February 21, 2014
By Peter Clark
How will the central district look in 30 years?
Since before the City Council passed the Central Issaquah Plan in late 2012, citizens have been wondering what the city will look like in 30 years.
“You’re standing in a great pedestrian area,” Issaquah Long Range Planner Trish Heinonen said, describing the average block according to the plan. “It will be very busy with walking people and people having lunch. And wherever you are standing, you can probably see a way to get to the green necklace.”
As a vision for how to cultivate a dense, urban space within the central area and redevelop the flat lots into sustainable, walkable parcels, the Central Issaquah Plan has remained vague beyond the expressed desire to create a vivid environment with a “green necklace” of parks and open spaces around the city and an interlaced connection of walkways and bike paths to reach them.
Developers who build in the area will largely determine the future appearance of the long-term plan. However, the City Council passed design standards for the Central Issaquah Plan in April 2012, which further cemented how the vision would take physical shape.
“The streets will be gathering spaces,” Senior Planner Christen Leeson said. “Sidewalks are wide, and there will be landscaping between sidewalks and the street to make people feel safe. Signage and lighting are just geared for promoting protection. They will also be covered for rain.”
Equipped with binders full of the plan’s history and the passed design standards, Heinonen and Leeson have been with the city through most of the time it took to take it from an idea to an established strategy. While they agreed it would be the developers who truly would shape how the city would look in exact terms, they could give an outline for Issaquah’s future.
Essentially, planners and the City Council hope to create a vibrant, bustling central area where surface parking lots are replaced with mixed-use buildings, green space and pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods.
Heinonen stipulated that the city expects buildings to stand at least five stories high. The passed development standards imposed a maximum height limit of 125 feet or roughly 10 stories. Additionally, high-rise buildings taller than 10 stories must have a 110-foot separation between them in order to preserve views.
The planners expect a sharp increase in residential development for the area and hope that will impact Issaquah’s traffic woes.
“The big push for the plan was to get housing,” Heinonen said. Through housing and creating more jobs from the increased retail space, the plan aims to transform Issaquah from a bedroom community into a denser, urban center. “There’s a flip with transportation problems. It’ll be safer and more alive.”
She said the geography of the land fell in line with that goal of promoting more local transportation.
“It’s the flattest area of our city,” Heinonen said. “If we’re going to get a bike-friendly place, this is the place to do it.”
Additionally, the average city block in the central area will maintain privacy for residential units.
“Housing will be a little more protective on the street level,” Heinonen said. “We tried to have more of an inviting, safe feeling.”
Leeson said the city strived to create a diverse mix of residential and retail in the area, which she saw in other parts of the city.
“We will let the market drive it and keep that housing balance,” she said. “Olde town does it right now.”
The design standards also limit parking and building appearances. Planners wanted to ensure redevelopment would keep an aesthetic appeal to buildings.
“A maximum of 30 percent of a building can have parking on the front,” Leeson said. “You have to have a street trellis instead of looking at parking. Most of it has to be behind or under the building.”
The Central Issaquah Plan began in 2006 as a council goal. The city wanted to answer the question of how to adapt to continued population growth. The state’s Growth Management Act set firm boundary limits, stopping all sprawl, so Issaquah had to plan for the future.
“We knew the growth was coming and the state’s requiring it,” Heinonen said. “So, we figured we might as well be ready for it.”
She said the city gained inspiration from neighboring cities. Redmond had begun strategizing years before Issaquah and received greater housing allotments from the county. It was the sort of economic growth and responsible planning Issaquah wanted for its future.
“All of a sudden, they started getting housing when no one else was getting housing,” Leeson said of Redmond. “We thought, ‘Wow, we wish we would have done this 10 or 15 years ago.’”
The city began a large public process to set guiding principles under which leaders could refine the vision. Heinonen said the city held big meetings and tried to incorporate as many perspectives as possible.
“We had property owners, business people, homeowners, environmentalists,” she said. “That really was great. We had all these factions sitting at the table.”
The city, with confirmation from residents, established guiding principles to turn the flat parcels and large parking lots into green, dense areas that gave easy pedestrian and bicycle access to the whole city.
The first official project under the design standards has entered a site development application to redevelop the corner of Seventh Avenue Northwest and Northwest Gilman Boulevard and the planners shared excitement.
“I’m thrilled at what they are doing,” Heinonen said about Lennar Multifamily Investors plans for three five-story buildings on the parcel, which would provide over 300 residential units. “The fact they are stepping up to do it, I think that’s great. We knew it would be a risk for the first developer.”
Under the Central Issaquah Plan, the Development Services Department will give a yearly update on how the city has followed the vision.
“We’re working on the first monitoring report right now,” Leeson said. “It will report what has been built, whether any park space was acquired any work force housing built.”
Above all, planners and city officials have stated the Central Issaquah Plan is a long range vision, which will take many years to realize. Also, the plan will change and adapt with public input and the monitoring reports. The Central Issaquah Plan will remain a driving force for the future of the city.