Developers encouraged to consider community uses for vacant land in the Issaquah Highlands

In 2007, a development company called Onni announced big plans for a site it owned in downtown Vancouver. The property, half a city-block in the heart of Vancouver's Granville Street, had some old commercial businesses on it, a smash repairers, a trampoline factory. Onni pulled them down, cleared away the rubble, and cleaned up the site for the long period of waiting that usually accompanies raising money and getting permits for big development projects.

Undeveloped Microsoft property in the Issaquah Highlands

Undeveloped Microsoft property in the Issaquah Highlands

In 2007, a development company called Onni announced big plans for a site it owned in downtown Vancouver. The property, half a city-block in the heart of Vancouver’s Granville Street, had some old commercial businesses on it, a smash repairers, a trampoline factory. Onni pulled them down, cleared away the rubble, and cleaned up the site for the long period of waiting that usually accompanies raising money and getting permits for big development projects.

This story is nothing new – developers all over the world are accustomed to these down-times, not just during a depressed economy, when it can often be 5 to 10 years before the best laid plans are realized.

What is new, revolutionary in fact, is what Onni decided to do with the land while waiting. They built a community garden. Dozens of raised bed plots, about 5 feet by 30 feet, divided into 45 square foot plots.

It cost them a few thousand dollars, walking around change in the scheme of their development budget, and certainly a bargain for the wave of good publicity, and community good will, it earned them. At the launch of the community garden in November of 2007, local, national and international television stations flocked to groundbreaking project.

“It’s going to be some time before this property is developed, so we thought ‘what can we do to this run-down site besides just let it sit there?'” Onni executive Mike Clark told Vancouver-based nonprofit City Farmer. “So we came up with the idea for a community garden.”

Clark said it took Onni about 3 weeks to demolish the existing buildings and have the plot ready for gardeners. He predicted it would be two or three years before the site would be handed back for development, a few years of growing that many city gardeners would never have had.

“We tell everybody that this is temporary,” he said. “But at least we’re doing this in between now and when we actually have to build the building here.”

The visionary project was so successful, and popular, that Onni converted another downtown block awaiting development into a community garden in 2008. They were followed by a similar project by Prima Properties in the heart of Vancouver’s West End.

“We’re going to redevelop, but in the interim we’re looking at a couple of years when we’re not quite ready to go,” Prima Properties’ David Buddle told television reporters. “So we thought, ‘let’s give something back to the community that they could use, as opposed to having a parking lot or a vacant site.’ In our minds it’s the right thing to do.”

Delays in development is something the people of the Issaquah Highlands know a lot about. With the global recession putting on hold retail and commercial expansion plans in the town center area, master planner Port Blakely, and residents, have been left with hundreds of acres of dormant land, piles of dirt and vacant lots. Most notably, after purchasing 37.5 acres in the Highlands in 2002 with an eye to eventually building campus there, computer software giant Microsoft has shown no interest in making any move on their property. The prime site is referred to by some residents, without affection, as “the scab on the side of the hill.”

Unfortunately for the people of Issaquah, the innovative sense of giving back the community demonstrated by Onni and Prima Properties has up until this point not inspired Microsoft. It is, however, an idea that is beginning to take root with community members and Port Blakely, who this week began to explore ways to encourage interim use of some of the land which now sits vacant, and which is likely to remain so for a few years to come.

“A resilient, sustainable community tries to make the most of its existing resources, and space is a scarce resource,” said Chantal Stevens of Sustainable Issaquah. “Being able to put to some beneficial use part of the vacant commercial land that is awaiting development in the Highlands, so that some of the social or recreational needs of the region can be met, even for the short term, would be a great gift to the community.”

In addition to a community garden, Sustainable Issaquah members suggested a wide range of possible uses, from a food market or community supported agriculture distribution point, to a frisbee golf course, off-leash dog training area, BMX track, or a tent city location where residents could grow their own food.

When contacted by The Reporter, Microsoft showed no interest in the concept of promoting an active use for their property, a spokesperson for the company offering only “we have no information to offer you on this property at this time.”

Despite the critical important of the parcel to the future of the Highlands community, Microsoft have not shared any information about their plans for the site. It is understood that a number of regional developers have approached Microsoft to encourage them to consider alternative options for the land, to allow the Highlands to progress. But Microsoft appears set on keeping the land unused and vacant for at least the next 3 – 5 years.

In an e-mail to The Reporter last year, a Microsoft spokesperson wrote “Our only activity is to keep the building site groomed. We are holding the site for possible future development.”

Highlands resident Tony Cowan, who is a key proponent of the mountain bike skills park proposal in the Highlands, said the community has a role to play in encouraging developers to consider interim uses for the vacant land.

“I understand that Microsoft recently said they had no plans to build here, so we are faced with vacant land here for an indefinite period of time,” he said. “I haven’t been too annoyed with Microsoft, because there’s lots of other vacant land all around it for now, but hopefully that will change. I think the right thing to do is to reach out to the local community and solicit a collection of ideas, then vote on which ones to take forward to Microsoft.”

TK Panni, who was involved with the establishment of both the Issaquah Flatlands and the Issaquah Highlands community gardens, told The Reporter that, given the land, there was more than enough community energy to develop a third garden.

Now in its fifth season, the Highlands garden, on the powerline easement north of the Trailhead Vista across from Grand Ridge Elementary, has 33 plots. But according to Panni, there is a waiting list of 40 gardeners eager to work some fertile soil. He said there would be some expense involved with building raised garden beds. But a garden straight into the soil, like the enormously successful garden on Juniper Street in Issaquah, would cost almost nothing to create.

“It could be done pretty quickly,” Panni said. “There’s plenty of interest.”

Although Microsoft have shown no willingness to consider interim uses, Port Blakely said this week it would consider proposals from the community for projects in the town center.

“The entire industry is redefining business strategies and many are getting creative,” said Port Blakely Director of Community Affairs, Chris Hysom. “A prime example is innovative short-term uses of vacant land. Port Blakely is open to ideas that make the community even better, such as this one, and we welcome suggestions that complement the community and existing businesses.”

Hysom encouraged residents and community groups to e-mail ideas to ask@portblakely.com.

Reporter Editor Jake Lynch is a member of the Sustainable Issaquah organizing committee.


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