Central Issaquah Plan proposes shift from suburban to urban in business district
December 11, 2012
By Warren Kagarise
Issaquah, circa 2040, could sport a skyline.
The central business district is on the cusp of change, as city leaders plan for redevelopment on about 1,000 acres stretched along Interstate 90.
Nowadays, suburban sprawl dominates the landscape — traffic-clogged streets unfurl next to strip malls. Residents live elsewhere and climb into cars to reach the area’s amenities. Underfoot, 75 percent of land in the area is encased under parking lots.
Imagine, instead, buildings up to 125 feet tall, storefronts and residences arranged along tree-lined sidewalks, and perhaps decades in the future, a station on the regional rail network.
The roadmap to the more urban future is the Central Issaquah Plan, a far-reaching guide to development for the area stretched along the interstate from the Bellevue city line to Northeast Gilman Boulevard.
City Council regular meeting
If implemented, guidelines in the plan could reshape the community on a scale larger even than development in the Issaquah Highlands and Talus urban villages throughout the 1990s and 2000s.
The document is poised to reach the City Council for a crucial implantation decision Dec. 17, after planners hosted dozens of meetings, pored over reams of data and undertook countless revisions. The council could decide then to adopt the plan wholesale, or adopt pieces and leave other parts for later consideration and adoption.
“Many times, people seem to view the future as just someplace we’re going to show up in one day,” Councilman Joshua Schaer said. “You have to do things to get to the future. You don’t just one day, all of the sudden, find yourself in 2030 and there will be all these buildings.”
Shift from strip malls to pedestrians
The plan re-envisions the business district as a blend between businesses and residences ringed by a “green necklace” of parks and trails.
Change is not going to occur overnight, and the even the most fervent Central Issaquah Plan proponents said noticeable changes could require years to come to fruition.
The document could act as a guide to a future Issaquah or, as some critics suggest, invite more sprawl to the community, further clog already-congested roads and mar the mountain panorama.
“If we don’t do the plan — if we hadn’t put in this tremendous effort, and we spent a lot of money on it also — if we didn’t do that, we would get more of the same,” Councilman Fred Butler said. “We would get suburban sprawl. We would get strip malls. We would get more impervious surface, just like we’ve had in the past.”
The provision to increase building height to 125 feet in the commercial core — up from 65 feet — attracted scrutiny from the outset. Central Issaquah Plan supporters contend the change in building height rules is not meant to make Issaquah resemble sky-high downtown Bellevue.
“Once the council started moving along with this, they realized that maybe now was the time to turn from our suburban roots to be more small-scale urban — and not to go all the way to Bellevue, to be 18 stories and 20 stories, but to take that middle step, like maybe Mercer Island or Redmond or Kirkland,” said Trish Heinonen, city long-range planning manager and the Central Issaquah Plan point person.
‘It’s not going to happen all at once’
Though the actual public cost is undetermined, the city is expected to pick up the tab for at least some road and infrastructure improvements.
Meanwhile, implementation hinges on interest from developers and, most importantly, a slow-to-catch-fire economic recovery.
“The thing that you have to remember is, it’s not going to happen all at once. This is a 30-year plan,” said Joe Forkner, a former councilman and Central Issaquah Plan Advisory Task Force chairman. “We’re still coming back from one of the worst economic problems that we’ve had in this area in a long time, and I don’t see people coming in in droves wanting to put up 10-story buildings.”
Forkner and other leaders see parking lots transformed into pedestrian-minded neighborhoods as a Central Issaquah Plan hallmark. The metamorphosis could lead to more affordable housing options to attract residents across more ages and income levels than Issaquah does now.
“If they could afford to live in Issaquah, get on public transportation, go to work, come home, walk a block to a grocery store so they didn’t have to rely on their cars, it’d be ideal,” he said.
Still, some decisions — such as extending a light rail line or bus routes to the business district — fall to planners at Sound Transit and King County Metro Transit, and remain beyond city and landowner control.
Councilwoman Stacy Goodman, a leader in the Central Issaquah Plan effort as the Council Land & Shore Committee chairwoman, said the city is responsible for shaping future growth, not developers.
“Growth will occur and development will come and properties will redevelop, so we either guide it or we don’t,” she said.
‘Over time, Issaquah will just do fine’
Critics said implementing the Central Issaquah Plan and encouraging more urban development could undermine the community character and blot out Issaquah Alps vistas — a unique trait for the city.
“There is nothing that is around here that is like that. You will lose that when you get 12-story buildings,” said Connie Marsh, Issaquah Environmental Council president, a business owner along Northwest Gilman Boulevard and a former council candidate.
But city and business leaders said the plan is needed to attract future development to Issaquah, and creating uniform guidelines for developers could give the city a critical edge.
“When a local or a regional property broker picks up the phone when somebody calls and says, ‘Hi, I’m from California or Oregon, and I’m interested in moving my business of 200 high-paying jobs to the Eastside,’ that property broker, who has no allegiance to any particular city, needs to be able to say, ‘Issaquah is ready.’ This plan helps us with that offer,” Issaquah Chamber of Commerce CEO Matthew Bott said.
David Kappler, Issaquah Alps Trails Club president and a former councilman, said the city must balance environmental and economic needs without altering longstanding development rules in the business district.
“When people give that argument, I think they’re discounting how great a place Issaquah is in terms of how close it is to employment, how close it is to the mountains, how we have the creek and the green and all of those things,” he said. “Over time, Issaquah will just do fine, and going out and trying to subsidize developers and corporate welfare — those kinds of things I think are unnecessary.”
Central Issaquah Plan culminates process
The plan aims to change some rules and oversight for developers, but Central Issaquah Plan supporters contend the plan protects the environment, because growth is directed to the business district rather than undeveloped areas.
“It doesn’t mean that people can come in and do anything they please,” Mayor Ava Frisinger said. “I’ve heard that tossed out as a fear that people will be able to do what they please. Well, no, no more than they’ve been able to do what they please in places which already have operated under a planned-action ordinance, such as the Issaquah Highlands.”
The effort to craft the Central Issaquah Plan represents a long effort to plan for the next phase of growth.
In September 2009, Frisinger appointed a 12-member task force — developers, environmentalists, landowners and residents led by Forkner — to draft a proposal for future redevelopment in the business district.
The task force alone spent more than 1,000 hours to produce a detailed plan built around the “green necklace” concept. Forkner’s group delivered a draft proposal in October 2010.
“Before anything happens, before we start talking about density and height and bonuses, we have to have a ring of parks around, or it’s not going to be anyplace anyone is every going to want to be or live or visit or work or anything,” Heinonen said.
Envisioning life in future Issaquah
Though planners and the municipal Planning Policy Commission set aside the more futuristic elements, tenets outlined in the initial draft remain in the plan before the council. Officials dismissed as too far-fetched a task force proposal for a network of pod-shaped people movers.
The proposal from the task force unraveled in places amid the scrutiny.
“I think the task force knew that there wasn’t the money and there wasn’t the real political will to do it the way the task force knew it had to be done,” Forkner said. “It’s frustrating because there’s a lot of things that could make the plan better if you put some of that stuff back in. But that doesn’t mean that the plan isn’t still a good plan.”
The public process to re-envision Central Issaquah started in the late 2000s, as construction started to wane in the highlands and Talus.
In November 2007, city planners asked citizens to use Legos to map density in a future Issaquah. Meeting participants, spread across a dozen tables at Pickering Barn, re-envisioned Issaquah as a Legoland punctuated by green expanses and a dense business district.
‘Make the tough decisions’
Council President Tola Marts said the need to create the Central Issaquah Plan stemmed from past tradeoffs in development-related decisions.
“The character of the city has been evolving for the last 25 years,” he said. “I think that Issaquah has the fiscal stability that it has because we were willing to change what the valley was. We rightfully placed a high emphasis on open space, but we allowed a whole bunch of commercial development to occur in the valley that gives us a very high per capita commercial tax base.”
The initial step to transform the area occurred in December 2011, as the council approved a 30-year agreement between the city and longtime Issaquah developer Rowley Properties to overhaul almost 80 acres and allow buildings up to 150 feet tall on Rowley Properties-owned land in the business district.
Kristi Tripple, Rowley Properties community development executive, said residents should expect a gradual shift as the business district redevelops.
“I think it’s going to change slowly over time and, because you’re moving from a suburban model to semi-urban mixed-use environment,” she said, “I think you’ll see pockets that start to move in the direction of being complete, compact and connected.”
In the meantime, council members continue to scrutinize the Central Issaquah Plan as the Dec. 17 decision date approaches.
“When I’ve talked to some of the council, they’ve said, ‘What’s it going to take?’ and I’ve said, ‘You know, what it’s going to take the most is political will,’” Forkner said. “You’re going to have to make the tough decisions.”