Issaquah planners envision opportunity in business district redevelopment

February 12, 2013

By Warren Kagarise

Issaquah leaders, planners and residents spent years on a blueprint to define redevelopment in the business district over the next few decades.

The guidelines approved late last year in the Central Issaquah Plan aim to transform about 1,000 acres along Interstate 90 from strip mall suburbia into a dense urban core in the next 30 years. The plan also increased the building height limit to 125 feet in the commercial core, up from 65 feet.

The change is meant to attract businesses and residents to mixed-use development.

“To some extent, if you build it, they will come — if it looks good and feels good,” said Mary Newsom, associate director, urban and regional affairs, at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute and a former columnist for The Charlotte Observer.

The scenario is not unique to Issaquah, as cities throughout the United States — particularly suburbs — attempt to shift beyond a car-centric past to a future focused more on pedestrians and mass transit. In the existing Issaquah business district, 75 percent of land in the area is paved parking lots.

“The successful suburbs in the future will be the suburbs that do think about how we redesign and redevelop these parking lots,” said Ed McMahon, a senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit research and education organization based in Washington, D.C.

Change is not going to occur overnight, and even Central Issaquah Plan supporters said noticeable changes could require years to come to fruition.

“Just try to imagine a company without a long-range business plan. It would have a very hard time attracting investors or being competitive in the market over time. So, I would simply say, failing to plan simply means planning to fail,” McMahon said. “This is particularly important in the world we live in today, where change is inevitable but progress is optional.”


Future carries urban character

The vision presented in the Central Issaquah Plan could reshape the community on a scale larger even than the construction boom in the Issaquah Highlands and Talus urban villages throughout the 1990s and 2000s.

Planners envision 7,750 residential units in the business district by 2031 — up from about 750 last year — and growth from 13,000 jobs in the area to 19,225 jobs in the same span. 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.

“It really sets the vision or the blueprint for where they’re going and how you want to grow and accommodate that growth,” said Jeff Aken, communities program manager for Forterra, a Seattle-based nonprofit organization focused on conservation and land use issues. “I think it gives them the opportunity to provide certainty for businesses, and start to make the investments in streetscapes and parks that make sense.”

Central Issaquah Plan proponents said the document sends a strong signal to developers and other businesses interested in the community. Critics said the blueprint sets Issaquah on a path to transform into a “baby Bellevue” defined by development too dense and too tall for the landscape.

McMahon said a coherent plan for the future is essential as cities seek to attract businesses and residents in a high-stakes, hypercompetitive environment.

“It used to be that economic development was all about low taxes, cheap gas, low-cost land, low-cost positioning, etc.,” he said. “Now, it’s totally different. It’s like shotgun recruitment.”

Still, officials must navigate a thicket of issues to preserve desirable characteristics and, at the same time, present Issaquah as a city in transition.

“There is no place in the world today that will stay special by accident,” McMahon said. “If you have something that you love about Issaquah, it won’t be there tomorrow by accident. You have to work in the world we live in today what is special and unique about things.”

Other challenges remain before the earliest redevelopment project starts in the Issaquah business district.

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.

Financing is difficult to secure for mixed-use development, especially as the economy emerges from the Great Recession.

“The hard part is getting financing if you’re the developer,” Newsom said. “The planners can say, ‘Let’s have this’ and draw beautiful pictures, but if the developers cannot get financing, it’s not going to happen.”


Opportunity amid parking lots

The parking lots in the Issaquah business district present a development opportunity.

McMahon and Newsom cited the Belmar District redevelopment in Lakewood, Colo., as a reference. Built on a former shopping mall site, developers razed the defunct mall and transformed the site and parking lot in a mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented neighborhood.

“There is no one in America who feels affectionate about strip malls,” McMahon said. “People go to buy what they want and they leave. But people do feel affection toward downtowns.”

Unlike a cookie-cutter strip mall, a downtown offers a sense of place. Consumers tend to spend more time — and more money — if the environment is appealing, McMahon added.

Planners also hope to attract more residents to a part of Issaquah known as a regional retail destination, not a neighborhood.

Central Issaquah Plan proponents said a crucial piece in the transformation is the creation of pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods.

Newsom said the dense development envisioned for the area could attract diverse residents — millennials and baby boomers interested in a big-city feel at a small-town pace.

“A lot of people love high-density neighborhoods, they just don’t think of them as high-density neighborhoods,” such as the packed townhouses of Georgetown in Washington, D.C., due to the quality of design, Newsom said.

Though transit is a key ingredient in any redevelopment in the business district, cars remain in the mix, too.

“Unless you have a really self-contained neighborhood, people who live there are going to have to have a car to drive somewhere, whether it’s to work or to visit their friends,” Newsom said. “The more you can allow people to own fewer cars per household, the better-designed neighborhood you’re going to have.”

The most important step, land-use experts said, is to set design and development rules meant to attract quality development. Otherwise, city officials could repeat mistakes from the parking-lot-and-strip-mall era.

“Communities that set high standards will compete to the top,” McMahon said. “Communities that set low standards or no standards will simply compete to the bottom.”

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