The Issaquah City Council held a study session to take in public input about the zoning of the 40-acre property, known as Providence Heights, located near Providence Point. More than 100 people attended the Nov. 12 meeting to show support for both sides of the topic. Nearly 30 people spoke during the two-hour-long public comment period.
Crowded schools and traffic impacts are two of the many issues being weighed.
The future of the Providence Heights campus has been a topic of discussion in the city for the past few years.
The Providence Heights College and Provincialate were founded in 1961 in response to the Sister Formation Conference. The college initiated an inter-congregational effort to promote college education for sisters, enhancing the professional lives of religious women. Providence Heights College was one of the only institutions in the nation established specifically for that purpose at that time.
Located on the Sammamish Plateau, the college included classrooms, administrative offices, dormitories, an auditorium, a cafeteria, a library, a pool, a gym and a chapel.
Aside from the college’s historical significance of women in religious education, the chapel’s stained glass windows — designed specifically for the sisters by late French artist Gabriel Loire — became an important and beloved asset of the community.
However, the integration of religious education with secular student populations, coupled with declining numbers of women entering the religious community, led to Providence Heights College closing in 1969.
According to the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, the sisters sold the property in the late 1970s to the Lutheran Bible Institute, later known as Trinity Lutheran College. The subsequent owner, City Church (now called Churchome), purchased the complex in 2008 and initiated plans to demolish the college and build about 140 single-family homes.
The city initially made the demolition permit contingent upon Churchome safely removing the chapel’s historic stained-glass windows and returning them to the Sisters of Providence for preservation. A group of community members, called Save Providence Heights, made a wider appeal to the city to preserve the property as a historical landmark. The city’s landmark commission officially deemed the entire campus a historic landmark and approved the entire campus as a historic landmark in July 2017.
However, Providence Heights’ landmark designation was appealed in September 2017. Ted Hunter, Issaquah’s hearing examiner, ruled in favor of the appeal of the demolition permit and ordered the city to conduct a new review of the property.
The review resulted in the historic landmark status being removed, and Providence Heights College was demolished in 2018. The city’s demolition permit was contingent on the careful removal and preservation of the glass windows, which were given to the Sisters of Providence. According to a spokesperson for the sisters, the group is keeping the windows in a Seattle storage space as they look for a new home for the windows.
With the passing of the Issaquah School District’s (ISD) 2016 bond to build four new schools, the district scoured the area looking for spaces to accommodate the growing district’s needs. ISD purchased the Providence Heights property with the intention to build a high school, including a football stadium and an elementary school on the campus.
However, the current city zoning of the 40-acre property, made up of three parcels, would only allow for the construction of a middle school and an elementary school.
The city administration’s proposed changes to the 2019 comprehensive plan and zoning map include redesignation and zoning of the ISD properties adjacent to Providence Point.
However, the city’s planning policy commission (PPC) disagreed with the proposal and recommended during an Oct. 24 meeting that the city retain its current land-use and zoning of parcels one and two. That zoning prohibits ISD from building the fourth high school on the site, and designates parcel three as a community facilities-open space to create a buffer between any future school amenities and the nearby residential area.
City attorney James Haney explained that the council is currently reviewing proposed comprehensive plan amendments, including rezoning and redesignating of land, as it does each year. He said there are criteria in the city code and land-use policies that the council uses when making policy decisions.
Currently, there are eight parcels of land that the city will decide whether to rezone. Three are the school-owned parcels at Providence Heights, which are adjacent to the Providence Point community.
The proposed land-use changes require a State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) process, which identifies and analyzes the environmental impacts associated with governmental decisions. Haney explained that, when an action is proposed, the city determines whether they think there will be significant enough environmental impacts from traffic to submit an environmental impact statement. This then leads to further analysis and mitigation discussions.
In the case of the Providence Heights property, he said the city had previously issued a SEPA determination of non-significance regarding the potential environmental impact from traffic. But that decision has been appealed.
In October 2019, the Providence Point Umbrella Association launched the appeal, and there will be an open hearing on Dec. 2.
At that hearing, Haney said the city’s determination of non-significance will be found valid or invalid. Traffic is an issue that will be discussed at that time, and one that has been raised by many concerned citizens.
Haney said decisions won’t be made regarding action to address traffic impacts at this point, but they will decide if there is a need to further study significant environmental impacts.
Haney said the decision before the council on Nov. 12 — whether to rezone to allow for high school use — was simply a conceptual one. He emphasized that the school district has not yet applied for development permits necessary to develop the property, and that the council’s decision does not approve any particular design or size for the project.
The city council serving as a “quasi-judicial” decision-maker means the council will act as judges and may not hear any testimony or evidence related to the appeal outside of the Dec. 2 appeal hearing.
A final decision regarding Providence Heights zoning is tentatively scheduled for the city council’s Dec. 16 meeting.
Need for high school
The Issaquah School Board and administration have sent letters to city officials asking for consideration in the matter as schools are experiencing severe overcrowding and there are no other available land alternatives to serve the students and community of the district.
ISD Superintendent Ron Thiele submitted a letter to council that he referred to when he gave public comment at the Nov. 12 meeting.
“Our work to find school sites has been extensive and exhausting,” Thiele said.
Thiele said King County policy prohibits schools outside of the urban growth boundary. Because of this, he said, there is little developable land within the urban area and even less contiguous developable land in areas where students live.
“We searched for more than six years for school sites, working with a professional broker and have reviewed over 700 acres of potential sites within the urban area of our district,” he said.
The district engaged in eminent domain, competed with developers and approached school siting in a manner consistent with the city’s adopted policies to secure properties for the four new schools approved in the 2016 bond, Thiele said.
“We do not have other properties that we can look to as a back-up plan for our community’s schools… Our community has no other option but to build a new high school,” he said. “I need to reiterate: we have no option beyond the Plateau Campus Property to use for a high school. We are running out of room in our existing spaces, have limited options for adding capacity at our existing high schools and yet continue to grow in student population.”
ISD School Board Member Suzanne Weaver said the current high schools have surpassed their capacity. She said Issaquah High School was developed to hold 1,800 students. The school now holds some 2,400 students. Skyline High School also was developed to hold 1,800 students and now holds about 2,200 students, she said.
If a new high school is built, it will alleviate about 700 students from both high schools.
According to Thiele, if there is no new way to accommodate the growing number of students in the district, there will be more than 1,000 high school students “without seats.”
Thiele apologized to Providence Point residents for failing to consistently and effectively communicate the district’s plans for the property.
“I wish I had communicated better,” he said. “We are happy to work with our neighbors. We want to be good neighbors.”
Thiele was the first of nearly 30 people to deliver public comment at the Nov. 12 meeting. Several parents, teachers and community members expressed their support for the rezoning to accommodate a new comprehensive high school.
Issaquah High School Principal Andrea McCormick said the negatives of living next to a large high school pale in comparison to overcrowding in schools.
With overcrowding in schools comes logistical issues such as large class sizes, classroom sharing and the use of portable classrooms. In addition to logistical issues, McCormick said overcrowding contributes to students’ feelings of loneliness or a lack of connection among their teachers and peers. She also said overcrowding not only has a negative effect on students but also on teachers and staff.
“I worry that the logistics of overcrowding which contribute to it being more difficult to build a positive school climate will turn into high teacher turnover and our students will be the ones who will miss out,” McCormick said.
While there was significant support for the rezoning to allow for a new high school to be built on Providence Heights, there was also a significant number of Providence Point residents who were in opposition.
Providence Point is an active 55-and-older community. The neighborhood spans more than 150 acres and is adjacent to the Providence Heights property.
Judy Stover is the vice president of the Providence Point Umbrella Board, and she said the joining property line between the school district land and the neighborhood is more than 3,000 feet. She said they are greatly concerned and side with the PPC decision to retain current land-use designations and ensure a buffer.
“We’re not against schools by any means,” she said. “We’ve got a lot of retired teachers living here. We’ve always been very supportive of schools. But it’s just the fact that this piece of property is just not suitable, we feel, for the school, and we are in total agreement with the findings of the policy planning commission and their decision on this.”
Stover said the board had heard from many community residents and their attorney regarding potential environmental issues and traffic issues.
“Those are our big concerns,” she said. “I think a lot of our people are really passionate about this because of the tranquility that we have within our community already with the wooded areas that surround it and everything. But this would have a real impact on the environment because they would have to remove most of the trees. That’s what their plans called for.”
Stover said they anticipate issues with drainage and runoff at this property, and she worries about potential impacts to Laughing Jacobs Lake and Creek.
“If you pave every bit of that property, water’s going to go somewhere,” she said. “We have a lot of people here that care about our environment.”
Stover said they have transported many of their residents to several city meetings on this issue, including the Nov. 12 study session, and that many of them like to stay highly involved.
“We have a very active group here,” she said.
Providence Point issued an official statement on the topic. That letter states that the land in question is not suitable for a high school because it is surrounded by retirement communities and positioned on busy streets already plagued with traffic congestion.
It also says that the community would be devastated by this development in terms of quality of life and property values.
“The Providence Heights Property is heavily treed and shares a long boundary with Providence Point,” the letter reads. “The proposed school layout shows most of the trees removed and replaced with multi-story schools, parking lots, lighted football field, tennis courts and baseball fields. Batting cages are located within feet of retirement homes.”
Jill Brahm and her husband moved to Providence Point nearly two years ago. According to Brahm, if the high school were to be built as the proposed plan currently demonstrates, the football stadium would be about 650 feet from her door.
“Our property values are going to decrease,” she said. “No one’s going to want to live next to a stadium.”
Providence Point resident Daphne Gahne advocated for a “sturdy vegetative boundary” between the proposed high school and the Providence Point property.
“We supported the bond back in 2016,” she said. “We like children. We like schools. You ignored us while coming up with these plans.”
The Providence Point letter mentioned that the community hired its own land use and traffic professionals to review the proposed school district plan and give testimony at the Oct. 24 PPC hearing.
Stover said the community stands with the PPC recommendation.
“We’re hoping that the outcome will be that (council) will take the decision that the policy-planning commission made on the rezoning of the property,” she said.
After two hours of public comment, council members thanked the community members for their contributions.
“First thing, this is amazing, and thank you all for coming out and sharing your thoughts with us,” Councilmember Chris Reh said, referring to the large turnout for public comment. “There are a lot of things that we agree on. We agree that our schools are overcrowded, we agree that overcrowding is having an impact on both students and our faculty, and we also agree that land — particularly inside the Urban Growth Boundary — is very scarce. We have some very difficult challenges.”
Councilmembers Stacy Goodman, Paul Winterstein and Mariah Bettise shared that they would value having more information on the city code criteria for approving comprehensive plan amendments such as zoning.