In major development decision, city OKs buildings up to 150 feet in business district
December 22, 2011
By Warren Kagarise
NEW — 9:30 p.m. Dec. 22, 2011
Tall buildings could someday punctuate the skyline in the modest business district along state Route 900, after city leaders created a framework Monday to transform acre upon acre blanketed in storage units, low-slung office buildings and automotive service centers into a dense neighborhood for shops and homes.
In a landmark decision, City Council members approved a 30-year agreement between the city and longtime Issaquah developer Rowley Properties to overhaul almost 80 acres in the coming decades. The council agreed to allow buildings up to 150 feet tall and mixed-use development on up to 4.4 million square feet in Hyla Crossing and Rowley Center — parcels along Interstate 90 and state Route 900.
The landowner, in turn, is required to pay for transportation upgrades, affordable housing construction, Tibbetts Creek restoration efforts and storm-water system improvements.
Leaders said the potential for change on Hyla Crossing and Rowley Center offers a rare opportunity to reshape Issaquah as the city readjusts after a decadelong population boom.
“If the last decade was about filling the city, then the next decade needs to be about bringing the jobs and services that those residents require,” Councilman Tola Marts said before the unanimous council decision. “The plain fact is, the people who live here can’t work here, and the people who work here can’t afford to live here.”
The city is squeezed among the Issaquah Alps and Lake Sammamish and, project supporters said, unless redevelopment occurs in the business district along the interstate, more sprawl is inevitable elsewhere.
Officials said Rowley Properties — among the largest landowners in the business district — is in a position to consider a long-term plan to reshape a significant piece in the area. The city is in the midst of a parallel effort to define redevelopment in 915-acre Central Issaquah. The agreement to redevelop the Rowley Properties land is seen as critical to the broader redevelopment push.
Still, details about how the redevelopment could proceed remain difficult to predict — and Rowley Properties Chairman Skip Rowley acknowledged such uncertainties before the council decision.
“There’s no way of saying when this is going to be,” he said. “I can tell you that it’s going to take a long time.”
Or, officials and executives said, the ambitious plan to remake the area into a high-rise cluster could come up short.
“If we’re all wrong and the market rejects the vision, what’s the worst that happens?” Marts said. “The valley doesn’t change — 30 years from now it looks a lot like it does today. There’s nothing onerous in this agreement. The Rowleys aren’t looking for a tire-recycling center or a spent nuclear fuel storage facility, but if it works, it will transform the valley.”
Rowley Properties executives agreed to undergo a project overview every seven years throughout the pact’s 30-year span. The addition to the development agreement came after community members raised concerns about oversight.
Though the agreement outlines certain responsibilities for Rowley Properties, some decisions — such as extending a light rail line or bus routes to the property — is left to planners at Sound Transit and King County Metro Transit and beyond city and landowner control.
“This is not a perfect document, but it is the culmination of a negotiated process where a lot of different people with interests gave a little bit to get us where we are,” Councilman Fred Butler said.
The council praised the agreement, but members recognized opponents’ concerns about possible traffic congestion, spoiled mountain panoramas and Tibbetts Creek pollution.
“How are people going to get from this development over to transit center when there’s so much traffic to cross?” Issaquah Environmental Council member Barbara Shelton asked council members. “How are little old ladies in wheelchairs going to get across SR 900?”
The dense construction emphasized in the agreement is meant to limit sprawl. In 2005, the then-Cascade Land Conservancy established the Cascade Agenda — a long-range planning effort designed to reduce unchecked growth and encourage denser development in the region. Issaquah, as a Cascade Agenda Leadership City, attempts to cluster construction near existing roads and other infrastructure.
Janet Wall, a prominent environmentalist and advocate for creek conservation, raised concerns about construction near Tibbetts Creek, because “the Cascade Agenda isn’t only about building dense, walkable communities where public transit is feasible. In return for building density and cluster developments, it’s also important to protect natural resources and prevent sprawl.”
The development agreement requires 100 feet for a buffer between the creek and construction, but environmentalists’ concerns remain.
Connie Marsh, a longtime community activist, used the stop-and-go efforts to build more retail offerings in the Issaquah Highlands as a cautionary tale about a developer unable to meet expectations.
“We are sitting here now looking at the Issaquah Highlands, as you all know, and their commercial area, where we were expecting an urban village and what seems to be coming to fruition is another strip mall,” she said. “We have done this before. I think we need to learn that you need enough structure in your agreement to get to the place where you want to go.”
Rowley bristled at the criticisms leveled at the company since Rowley Properties and city planners announced the bold effort in April 2010.
“We were taking a piece of property that had been developed, and we were going to redevelop into something that the city of Issaquah could feel proud of,” he said. “For the people from the outside looking in at these negotiations, you would have thought that what we were doing was raping the earth. I have never been so chastised by people, looked upon as the scum of the earth by people, as I have in going through this process.”
City Major Development Review Team Manager Keith Niven led the negotiations between the city and Rowley Properties — a process shaped by the development agreements for the highlands and Talus urban villages.
“Yet the city staff and my staff knew where they were going and what they could do, and thanks to the other development agreements, how those things would most likely work out,” Rowley said.
Kari Magill, Rowley Properties CEO and Skip Rowley’s daughter, said the developer needed a flexible agreement to shepherd the project to completion.
“There aren’t a lot of people who own 78 acres on the valley floor in Issaquah that are ready for redevelopment, so I think you have some basis for having a unique precedent,” she told council members.
The decision Monday capped a yearslong process encompassing Rowley Properties executives, community members, and municipal elected officials, planners and commissioners.
The council opened a public hearing Nov. 21 and, after listening to project supporters and opponents, continued the hearing Monday.
Throughout the process, supporters outnumbered opponents. Proponents emphasized the Rowleys’ long history in Issaquah and contributions to the city, such as a successful effort in the 1990s to build the Issaquah Community Center.
Suzanne Suther, a former Issaquah Chamber of Commerce executive director, told council members said “the Issaquah community has had the enviable good fortune to become the beneficiary of the Rowley family’s generosity, leadership and devotion to civic responsibility” since Skip Rowley inherited the company from his father, George Rowley Sr.
Former City Administrator Leon Kos recalled urging Skip Rowley to consider a long-term redevelopment on Hyla Crossing and Rowley Center.
“We knew that the I-90 corridor was going to redevelop, and it was important that the Rowleys were in a position to redevelop their property,” he told council members at the November hearing. “They could set the tone for the I-90 and set an example for how we could implement the Cascade Agenda in the city of Issaquah and create a livable community.”
Comments about inevitable growth — and the policies city officials can enact to define such construction — dominated the discussion before the council decision.
“Issaquah is going to grow,” Issaquah resident Robin Buekers said. “The question is, will it grow in a way that you all like or will it not?”
The arduous process ended in applause from audience members packed into the Council Chambers at City Hall South — and a confident statement about the future.
“In the end, I have no idea what will happen after tonight, but I do hope that whatever this redevelopment looks like is something never before seen in this region — positive for the environment, forward-thinking for technology and shows why Issaquah is a leader for so many things on the Eastside,” Councilman Joshua Schaer said. “So, I’m going to take a leap of faith on this idea. I only ask the following: don’t make it Seattle, don’t make it Bellevue and, in fact, don’t make it anywhere else than the city we live in and love.”