Give and take – what Issaquah is willing to sacrifice for Park Pointe

At an open house at Blakely Hall late in July, a small but interested group of community members asked City of Issaquah Major Development lead, Keith Niven, and Port Blakely chief in the Highlands, Judd Kirk, about the potential traffic and other impacts of 410 additional units in the 35 acre parcel, and 500 additional units in the existing Highlands, to areas like Park Drive NE outside Grand Ridge Elementary.

Last week The Reporter explored the origins of what is now known as the Park Pointe Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) deal. It is a complex arrangement, with a myriad of moving parts, each of which has the potential to change the City of Issaquah. In part 2 of a 2 part series, we examine where that deal is now, and weigh up exactly what is at stake.

At an open house at Blakely Hall late in July, a small but interested group of community members asked City of Issaquah Major Development lead, Keith Niven, and Port Blakely chief in the Highlands, Judd Kirk, about the potential traffic and other impacts of 410 additional units in the 35 acre parcel, and 500 additional units in the existing Highlands, to areas like Park Drive NE outside Grand Ridge Elementary.

“I can see the benefit to the City of Issaquah, from having a bigger tax base,” said one Highlands resident. “I can see the benefit to Port Blakely from having increased density. But what I don’t see is the benefit to the community. I don’t see how density translates into a higher quality of life for residents of the Issaquah Highlands.”

It was a message Niven and Kirk have heard before – what’s so special about Park Pointe? As this Highlands resident said, “the city’s green vision for Issaquah is bumping up against the reality of urban density in the Highlands.”

Niven’s response was that the preservation of Park Pointe is a stated goal of the city, and “we are basically following the comp plan by doing this.”

And, Niven said, the city was comfortable with allowing more density in the Highlands.

“We have thought for some time that Port Blakely had too much land and not enough entitlement,” he said.

But Niven told The Reporter he could understand the objections of Highlands residents.

“If I lived up there I’m not sure I’d want it either,” he said. “It is something that benefits the broader community – a regional asset.”

Does the city need to do a better job of selling that point – of what Highlands residents would gain regionally from transferring more development into their community?

“I think that’s a message that needs to get out there,” Niven said.

For Kirk, the focus is on finding a spark to give life to retail and commercial activity.

“One of the obstacles we run into with the Town Center is [businesses] going up there and seeing nothing,” he said. “They can’t image being up there themselves.”

Which is why the proposed Regal Cinema in the Highlands is so crucial to Port Blakely, and why Regal Cinema’s demand for more parking has made its way into Port Blakely’s wish list on the TDR bargaining table. The cinema is seen as being just the kind of anchor the Highlands needs to attract other businesses. A sticking point is their demand for between 700 and 1,000 parking spaces to accommodate movie goers. Port Blakely can’t afford to build the preferred, but costly, parking garage structure. So Kirk is asking the city to allow them to build an interim parking space for 725 vehicles. A sprawling slab of impervious surface runs directly counter to the city’s vision for low impact development, but would allow Regal to get up and running, driving other retail and commercial investment. If allowed an interim structure, Port Blakely would agree to build a garage a few years down the track.

Also on the bargaining table are changes to the sign code, which at present do not properly represent the concept of mixed-use village commercial the Highlands is trying to develop, and which Port Blakely and businesspeople in the Highlands claim is making it hard to promote their stores.

City councilor and Highlands’ business owner, Mark Mullet, said he was supportive of a sign code that helped Highlands’s businesses, and of allowing Port Blakely to satisfy Regal’s parking demands.

“The only way to get that community center going is to get the movie theater going,” he said. “We are talking about one million people a year. If stores know there’s going to be a million people walking past their store, they’re going to want to come here. But insisting on structured parking for the movie theater means the movie theater will not be built.”

Mullet said allowing an interim lot for Regal did not have to be a permanent exception, just one that reflected the exceptional economic circumstances of the occasion.

“It’s got to take some initiative from the city level,” he said.

Changes to the sign code would allow businesses to move away from having one main sign on one face of the building, and toward smaller way-finding signs, and store name signs on more than one of a building’s outside walls.

The one large sign on one wall kind of code is a hangover of the strip mall era, in which business needed to be visible from just one angle – the road. Port Blakely, and a number a city councilors, believe a pedestrian friendly, mixed use neighborhood would be better served by an updated code.

“It’s what the urban village is all about,” said councilor Fred Butler at a recent meeting of the Urban Growth and Development Committee.

While there appears to be an eagerness to help businesses out with an updated sign code, bending on the parking issue would require a far greater gift generosity from the city. With strict new state and county stormwater requirements coming into affect, cities everywhere, Issaquah included, are under enormous pressure to ensure new development is ecologically sensitive. A street level parking lot for 1,000 cars, no matter how temporary, would be the antithesis of that objective.

What is so interesting about this TDR deal is that for the city and Port Blakely, the achievement of the good relies upon the existence of the bad. For example, by allowing the interim parking lot they would secure another key element in the deal – more than $500,000 of developer money for transportation improvements. This would include possibly expanding the Route 200 bus service into the Highlands and Talus, a plan which has been in the works, but on hold, since the city was forced to tighten its purse strings last year. The half million could also help pay for a traffic signal near the intersection of 15th Avenue NE and NE Park Drive, where a pedestrian was hit and seriously injured by a motorist last month.

Weighing up the benefit of what is gained with the importance of the concessions is something the Issaquah Environmental Council (IEC) is worried the city is not doing responsibly. Specifically, they are shocked the city has designated a Mitigated Determination of Non-Significance (MDNS) on the project, meaning they have decided that 500 additional units in the Highlands and the construction of 410 units in the 35 acre parcel “does not have a probable, significant adverse impact on the environment.” As a result of the MDNS, a developer would not have to conduct an Environmental Impact Statement before building. It is a remarkable conclusion, given the number of additional units. In terms of deal making, the city’s MDNS is, at the least, a very generous offering for any interested developers. The MDNS extends to all aspects of the deal, including the temporary parking lot.

“The development proposed would require an EIS in any private development application in Issaquah,” wrote IEC President Connie Marsh in a letter to the city condemning the MDNS this month. “That this proposal is getting an MDNS without any underlying studies being completed is astounding and inappropriate. Lack of funding and time is no excuse for lack of complete review.”

Marsh said the MDNS effectively denied the public any input on the impact of development, and freed a developer from the accountability of the State Environmental Policy Act review structure.

The IEC also believes it would be impossible to properly mitigate the impacts of developing the 35 acres, which would require clear cutting a substantial number of tress, and reshaping the uneven terrain of the property.

While the IEC is happy the city is working so hard to preserve Park Pointe, they are not willing to sacrifice other areas of the city to do it.

“Our group has worked long and hard to protect the base of Tiger Mtn. in that area,” Marsh wrote to the city. “Our mission however, is not simply to protect the base of Tiger, it is to protect and enhance the air, soil, water, flora, fauna, visual, recreational, and cultural resources of the City of Issaquah and surrounding areas for the long-term benefit of its citizens.”

With their deal on the table and just about set, the City of Issaquah has already made its decision about what it is willing to sacrifice for Park Pointe. Whether the people that live here, on the valley floor and in the Highlands, are willing to give up quite so much remains to be seen.