
Blakely Hall, 2550 N.E. Park Drive
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