Safeway proposes highlands store, council OKs gas station
October 5, 2011
By Warren Kagarise
NEW — 4 p.m. Oct. 5, 2011
The plan to open a grocery store in the Issaquah Highlands — a still-unmet target from early goals for the community — reached a milestone Monday, as Safeway submitted a proposal for a store in the neighborhood.
Meanwhile, City Council members adjusted longstanding development rules Monday to allow a gas station in the highlands — a critical factor in Safeway’s proposal to build the store.
The debate before the council decision exposed a split among highlands residents eager for more amenities in the community, and residents from elsewhere concerned about potential groundwater contamination from gas station leaks.
In a unanimous decision, council members adjusted the agreement between the city and highlands developer Port Blakely Communities to allow a gas station to accompany a grocery store in the neighborhood. The council also added rules to the development agreement to require a gas station to be built alongside a grocery store.
Safeway applied for a city permit on the same day a representative from the California-based chain addressed the council about the gas station issue.
John Shaw, consulting director of operations for Port Blakely, said the company needed the agreement adjusted to allow gas stations in order to conclude a grocery store deal.
“In several years of trying, as we all know, Port Blakely has come close, but has not landed the grocery store,” he said during a hearing before the council decision. “In our recent conversations with grocers, we have realized that we’re unlikely to attract a grocer in the highlands if the grocer does not have the ability to offer gas.”
Port Blakely executives said neighborhood residents, in a recent survey, ranked a grocery store and a gas station as the most sought-after amenities.
“In the modern world, grocers view the ability to sell gas just like they do the ability to sell bakery goods and meat,” Shaw said at the hearing. “It’s part of the business.”
David Livingston, a national grocery consultant based in Wisconsin, said Safeway and other grocery chains tie gasoline sales to customer-loyalty programs and other offers.
“It certainly does complement the store, and I could see why they would want to do it,” he said. “They’ve obviously found that it works for their business model, but it’s not absolutely necessary. They may need it in that particular situation in order to get their sales forecast.”
Safeway is the No. 2 grocery chain in the United States after Kroger. Safeway operates a store — sans gas station — in the Issaquah Commons shopping center along Northwest Gilman Boulevard.
In the past, Central Market and Whole Foods Market considered and decided against opening highlands stores. Safeway differs from the other chains considered for the neighborhood.
“Safeway has always just been considered the average, plain-vanilla grocery store,” Livingston said. “No matter how much they upgrade their stores — and so does everybody else — they’re still average, plain vanilla.”
The proposed Safeway could anchor a planned retail complex in the highlands.
In July, Port Blakely announced a deal to sell 14 acres for a proposed shopping center to Florida-based Regency Centers. The deal calls for Regency Centers to purchase the land and build a 175,000-square-foot shopping center along Northeast High Street and Northeast Park Drive — a site once set aside for a retail destination called The High Streets. If the transaction is completed, construction could start as early as next year.
Highlands geology poses challenge
The agreement between the city and Port Blakely fills a 4-inch binder. The thick document outlines rules for the highlands and, until Monday, banned a gas station in the neighborhood.
The original pact between city officials and Port Blakely executives prohibited a gas station due to concerns about contamination to the Lower Issaquah Valley Aquifer, a major drinking water source. (The city purchases water for the highlands from the Cascade Water Alliance.)
“That was back in 1995, and what we know today is that the geology in Issaquah Highlands, underneath the surface of Issaquah Highlands, is a lot more complicated than what was described in the environmental documents that were produced for that project,” Keith Niven, city Major Development Review Team program manager, told council members.
The changes in understanding — and updated safety features for underground tanks — prompted officials to rethink the ban.
Officials learned more about highlands geology from a 2004 landslide. Before the landslide, storm water from the highlands entered the ground near the current Swedish/Issaquah hospital campus. Geologists said the site acted as a sort of pipe to down the aquifer.
However, geologists and municipal officials later realized aquatards — impermeable soil layers — caused some storm water to flow horizontally out of the highlands, too, and contributed to the landslide.
Concerns about contamination
Some gas station opponents said, regardless, such a facility in the highlands poses a risk for groundwater contamination.
“This is a complex geology up there,” Cougar Mountain resident Mary Lynch said. “We know that. We’ve had problems with storm water runoff. We still don’t know what caused some of those in the past. We still don’t understand all of our wells.”
Jeff Parker, a Safeway real estate manager, said no major spills occurred at the company’s gas stations. Safeway uses double-walled tanks nestled inside fiberglass cladding, he said. The tanks also include sensors to monitor for leaks.
“These tanks are considered the safest tanks available,” Parker told council members. “Our system monitors those tanks 24/7/365, and gives notification onsite and to our Safeway maintenance department, and is able to provide a quick response.”
Some gas station proponents turned around the environment-related argument on detractors.
“A gas station will reduce air pollution and reduce congestion by eliminating the need for people heading to the highlands to swing off the freeway, go through downtown Issaquah, get gas here and go on up,” Bill Frisinger, Mayor Ava Frisinger’s husband, said at the hearing. “Congestion is a problem and anything that can reduce that ought to be given serious consideration.”
(The mayor only casts a vote on council decisions in order to break a tie.)
Other gas station opponents raised concerns about changes to the agreement between the city and Port Blakely.
“The highlands have more density than was originally planned — and still no grocery store,” said Bryan Weinstein, a downtown Issaquah resident and former council candidate. “The city has been negligent in acquiescing to developer want without keeping in mind well-documented community needs. Our grocery store could have been built years ago if you really insisted on it.”
The discussion came as the latest clash in a long and contentious debate about development in the highlands.
Chris Hawkins, a highlands resident, leveled blunt remarks against people opposed to the gas station.
“You are just inexorably against any kind of progress up in the highlands, whether it’s a shopping center, Microsoft, I mean, you are just against it,” he said. “You lost some sort of political battle back in the mid ’90s and you have been holding development up there hostage ever since.”
Hope for additional construction
The council amended the development agreement in the past to open land for additional development and, in October 2009, to allow Swedish Medical Center to install underground fuel tanks for emergency generators, despite similar concerns about groundwater contamination. (Swedish/Issaquah opened in July 2011.)
The council last considered gas station legislation in December 2009, but Port Blakely executives pulled the bill at the last minute. The earlier proposal — billed in the past as legislation for a high-tech “energy station” — differed from the just-passed legislation, although officials said a highlands gas station could offer ethanol or electric-vehicle charging stations.
Councilwoman Stacy Goodman, a highlands resident, amended the measure to limit a gas station to opening as part of a grocery store.
“I’m not thrilled with a fuel station,” she said before the council decision. “I know a fuel station was not envisioned as part of the Issaquah Highlands urban village, but Issaquah Highlands needs a grocery store. That land up there has been vacant for way too long.”
Councilman Tola Marts said the decision to allow a gas station offered a chance to land a grocery store for the neighborhood.
“I saw a number of instances where Port Blakely and other businesses that they worked with got very close to getting a grocery store, and it always slipped through our fingers,” he said. “I believe that had it been possible for them to get a grocery store in the last two years without a gas station, they would have done so.”