Central Issaquah Plan members lay out blueprint for the city 20, 30 and 50 years from now

At the latest meeting of the Central Issaquah Plan (CIP) Advisory Task Force on Tuesday night, members laid out an ambitious blueprint for how they want the city to look and feel in 20, 30, or 50 years time.

It is indeed a grand vision – an Issaquah valley floor linked from corner to corner by pedestrian corridors, trails, and a local transit loop, moving residents and workers from point to point at regularly scheduled intervals.

It is an Issaquah valley floor defined by the magnificent expanses of a new “Central Park,” stretching right through downtown on the west side of Issaquah Creek – a Green Lake meets the Arboretum type space that is the crown jewel of the city, bringing people who want to live, work and play on the streets and villages that surround it.

And it is an Issaquah valley floor where the businesses and buildings are designed to reflect the natural surroundings of the Issaquah Alps – a new kind of “Mountains to Sound Commercial,” which distinguishes this city from Bellevue or Sammamish or Seattle, and tells residents and visitors they are in Issaquah and nowhere else.

At the latest meeting of the Central Issaquah Plan (CIP) Advisory Task Force on Tuesday night, members laid out an ambitious blueprint for how they want the city to look and feel in 20, 30, or 50 years time.

At this early stage, these ideas are very much just that – ideas – as the group refines its broad visions and aspirations into a series of recommendations to the Issaquah City Council that are as feasible as they are imaginative. (A detailed map of the ideas has also been made.)

The working group is an intriuging mix of the developer’s awareness of the profit margin with the sustainability advocate’s urge to move away from typical modes of living – the motor car, and compartmentalized city zones – that many cities can no longer support.

That desire to build an Issaquah that no longer relies so heavily on cars is one shared by most of the group. In a presentation by the Capital Investment Subcommittee on transportation options, task force member Peter Kahn said his subcommittee’s draft plan centered around retaining just four major arterial roads – East Lake Sammamish Parkway, Gilman Boulevard, State Route 900, and South East 56th Street/NW Sammamish Road.

Some sections of Newport Way would also likely carry significant car traffic.

“Beyond those four streets, we are looking at strategic ways to reduce our reliance on motor vehicles,” said task force member Aaron Barouh, a system in which “mass transit would be a viable alternative to the motor vehicle.”

Barouh said local and regional transit should function like “the spine and the ribs.” The “spine” would be the local transit loop, possibility an extension of the Front Street to Gilman Village trolley currently in the works, or a driverless street car/bus system. The “ribs” would be the regional Metro and Sound Transit buses connecting Issaquah with neighboring cities.

“One of the big things about the plan is the de-emphasis of the car over the long term,” Kahn said. “The role of the ribs and spine is to connect the points of the village, and to connect the village to the region.”

Barouh said that getting Issaquah transit ready would send a strong message to regional and state planners to include the city in any infrastructure expansion.

“This plans says to Sound Transit, that if you bring Sound Transit out to Issaquah, we are set up to feed it in a rational way,” he said.

Though Barouh and Kahn’s vision echoes the growing modern consensus that investment in transit infrastructure is money well spent in the long term, other members of the group expressed their concern about the short term fiscal reality of a local transit loop of any kind.

“I question whether a street car system should be the first priority,” said Lisa Picard, a task force member and consultant with developer Rowley Properties. “It would tax the developers so much, that they wouldn’t be able to bring in the sort of development we want.”

Another member said he believed roads should be the first priority, and transit the last, in the short term.

“My priorities would be the opposite,” Barouh said. “Once you commit to building more roads, you kill transit. The inertia is too strong.”

Task Force Chair Joe Forkner reminded the group that the purpose of the CIP Task Force was to bring forward a list of priorities to the city council – a vision for how the city should develop in the coming decades. It would be the role of the council to deal with the realities of making it happen.

One idea the group seems united in moving on as an immediate reality and not a hypothetical future, is the “Central Park.”

It would involve the city moving to secure additional lands north and south of the recently planned Issaquah Creek Confluence Park Area located in Olde Town Issaquah. And the bigger the better, according to Barouh, whose advocacy for an extended green space in the middle of Issaquah is as commercially convincing as it is environmentally.

He spoke of creating the feeling of a park from “as far south as is possible to as far north as is possible.” On the Capital Investment Subcommittee’s parks map, the park stretched from the intersection of Newport Way NW and W Sunset Way north to Gilman Boulevard, west of Gilman Village.

“The ground could be acquired through TDR (transfer of development rights) agreements, and expanded over time,” Barouh said. “It is probably not a park that would exist in the short term. But knowledge that it would exist in the long term would be a driver for development.”

Task force members spoke of the commercial and residential appeal of places like Central Park in New York, and Green Lake, both sizeable green spaces bordered by high value homes and businesses.

“It would be such an important driver for the image of the community,” Barouh said.

The park would be the crown jewel amongst the necklace of green trails and pedestrian orientated connections, which could include the north/south extension 11th and 12th avenues, and an eastern extension of NW Mall Street.

Ten distinct districts

The CIP Advisory Task Force draft plan divides up the valley floor into ten districts, such as Pickering Center, Western Gateway, Tibbetts Valley, and Hyla. Each district has its own distinct character, such as a focus on residential density, or light commercial. A future stage of the CIP will be how to provide the right zoning, and development incentives, to encourage private industry to build something that matches the vision.

The development plan for the area around the existing transit center on SR 900, Rowley Properties and NW Mall Street, known as Tibbetts Valley, is one of the features of the working group’s vision for the city.

Picard described their vision for “an urban core, with density, multi-use, transit accessibility.”

“Generally a really nice employment center,” she said. “As transit ridership increases, you could see densities popping up, with higher floor area ratio.”

Along with sufficient spacing between buildings, it is also an area that could support higher buildings, mixed use developments for retail, commercial and residential. Though the task force is not anywhere near proposing specific heights, and may not at all, they are working in the 8 – 12 story range.

Picard said understanding the need for greater densities on the valley floor involved recognizing that, with the expected population growth in the region over the next half century, Issaquah will become a very different place.

“I know that many people are going to have a hard time imagining why you want to live in an apartment building on 12 street – ‘that’s crazy,'” she said. “But you have to imagine the community 30 years from now. It could be 50, it could be more.”

The Task Force typically meets on the second Tuesday of each month to develop recommendations for the 20 to 30 year plan for the 900 acre Central Issaquah Plan area.

The next meeting will be July 13, at City Hall NW, 1775, 12th Avenue NW.

For more information, call 425-837-3080, or e-mail WebMail-Planning@ci.issaquah.wa.us