Bellevue College eyes Issaquah Highlands for campus
August 31, 2010
By Warren Kagarise
Bellevue College is interested in buying 20 acres in the Issaquah Highlands for a potential extension campus, the college president announced last week — days after the City Council opened the land under consideration to denser development.
The announcement kicks off a comprehensive review by Bellevue College leaders. The college — the third-largest educational institution in the state — intends to determine how the site could suit long-term needs.
“Our main campus is reaching the limit of how much we can expand our classroom space,” college President Jean Floten said in a statement. “If we don’t take action now, we could easily end up boxed in by our own property boundaries, not to mention the growing traffic congestion all around us. We need to be able to keep expanding with the community.”
Estimates for the campus size, the projected student body or how the project could impact density in the highlands remain undefined.
The college has no plans to relocate operations from the Bellevue campus and — despite preliminary discussions between college leaders and Snoqualmie officials — has not outlined other plans to expand elsewhere in East King County.
Port Blakely Communities, the developer behind the highlands, owns the 20-acre parcel under consideration.
“This also is the best time for 10 years, at least, to acquire land at a good price and in an excellent location,” Floten said. “Importantly, it affords freeway access for those coming west and east and is close to the Highway 18 exchange.”
The site could also put a campus in close proximity to a Swedish Medical Center complex scheduled to open in phases in 2011 and 2012, plus a King County Metro Transit hub.
If the property meets “due diligence requirements for purchase, we would acquire it with funds we have saved for this purpose for over a decade,” Floten said. “There is no state appropriation for this acquisition, and any site development wouldn’t occur for a couple of years.”
The property under consideration is a piece in a complicated land deal meant to preserve about 140 forested acres — 102 acres on Tiger Mountain and another 43 acres adjacent to the highlands.
Under the agreement, up to 550 additional residences could be built on 35 acres near the highlands. The land under consideration by Bellevue College is part of the 35-acre parcel.
The current zoning for the unincorporated King County land allows institutional uses, such as schools, churches and college campuses. The city could annex the parcel if the property owner requests for the city line to be redrawn.
Port Blakely executive Judd Kirk — a member of the highlands team — said questions remain about how a campus could impact traffic in the neighborhood, but he praised the proposal as a potential boon.
“I think having a use like that would be a benefit to Issaquah Highlands and the city as long as we understand all of the impacts,” he said.
Mayor Ava Frisinger said she hoped for the Bellevue College announcement to help allay concerns from highlands residents uneasy about added density in their neighborhood.
Before the City Council opened the land to denser development in a unanimous decision Aug. 16, members heard from about 20 people — most of them highlands residents opposed to the deal.
Frisinger said city leaders stepped up efforts to attract a college campus after a 2005 city-commissioned economic vitality report recommended a campus for Issaquah.
“This is something that we have hoped for for a very long time throughout the city,” she said.
Keith Watts, a downtown property owner and member of the 2005 economic vitality task force, said a college campus could make Issaquah more appealing to businesses.
Businesses also may not need to conduct broad searches for employees if a campus opens in Issaquah.
“Having that labor supply there so they don’t have to recruit as hard or work as hard to fill turnover can make a difference,” city Economic Development Manager Dan Trimble said.
Only the University of Washington and Washington State University outrank Bellevue College in size. The institution serves about 35,000 students each year.
Floten noted the proximity of the highlands site to the Swedish campus and other medical offices could mean partnership opportunities for the college’s health care programs.
Other potential draws: the under-construction YWCA Family Village at Issaquah, Grand Ridge Elementary School and access to mass transit.
The features “present the potential for developing innovative programs,” Floten said. “In all, this is a great location.”
Cathy MacCaul, associate director of community affairs for the local YWCA, said the nonprofit organization and Bellevue College held discussions about 18 months ago about potential partnerships.
YWCA Family Village at Issaquah is due to add about 400 residents to the neighborhood by late next year. The affordable-housing complex could be a source of students for a college campus, MacCaul said. The proximity could be a bonus, too.
“If those resources are closer, I think that removes one of the barriers,” she added.
Dan Dixon, Swedish vice president for external affairs, said Bellevue College helped meet a demand for nurses and medical-imaging technicians. The college, he added, has been nimble in responding to market needs, especially in the health care field.
The highlands’ proximity to Interstate 90 is also a draw, he said. Dixon credited Floten for considering a location near the planned Swedish campus. The hospital should employ at least 1,000 people after the final phase opens in 2012.
“Jean has had an interest in expanding the college services east, and the highlands are one of the best places you can develop,” he said.