Issaquah tragedies, triumphs define a tumultuous year

December 28, 2010

By Warren Kagarise

Traffic lines up on state Route 900 at Northwest Talus Drive in February. State Department of Transportation crews completed the long-running project in 2010. By Greg Farrar

The economy lurched from the recession, population growth all but stalled and Issaquah — after cutbacks and setbacks in 2009 — defied the odds to reach major milestones throughout 2010.

Momentum returned in 2010 after a year spent in a holding pattern. Set against the backdrop of a fragile recovery, leaders cut the ribbon on businesses and roads, laid the foundation for preservation and construction, and marked tragedies and successes.

Lethal shootings shatter summer night

Lake Sammamish State Park attracted a crowd to the lakeshore for cookouts and celebrations July 17, a sun-splashed Saturday.

The summer rituals started to end at about 9 p.m. — just as dusk settled across the 512-acre park and closing time neared. Suddenly, gunshots echoed across the lakefront.

“Then, all hell broke loose,” King County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Sgt. John Urquhart said the day after the gunfight.

By the time the shooting stopped, a 30-year-old Seattle man, Justin Cunningham, and a 33-year-old Kent man, Yang Keovongphet, lay dead in the grass at a picnic area. The shootout left three other people injured.

The shootout stemmed from a dispute between rival groups picnicking in the park, about 200 feet apart near Tibbetts Beach. Investigators said numerous people in both groups had gang connections, and many had toted guns to the crowded park.

Police later arrested a cousin of the slain Kent man for unlawful weapons possession. The slain man’s widow told investigators she had seen the cousin fire a gun into the air during the shootout — a claim the man denied.

The sheriff’s office has not made any other arrests in the case. The investigation must be completed before the case can be sent to prosecutors.

Up next: Washington State Patrol Crime Lab technicians continue to analyze ballistics and DNA evidence from the shootout.

Questions linger after coho disappearing act

Issaquah Salmon Hatchery staffers and docents faced a mystery.

The coho salmon return — usually about 30,000 strong — diminished to a trickle. The coho count at the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks in Ballard barely crested 3,600 fish.

Teams at the Issaquah hatchery trapped fewer than 500 coho throughout the fall. The number represents a fraction of the fish the hatchery spawns during a normal coho run.

The shortfall meant the hatchery needed to truck in coho eggs from a Sultan hatchery in order to meet the 1.2 million-egg goal for the year. The small coho salmon run left the hatchery about 750,000 eggs short.

The hatchery distributes about 500,000 eggs to cooperatives and about 20,000 eggs to schools, so students can study juvenile fish.

In the absence of coho, theories abounded.

Perhaps poor ocean conditions related to temperature or oxygen levels impacted the salmon species. Or maybe predation, or a lack of food sources, led to the decline.

Up next: State fish biologists and Issaquah hatchery staffers remain optimistic for improved conditions for coho in the year ahead.

Road projects mean a smoother ride

The trip through Issaquah might be smoother in the year ahead, due to a series of transportation projects completed throughout 2010.

State Department of Transportation and municipal projects led to more lanes on state Route 900, a sizeable roundabout near the Issaquah-Sammamish line, a smoother route to Interstate 90 and another link between north and south Issaquah. King County crews also opened a modern May Creek Bridge to replace a 60-year-old span.

The long-planned interstate undercrossing — or Fourth Avenue Northwest — links bustling Northwest Gilman Boulevard to East Lake Sammamish Parkway Southeast and Southeast 56th Street. Crews completed the link in December after years of debate and delays.

In November, state crews finished a long-planned upgrade to the East Sunset Way approach to the interstate. The under-budget and on-schedule project replaced cramped lanes and a white-knuckle turn.

The effort to widen state Route 900 lasted for years, but drivers noticed a payoff in April as the additional lanes opened to traffic. Crews widened the road from Newport Way Northwest to Northwest Talus Drive and Southeast 82nd Street.

The city opened a roundabout at Southeast 43rd Way and East Lake Sammamish Parkway Southeast in November 2009, but inclement conditions delayed completion until the following spring.

Up next: Scarce funds prompted the city to scale back big-ticket road projects in 2011 and focus instead on street upgrades.

Economic momentum — and a holding pattern

The anemic economy received a boost in Issaquah, as retail businesses opened and long-anticipated office buildings greeted tenants.

The year included the arrival of national chains — Best Buy, 24 Hour Fitness, Sports Authority — plus the addition of independent restaurants and office space.

The “green” Rainier North building opened downtown and so did the LEED-certified Highmark Medical Center — medical officers spread across three floors and 46,000 square feet at Northwest Maple Street and state Route 900.

The boomlet did not reach every neighborhood. Issaquah Highlands residents continued to complain about a lack of retail options. Construction on the proposed cinema and grocery store failed to materialize in the hillside neighborhood.

Officials hope the future could be brighter. The construction of a Swedish Medical Center campus and YWCA residential units in the highlands could lure other businesses to the area.

City leaders credited some of the success to a decision to roll back impact fees for businesses. The city earmarked $1.58 million to offset the fee and extended the exemption until March 2011.

Up next: The initial phase of the Swedish campus — a medical office building and outpatient center — is due to open in mid-2011.

Longtime City Administrator Leon Kos retires

Leon Kos, for good or ill, shaped Issaquah and steered the city through a population boom during 33 years as city administrator, the No. 2 spot at City Hall.

Issaquah ballooned by more than 22,000 residents in the years after Kos started in 1977. The city claimed about 27,000 residents by the time the administrator retired in April 2010.

The savvy Kos practiced realpolitik, and reached out to builders and conservationists to foster construction and preservation. Colleagues said the approach produced more successes than failures.

The retirement launched a monthslong search for Kos’ successor. In the end, Mayor Ava Frisinger hired Bob Harrison — the city manager in Wyoming, Ohio, for a dozen years — for the post. The then-candidate cited a fondness for the outdoors and a commitment to environmental sustainability as additional reasons for applying for the Issaquah post.

Up next: Leaders continue some of the numerous projects Kos shepherded through the city bureaucracy, including the effort to preserve Park Pointe.

Bellevue College enters Park Pointe preservation deal

Bellevue College could construct a campus in the Issaquah Highlands, dozens of homes could be built nearby and Park Pointe — a slice of Tiger Mountain — could be preserved in the coming years.

If the complicated process – called a transfer of development rights — succeeds, 102 forested acres at Park Pointe and another 43 rural acres near the highlands should be preserved. In addition, a college campus and homes could be built on 35 acres in the highlands.

The long process to preserve Park Pointe progressed in the latter half of the year, as the City Council and King County Council approved agreements crucial to the project.

The city launched the effort to preserve Park Pointe through a transfer of development rights in 2008, but the project stalled amid financial problems for the landowner.

The defunct landowner, Wellington Park Pointe LLC, entered bankruptcy late last year, and a Seattle bank foreclosed on Park Pointe in March.

Up next: The city has announced a timeline to complete the transfer of development rights process and preserve Park Pointe in early 2011.

Issaquah schools mark bittersweet milestones

Issaquah High School started the year on a sleek campus after months of construction, freshmen returned to the campus and to Skyline High School, and eco-friendly Creekside Elementary School opened.

The milestones offered a respite for Issaquah School District officials facing deep cuts — and the prospect of more reductions — from the state.

The district also faced challenges on campuses. Numerous schools faced sanctions for failing to meet student-achievement standards outlined in the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The state requires students in the Issaquah district and across the Evergreen State to complete standardized tests to measure progress. Students in third through eighth grades faced the Measurements of Student Progress. Sophomores completed the High School Proficiency Exam.

The scores for students in several categories failed to measure up, prompting the district to open alternate schools to students zoned for under-achieving campuses.

Up next: No Child Left Behind requires sanctioned schools to demonstrate their improvement. Otherwise, the schools could face additional corrective action.

Klahanie residents fight to protect park

The tug-of-war for Klahanie Park pitted Klahanie residents against Sammamish leaders, as Issaquah officials attempted to sort out the disagreement.

The dispute started in August 2009, after then-County Executive Kurt Triplett announced a plan to close Klahanie Park and 38 others in order to cut costs.

The prospect frustrated residents and city leaders in Issaquah and Sammamish for months in early 2010.

The county had requested offers from sports groups and volunteer organizations to consider the targeted parks. Klahanie Park failed to attract anyone aside from Sammamish and the neighborhood homeowners group.

Klahanie sits in unincorporated King County. The neighborhood borders Issaquah and Sammamish, but only Issaquah can annex the area unless both cities rewrite long-term growth plans.

Sammamish leaders considered adding the park to the municipal parks system, but the City Council backed off after Klahanie residents protested the proposal. In the spring, the county instead turned to the Issaquah Soccer Club as a potential partner for the park.

Up next: The county Department of Natural Resources and Parks and a potential partner continue negotiations to transfer ownership.

Balmy winter starts year of weird weather

From a toastier-than-usual winter to a condensed summer to a pre-Thanksgiving snowstorm, confusing weather left Western Washington residents unsure about whether to reach for the galoshes or the sandals.

January and February temperatures hovered between three and six degrees higher than normal.

Throughout May and June, the mercury remained one to three degrees less than normal. The temperature at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport — the official recording site for the Seattle area — did not reach 75 degrees until June 23 — the latest date on record.

The late-to-arrive summer included intense heat in July and August. Temperatures reached the 90s in both months, prompting officials to remind residents to take precautions.

Fall meant a return to the soggy season until November. The drier-than-normal month also meant a dramatic fluctuation in temperatures. Snow blanketed the region — and snarled roads and transit systems — less than a week before Thanksgiving.

Issaquah Creek flooded in early December, as a Pineapple Express system barreled in from the Pacific Ocean. Officials used the storm to remind residents to prepare for La Niña conditions — or greater-than-normal precipitation throughout the winter.

Up next: City and King County emergency planners continue to update plans for extreme weather and natural disasters.

Village Theatre continues electric run

The glare from the Great White Way reached Issaquah throughout the year, as shows nurtured at Village Theatre hauled in honors.

The electric run continued for Issaquah High School alumnus Brian Yorkey, a former associate artistic director at the downtown Issaquah theater.

The rock musical “Next to Normal” — a dysfunctional-family-drama about a bipolar-disorder-afflicted housewife — earned Yorkey and composer Tom Kitt the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, a rarity for musicals.

“Next to Normal” originated at Village Theatre in 2002 as “Feeling Electric” and, after a long gestation, opened on Broadway in April 2009. The production cleaned up at the Tony Awards last year, including writing honors for Yorkey.

The other Village Theatre production on Broadway — jukebox musical “Million Dollar Quartet” — garnered multiple Tony nods and a statuette for actor Levi Kreis.

The based-on-a-true-story production recounts a legendary jam session. Kreis originated the piano-pounding portrayal of rocker Jerry Lee Lewis at Village Theatre.

The musicals originated at the 97-year-old First Stage Theatre.

Crews razed the theater in July and started construction on a building to house the original musical program and other bread-and-butter staples, including a popular education program for children and teenagers. The rebuilt First Stage Theatre is scheduled to open in the spring.

Up next: The national tour of “Next to Normal” reaches The 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle in February.

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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