In first few months of 2008, the Sammamish City Council, and the city’s planning commission put the final touches on a document that will guide development in the planned Town Center — the broader brushstrokes of what the city’s planners want the center to be.
While at the moment the nuts and bolts of the Town Center regulations are still being developed, the framework has already been laid out.
This framework sets important limits, most notably on just how much development the city will allow — how high the buildings will be and how dense the clustering of shops and apartments. By doing this, the council of that time made a deliberate statement that it was eager to exercise a control over the expansion of commercial activity in the city, to ensure it did not reach levels that would detract from other aspects of the area’s value, and further damage an already compromised environment.
But the limit on density has its critics — those who feel that the city has driven away developers and potential investors in the Town Center.
And there are a number of landowners within the Town Center boundary frustrated with what they see as the city’s inability to attract development interest in order to move the Town Center plan beyond its current, protracted, planning stage.
The frustration goes well beyond the Town Center planning process of just the last few years.
For some, such as landowners John Galvin and Dick Birgh, uncertain zoning regulations and development freezes dating back prior to incorporation have made it very difficult to reap any return on the investment they made in the land decades ago.
Recently The Reporter met with Galvin and Birgh in their modest homes in a rural pocket to the east of 228th Avenue near the newly constructed Eastside Catholic High School, to talk about their plans to get the Town Center moving, and hear why they think the city has brought unnecessary economic hardship to many residents.
“We are being held hostage to our own property,” Galvin said.
When the City of Sammamish was incorporated in 1999, the council placed a moratorium on development to give them time to better manage that development.
In 2005, following pressure from builders, developers and landowners, that moratorium was lifted, but was soon replaced by another moratorium on the development, subdivision, or rezoning of property within the Town Center boundary.
Those moratoriums did not prevent the continued construction of churches, or schools. What they did do was prevent Galvin and Birgh from providing any development opportunities on their land, zoned R1, which means it legally cannot accommodate more than one residence per acre.
Such a designation is not attractive to developers, who seek to create the maximum number of development opportunities on a given parcel.
Birgh, who is in his late 70s, had hoped that subdividing part of the land he bought nearly four decades ago would provide for his retirement.
So the two neighbors eagerly awaited the commencement of the Town Center, when the R1 designation would be changed and developers would be interested in their land.
Frustrated now by what they see as the unnecessarily slow movement of the council, Galvin and Birgh joined five nearby property owners and formed a south east quadrant land owners group.
Then they raised more than $80,000, which they used to commission land use and commercial studies, employing a respected local architecture and engineering firm to design a comprehensive master plan for development in their quadrant — referred to as zone A-3.
The new plan
This investment was an enormous gamble for the group. “We’re not rich,” Galvin said. “This is a hardship for us.”
There are three important features of Link text the sound east quadrant master plan:
1. It achieves the city’s stated goal of mixing office, retail and residential units with open space and public amenities.
2. It utilizes existing infrastructure, including roadways, high speed fiber optic cable, and water and sewer connections.
3. It assumes a density of development far above that allowed for in the city’s comprehensive plan.
Galvin and Birgh believe that points 1 and 2 are the great strengths of the south east quadrant’s proposal, and that point 3 is a crucial error of the city which needs to be addressed if Town Center visions are ever to manifest.
“The city’s proposed zoning is not viable,” Galvin insists. “For this to work, there needs to be a minimum of 35-40 units an acre. In many places, R-16 is suburban development. They are continuing the sprawl. For developers, this is not viable.”
Galvin and Birgh are not alone in thinking that with a maximum base density of 16 dwelling units per acre allowed in the town center’s core, developers will not envision a significant return on their investment, and so will not be encouraged to take part.
To be allowed to build to higher densities, up to 40 units an acre, developers must jump through hoops for the city, and do things like include park space, affordable housing, pathways, and environmental sensitive techniques. This is called a two-tier system – one tier as a base density allowance, the second for those who reach for the incentives.
“Developers don’t like this,” Galvin said. “They are going to look at it and say ‘there’s no way we can make money on this.’”
The decision to limit density was made very deliberately by the current incarnation of the city council. It’s opponents say the council is forging its way to economic ruin.
With thousands of dollars of their own money on the line, the south east quadrant group has filed a request that the city amend its comprehensive plan, to overturn the limits on commercial uses within the A3 zone and allow a wider range of service oriented uses.
As it is, A3 is designated primarily for office space, with the A1 zone, west of 228th, planned as the retail hub.
“We’re ready, we’ve done the plan, we have the infrastructure,” Galvin said.
Key parts of the infrastructure he refers to is the newly constructed South East 4th Street, bringing traffic east off of 228th, and a quarter-mile of very expensive high-speed fiber optic cable installed by Quest prior to the construction of Eastside Catholic. Water and sewer connections were completed several years before that.
“Let us get started, and then others will be more encouraged to get on board once they see it beginning to happen.”
Galvin said that choosing the area west of 228th as the Town Center’s focus, at the expense of other areas, did not make sense given the lack of existing infrastructure at that site.
He pointed to the enormous expense of upgrading Southeast 4th Street to the west to accommodate upward of 18,000 cars a day, which he said will cost about $30 million.
Galvin also said the city’s decision recently to seek an extension with the Sammamish Plateau Water and Sewer District to allow Sween House to remain on an outdated septic system for another 10 years, was an admittance that any development west of 228th was a long way off still.
City of Sammamish Town Center Project Manager Michael Matthias denied that the 10 year extension was any reflection of the town center timeline.
Matthias said that, regardless of the merits of the south east quadrant plan, its fatal flaw was that it didn’t comply with the council’s regulations.
He said the Town Center Plan was very specific as to where development would go and what sort of development it would be.
“When city hall was built on the west side (of 228th) that closed the door on where the Town Center would be focused,” he said.
“There are people who say we have underestimated the demand, or that we haven’t got this to where it’s critical mass for developers,” Mattias said. “But the decision of the council was a balance of economic feasibility, and the environmental amenities that the city wants to see.”
He said his team had encouraged developers to “bring us your highest and best use proposals. If there were no restrictions or constraints, what would you build to maximize returns? Tell us what you want. If the council won’t give you that, then go talk to them.”
Matthias said applying for plan amendments, as the south east quadrant groups has done, is one of the only ways that changes to the Town Center restrictions would come.
“But, with new growth targets from the Puget Sound Regional Council, there’s a chance we may have to amend the amount of residential,” he said. “That’s one way it could open up.”
Galvin’s protests at the city’s drawn out planning process and criticisms of its economic management have repeatedly fallen on deaf ears, and due to his persistence at council meetings he has become an unpopular figure among councilors.
With the south east group’s plans studied and drawn, and their plan amendment application submitted, it will be interesting to see if the council is willing to reward the endeavor and investment of this group of very frustrated landowners.
“The city council’s decision in December will determine a great deal,” Galvin said “It will indicate whether the city is serious about a town center, or their intention all along has been to use planning as an excuse for doing nothing while appearing to comply with legal requirements to implement the Growth Management Act. Our idea is we are ready. There is no way we can’t be first to go, and that will get the rest going. The more the merrier.”