City OKs buildings up to 125 feet tall in business district
December 25, 2012
By Warren Kagarise
Redevelopment plan calls for more than 7,000 residences
City leaders raised the building height limit to 125 feet in the business district and raised the stakes for redevelopment in the decades ahead.
The roadmap to redevelopment — a document called the Central Issaquah Plan — also creates a framework to add more than 7,000 residences on about 1,000 acres stretched along Interstate 90.
In a series of decisions reached Dec. 17 after years spent re-envisioning the business district, a relieved City Council adopted the Central Issaquah Plan, but delayed action on a key piece until at least April.
“It’s the right plan at the right time,” Councilman Fred Butler said. “It will not happen overnight, but when the time is right, we will be ready.”
Officials said the document offers a guide to transform the area from strip mall suburbia into a dense urban core in the next 30 years. Critics derided the plan as a step to remake the city as a “baby Bellevue” and undermine Issaquah’s character.
The process to adopt the Central Issaquah Plan started in the late 2000s, even as construction boomed in the Issaquah Highlands and Talus urban villages. The document is meant to re-envision development in the business district for the next 30 years.
Sources: City of Issaquah, The Issaquah Press archives
The existing business district includes regional retail destinations — Pickering Place, and the Meadows and Issaquah Commons shopping centers — but 75 percent of land in the area is paved parking lots.
If implemented, guidelines in the Central Issaquah 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.
Cost to public is uncertain
The document sets Issaquah on a path to add a regional growth center designation to the business district. Issaquah needs to add dense development and meet other benchmarks to qualify for transit funds in the future.
Planners envision 7,750 residential units in the business district by 2031 — up from about 750 now — and growth from 13,000 jobs in the area to 19,225 jobs. Under growth targets set by the state, Issaquah is expected to add at least 5,750 residential units and 20,000 jobs citywide by 2031.
“If we want to see mixed-use, modern development, we need density and maybe even a little more height,” Councilman Joshua Schaer said.
The regional growth centers receive higher priority for state and federal funding in order to connect the regional hubs, but transportation funding is increasingly scarce due to the fragile economy and the belt-tightening political climates in Olympia and Washington, D.C.
The total public investment for eventual improvements to roads and other infrastructure in the business district is undefined, although the city is expected to shoulder some costs and pass others on to developers.
“I think there were some legitimate issues raised from residents of the community about how you’re going to fund the infrastructure improvements,” Councilman Mark Mullet said. “I think if you don’t have the center designation, I think getting those grants to actually fund the infrastructure investments is going to be next to impossible.”
(In addition to serving on the council, Mullet, a Democrat, is also the state senator for the 5th Legislative District, and plans to resign from the council next month.)
Criteria set by the regional planning authority require such a center to accommodate businesses and residences, incorporate features for mass transit, pedestrians and bicyclists. The standards also call for a compact footprint and smaller blocks meant to entice pedestrians.
‘Send a strong message to the market’
The council called city leaders to reach out to King County Metro Transit, Sound Transit and the Puget Sound Regional Council — the planning authority for King, Kitsap, Pierce and Snohomish counties — as Issaquah applies for a regional growth center designation.
Decisions, such as extending a light rail line to Issaquah or bus routes in the business district, fall to planners at Sound Transit and King County Metro Transit, not the city.
“What agencies have more to do and to say with whether or not we achieve those — and therefore potentially achieve the true vision and goals of the whole plan — than PSRC and the transportation agencies?” Councilman Paul Winterstein said.
Leaders at the Issaquah Chamber of Commerce and Forterra, a Seattle-based conservation group, support the regional growth center designation.
But the city Planning Policy Commission, a growth advisory group comprised of residents, balked at the proposal. Though the commission recommended for the council to adopt the Central Issaquah Plan, members questioned the need to include a regional center designation.
Connie Marsh, Issaquah Environmental Council president, a business owner along Northwest Gilman Boulevard and a former council candidate, said the designation creates unrealistic targets for growth.
“I would prefer to actually have a Central Issaquah Plan that we could do in 30 years as our plan,” she told the council. “I think this is an 80-year plan, and I would like to cut it shorter to something that we actually could grasp and achieve. Halfway through it, we could revisit and say, ‘OK, well now we’re getting a little further, let’s increase our vision.’”
Issaquah Chamber of Commerce CEO Matthew Bott said adopting the Central Issaquah Plan as-is bolstered the city’s reputation to potential businesses.
“In the short term, it will send a strong message to the market, to regional property brokers and potential new businesses that Issaquah is in a position for them to invest in,” he told the council.
Height elicits comparisons to Bellevue
Officials held off on another complicated component in the Central Issaquah Plan — a decision about design and development standards, or the rules for buildings, community spaces, landscaping, signage and more. The council is likely to reconsider the design and development standards April 1.
“It is my hope that this vision will indeed be fulfilled in the decades ahead, that the plan provides for the proper mix of regulations, incentives and flexibility to achieve this vision,” Janet Wall, a longtime local environmentalist, told the council. “But I also agree with the proposed delay to go over some of the details of the design and development standards. It’s worth the extra time and effort to ensure that we get it right.”
The provision to increase building height to 125 feet in the commercial core — up from 65 feet — attracted the most scrutiny from opponents and elicited comparisons to Bellevue. The height limit for buildings in downtown Bellevue is 450 feet.
The initial step to transform the business district started late last year, 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.
Skeptics suggested 10-story buildings in the business district could mar the Issaquah Alps panorama.
Winterstein cited the intersection of Northwest Maple Street and 12th Avenue Northwest to illustrate changes outlined in the Central Issaquah Plan.
“People express angst about taller buildings that block the view and about like becoming too much like Bellevue,” he said. “Well, the buildings that could be built in the vicinity of 12th and Maple would be about a third of the height of the towers in Bellevue. Plus, our code ensures that there will be adequate spacing between them, specifically so the views of the hills and mountains are preserved.”