Construction starts on long-awaited Issaquah Highlands retail center

June 26, 2012

By Warren Kagarise

Backhoes from Santana Trucking & Excavating dig Tuesday at the southeast corner of the intersection of Northeast High Street and Highlands Drive Northeast, as construction starts on the Issaquah Highlands retail center. By Greg Farrar

NEW — 11:45 a.m. June 26, 2012

Finally, after years of plans and promises, developers and officials gathered in the Issaquah Highlands early Tuesday to launch construction on a retail center in the neighborhood — a long-awaited amenity for residents and, in recent years, a symbol for the anemic economy and rebound.

Fields ceded to grasses and wildflowers as a difficult economy slowed plans to build a retail center in the neighborhood should transform in the months ahead to accommodate stores, restaurants and a 12-screen multiplex.

The effort to add more retail options to the neighborhood stretches back to the mid-1990s — and leaders from the city, highlands developer Port Blakely Communities and Florida-based retail center developer Regency Centers treated the groundbreaking ceremony as a watershed moment.

“This particular groundbreaking today is one of those great milestones, because it’s a significant portion of land — over 25 acres,” Port Blakely Companies and Port Blakely Communities president and CEO René Ancinas said. “It will be heart and soul of what we know as Issaquah Highlands and also integrate with the broader community of Issaquah and the region.”

The planned retail center, called Grand Ridge Plaza, encompasses 10 blocks and 15 buildings spread across 280,113 square feet. The announced tenants include a Regal Cinemas multiplex, and a Safeway and associated gas station.

Craig Ramey, senior vice president and senior market officer for Jacksonville-based Regency, said the developer could announce additional tenants as early as next month.

In a gesture imbued with symbolism — and relief — Ancinas, Ramey and Mayor Ava Frisinger dug gold-painted shovels into the ground. Moments later, dozens of attendees dipped small plastic shovels into the soil, too.

Construction actually started Monday, as earth-moving equipment graded the land at Northeast High Street and Highlands Drive Northeast for the cinema. Noise from the machinery reverberated in the background as representatives from the developers and the city addressed the crowd.

Moviegoers could catch summer blockbusters at the cinema in about a year. Safeway and other tenants should open late next year.

“We want to have somebody be able to walk down from their house and walk to the shopping center, gather, stay as they like with friends, have a cup of coffee, go grocery shopping,” Ramey said to attendees gathered beneath a tent to block the rain.

The ceremony capped a nearly yearlong process to develop the long-fallow land set aside from a highlands retail center.

Ethan Trenary (left), 5, and René Ancinas, president and CEO of Port Blakely Companies, turn over dirt Tuesday at the retail center groundbreaking ceremony, as highlands resident Doren Spinner lends an umbrella. By Greg Farrar

The public process to build Grand Ridge Plaza started in July 2011, as Port Blakely Communities consultants unveiled the Regency proposal to city officials.

In November, Regency executives sought $3 million in public funds for the project, but dropped the request amid outcry from officials and residents.

Then, in May, the municipal commission responsible for large-scale development in the highlands and Talus OK’d the Grand Ridge Plaza proposal.

Grand Ridge Plaza is the latest retail center proposed for the site.

The approved plan differs from The High Streets, a cluster of residences and shops — a “lifestyle center” and once envisioned for the Grand Ridge Plaza site and scuttled by the recession. Grand Ridge Plaza is a more traditional retail center.

Despite the tepid economic recovery, large retail projects remain rare.

“In the climate that we’ve been in for the last two or years, there really are not a lot of projects of this scale and size that are being undertaken at this time,” Ancinas said.

Construction almost started on The High Streets before the 2008 economic meltdown.

The delays exacted a toll on highlands residents. The tensions came to a head at a community meeting in February 2010 as residents questioned Port Blakely executives about the shifting project timeline.

“I want to make a special thanks to our residents, who have been so incredibly patient with us over the years and understanding during the worst economic recession we’ve had since the Great Depression,” Ancinas said from behind a podium emblazoned with a sign reading “Dig In!” “It’s been a really, really trying time for everybody waiting for the center to get done.”

Issaquah officials sounded upbeat as the project entered the much-anticipated construction phase. The city is due to receive revenue from real estate excise and sales tax related to project.

“It means more options for Issaquah Highlands folks who have waited a long time for their local services,” said Councilwoman Stacy Goodman, a highlands resident.

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