Preservation plan inches ahead, despite outcry from highlands residents
August 17, 2010
By Warren Kagarise
NEW — 10 a.m. Aug. 17, 2010
Despite opposition from Issaquah Highlands residents, City Council members decided Monday night to take steps to add more residences to the community and breathe life into the moribund effort to bring businesses to the hillside neighborhood.
City leaders intend to allow up to 550 more residences in the highlands in order to preserve 102 forested acres on Tiger Mountain near Issaquah High School. The deal, a complicated transfer of development rights, aims to preserve about 140 forested acres — the Park Pointe land and another 43 acres adjacent to the highlands.
The council OK’d the measures in a unanimous decision after members offered a forceful defense of the plan to preserve Park Pointe.
Port Blakely Communities, the developer responsible for the highlands, owns 78 acres in unincorporated King County near Central Park. The proposed transfer calls for Port Blakely to preserve 43 acres and open the remaining 35 acres to construction. The city then intends to annex the 35-acre parcel.
“This is about crafting a very complicated piece of machinery to try to benefit all these neighborhoods, all these parts of the city,” Councilman Joshua Schaer said.
But the proposal has galvanized highlands residents. Fliers encouraging highlands residents to attend appeared on the neighborhood’s communal mailboxes in the days before the council meeting.
Homeowners packed City Hall South to raise concerns about clearing additional land for residences, increased traffic congestion and, especially, potential strains on overcrowded Grand Ridge Elementary School.
“I know it’s nice to save some trees on the other side of town, but my kids’ education is vastly more important than that,” highlands resident Matt Barry said during the 90-minute hearing.
Before the council could decide on amendments to the documents outlining development in the highlands, members listened to statements from 20 people — most of them, like Barry, neighborhood residents opposed to the changes.
Tina Becker, another highlands resident and the parent of a Grand Ridge student, said the school could not handle additional children.
“The playground, for lack of a better example, is like ‘Lord of the Flies,’” she said.
Some highlands residents, like Mary O’Cleary, said the city faced a difficult choice in the opportunity to preserve Tiger Mountain or limit growth in the highlands. But she urged the city to find another solution, and put council members on notice for the 2011 and 2013 elections.
“I’m going to be watching and we’re all going to be watching to see how the votes go,” O’Cleary said.
Councilman Mark Mullet, the only highlands resident on the seven-member council, faced a difficult choice. Mullet — proprietor of Zeeks Pizza and a forthcoming Ben & Jerry’s Scoop Shop in the urban village — said customers, friends, neighbors and even his wife disagreed with his decision to support the amendments.
Mullet said Issaquah School District estimates for future Grand Ridge enrollment assuaged concerns he had about the proposal.
“I feel, if in 2013, that I have been wrong, and that if something were to have happened that were to have really damaged that school, then I think I would be responsible,” he said, referring to the year he is due to face voters.
Council President John Traeger thanked highlands residents for offering input — and recalled the days before the city approved construction of the neighborhood.
“The highlands has always been controversial, from the very beginning,” Traeger said. “If you thought it was a full house tonight, you should have been here when we decided to build the highlands in the first place.”
Port Blakely executive Judd Kirk, a longtime member of the highlands team, said additional residences should help to attract more businesses to the community.
“We’re not losing the vision,” he said. “We would not, for 500 units, do something like this.”
Incentives for business
Kirk and other Port Blakely executives hope updated parking and signage rules approved by the council Monday help make the highlands more attractive to potential tenants.
Under the updated rules, developers can create “interim” parking lots in the neighborhood until 2018. The lots require less landscaping. The city has limited the number of “interim” spaces to 725.
“That number came about based on our understanding of what was needed to get the theater to move forward,” city Major Development Review Team Program Manager Keith Niven said.
The “interim” spaces must be gone or transformed to meet stricter standards by 2020.
Parking has been a stumbling block to building a Regal Cinema since Port Blakely and the chain announced the plan last August.
The rule change also loosened some sign restrictions for highlands businesses. The updated agreement allows for larger letters, sign kiosks and additional signs for businesses facing multiple streets, plazas or other public spaces.
The council referenced the untold hours spent on the rule changes and the transfer of development rights since Mayor Ava Frisinger proposed the plan in late 2008.
Councilwoman Maureen McCarry said Council Major Planning & Growth Committee members spent 75 minutes combing and scouring the amendments at a meeting last week.
City officials and staffers have spent years trying to discourage development at the forested Park Pointe site.
In the mid-1990s, the former Park Pointe developer intended to build a hillside urban village similar to the highlands or Talus. The proposal folded amid public outcry about possible consequences to the environment and surrounding neighborhoods.
The defunct developer, Wellington Park Pointe LLC, collapsed into bankruptcy late last year, and a Seattle bank foreclosed on Park Pointe in March.
“There’s nobody here tonight from Park Pointe. Why?” Schaer said. “Because nobody lives there. And if this progresses the way that the city administration wants it to, there will never be anyone coming here to this City Council from Park Pointe and speaking to us about their community, because there won’t be one.”