Construction could start on Issaquah Highlands retail center soon
May 8, 2012
By Warren Kagarise
More options to shop and dine in the Issaquah Highlands could open as soon as next year, after a landmark decision by city officials to approve a long-awaited retail complex in the neighborhood.
Regency Centers, a real estate investment trust based in Florida, intends to build the retail complex, dubbed Grand Ridge Plaza, on vacant land along Highlands Drive Northeast between Swedish/Issaquah and the Issaquah Highlands Park & Ride. Construction could start as early as next month.
The decision by the Urban Village Development Commission represents a milestone in the stop-and-go effort to add more retail options in the neighborhood. The commission — a city board to oversee large-scale projects in the highlands and Talus — OK’d the site development permit for Grand Ridge Plaza in a May 1 decision.
In November, Regency officials asked for $3 million in city dollars to proceed, but the developer dropped the request amid opposition from City Council and community members.
The effort to add retail options to the neighborhood stretches back to the mid-1990s and the initial agreement between the city and highlands developer Port Blakely Communities.
“Getting significant retail — as many of you have reminded us over and over again over the years — into Issaquah Highlands is integral to the live, work, play vision that was part of the development agreement,” city Land Development Manager Lucy Sloman said in a presentation to commissioners.
The proposed retail complex morphed throughout the years to reflect the developers involved and the economy.
In the latest iteration, announced tenants include a Regal Cinemas multiplex, and a Safeway and associated gas station.
The proposed Grand Ridge Plaza includes 18.65 acres and encompasses 10 blocks and 15 buildings spread across about 186,000 square feet. The plan is meant to reshape the empty lots divided into a waffle pattern by Highlands Drive Northeast, Northeast Park Drive and other streets.
Keith Niven, longtime Major Development Review Team manager and the next economic development chief for the city, cautioned commissioners about the traffic impact on adjacent streets.
“Traffic is going to get a lot worse than what it is today — it is,” he said. “You drive past 100 vacant acres of land. When all is said and done, Issaquah Highlands will hopefully be built out, and there will be a lot of traffic. It will be like any other urban center.”
Tenant choices remain undefined
Craig Ramey, senior vice president and senior market officer for Jacksonville-based Regency, remained tight-lipped about other tenants, but acknowledged commissioners’ aversion to big-box retailers.
“It’s not our intention to have Walmart or Kmart as part of this project,” he said in a May 1 presentation to commissioners. “It’s not two tenants that we think fit with this development and it’s just not something that we would do.”
Consumers can expect some quick-service food options. Commissioners discussed the addition of drive-thrus during the approval process.
Regal Cinemas intends to open next year. Otherwise, if construction does not start in the months ahead, the theater chain could drop the highlands project.
Safeway plans to open late next year. Ramey expects most tenants to open in 2013.
Despite the close relationship to the overall project, the city approved Safeway and the gas station, and the multiplex, on separate permits earlier in the process. The permit approved May 1 encompasses the rest of the site.
Regency could purchase the blocks for the planned Safeway and associated gas station, and the cinema.
Commissioners asked if the city could determine the type of tenants in Grand Ridge Plaza, but beyond the framework in the initial agreement, the decision is left to the developer.
“However, any company that choses to locate at Issaquah Highlands would have to comply with the development agreement and all of the pedestrian orientation and other aspects that we’ve applied to this permit,” Sloman said.
Plans evolve as highlands develop
Ramey said the approved site development permit allows Regency to offer prospective tenants firm information about the project.
“I have to be able to show them a site plan like the one we’ve put forward to this group, and say, ‘Here’s how your customers will get here. Here’s the curb cuts. Here’s the landscaping. Here’s the parking. Here’s where the trees are. Here’s the parking deck. Here’s the theater. Here’s why we think you’re a great fit,’” he said.
Commissioners scrutinized the proposal April 17 and May 1, listened to comments from citizens at the meetings and then approved the permit.
In the past 24 months, City Council members loosened rules for parking and signage, and set aside groundwater contamination concerns to allow a gas station.
The public process to build Grand Ridge Plaza started in July 2011, as Port Blakely Communities consultants unveiled the Regency deal to commissioners.
Regency later abandoned a plan to straighten Northeast Federal Drive and instead incorporated the existing curved street into the design.
The approved plan differs from the residences and shops once envisioned for the highlands site. The High Streets — a proposed retail complex billed as a “lifestyle center” — sputtered amid the recession.
Commission Chairman Geoffrey Walker, a longtime highlands resident, referenced the early plan before the decision.
“When we saw the town center — the first one — we saw a flyover view of it and an electronic version of that. That was all really cool stuff, but I don’t know that I ever believed that that was going to get built that way. I would have liked it and it would have been nice,” he said. “I do believe that if this was the first thing that was brought to us, we’d all be very, very excited about it. I am very excited about it as we see it today.”
Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.