Issaquah council approves new High Street Collection development agreement

Also: Council grapples with free speech over a revision of rules regarding general audience comments at city council meetings.

The Issaquah City Council held its general meeting on Nov. 20, in which the council approved three agenda bills covering the city’s adoption of the legislative agenda for the second year of the two-year biennium; the approval of the new agreement for the High Street Collection development; and a revision of the city council rules of procedure regarding general audience comments at city council meetings.

The meeting also held three public hearings, which included presentations and allotted time for community members and the city council to speak on the upcoming bills at the Dec. 4 general meeting. The discussed bills cover the 0.1% Transportation Benefit District sales tax, the mid-biennium budget adjustments and the proposed 2024 property tax levy.

High Street Collection development agreement

The city council approved an ordinance authorizing the mayor to execute a development agreement with IHIF Commercial LLC, also known as Shelter Holdings.

The development spans around 21.5 acres of land, reaching from Northeast Discovery Drive along 9th Avenue Northeast to Northeast High Street.

According to the bill, the agreement proposes that 325,000 square feet of the land will consist of commercial and retail use and could include up to 1,250 residential units. The project would be pedestrian-oriented, with mixed-use development and located near existing transit.

The residential housing will consist of multi-family and single-family attached townhomes and condominiums.

“20% of the non-age restricted units would be developed as affordable housing, based on 80% area median income, provided the city takes action to make a multi-family tax exemption available to the property,” according to the agreement.

Additionally, if the developers create all 1,250 units, a minimum of 200 units will be required for seniors or assisted living facilities.

According to the bill, this is a response to the aging population in the Issaquah Highlands, the need to reduce occupancy within the Issaquah Schools District and to align with comprehensive plan goals to achieve diversity of housing types.

Further reducing the project’s impact on schools, the agreement will limit 125 units to three or more bedrooms.

In addition, these units will be subject to school impact fees and the phased construction — estimated to take around 15 years — is expected to lessen the impact on school enrollment.

Before this agreement, the city entertained another development proposal that would have filled the space with a self-storage facility, a single-story retail center with surface parking and a medical office building, according to the City of Issaquah website. The current agreement emphasized that self-storage facilities would no longer be allowed.

Within the commercial and retail space, the agreement requires at least one commercial lot to accommodate an entertainment-based facility such as rock climbing, table tennis, arcade, pickle ball, bowling or mini-golf.

The agreement calculated for every residential unit, the property must provide 200 square feet of community amenity space. This space could include recreation areas, landscaping, festival streets, trails, plazas or other pedestrian gathering areas. Within this space, 20% could be built indoors for year-round use.

Additionally, two outdoor community recreation elements will be required, such as interactive water features, sports courts, climbing walls, adaptive playground equipment and outdoor fitness equipment, according to the agreement, the developers must also construct a trail connecting High Street Linear Park to Discovery Drive

The bill emphasized that community recreation elements will be available for the community as a whole, not limited to the proposed development.

Although the city has approved the agreement of the High Street Collection Development, the design of the project, the layout, location of facilities, parking and other elements have yet to be determined according to the bill.

Amending city council rules of procedure

During the meeting, the city approved an ordinance that revises the rules of procedure regarding general audience comments at city council meetings. This bill was brought to the city council abruptly due to city council meetings — within Washington and other states — experiencing a trend of individuals or groups joining virtually during public comments, making antisemitic, racist and other inflammatory remarks.

According to the bill, the administration recommended requiring public comments to be directly related to city programs, projects, services or events.

The city council approved the revision on a 4-2 vote, with council member Barbara de Michele and council member Chris Reh opposing the bill and Zach Hall absent from the meeting.

Before this approval, the city council allowed general audience comments to expand to any matter, with the exception of public hearings, quasi-judicial items or campaign-related subjects.

“Under these rules, public commenters would be legally entitled to exercise their First Amendment rights to make antisemitic, racist or other hateful remarks,” according to the bill.

Majority of the council approved the revision in hopes of concentrating meaningful conversations within city council meetings and eliminating hateful speech.

“I think it’s really important to recognize that this ordinance would only enable us to stop comments if they’re both unrelated to the city programs as written and they cause a disruption,” council president Lindsey Walsh said. “So that to me says this is enough of a stopgap to take care of this.”

However, council member de Michele disagreed restraining certain kinds of speech was the right action. She said due to the little time the council had to discuss the bill, she believed using alternative methods would be best.

One alternative method de Michele agreed with — stated on the bill — was to require public commenters to turn on their camera and address themselves.

“To be clear, of course, these incidents we are discussing are disgusting and reprehensible. I sit through one every time I go to the Regional Transit Committee. I have done that for a year and a half now,” de Michele said “As one of our correspondents pointed out, if we restrict those forms of speech, we also restrict the opportunity for others to rebuke and correct them in public, so thus begins the famous slippery slope into authoritarianism.”

Another council member, Tola Marts, agreed the council has a duty to listen to residents even if it is negative. However, he believed the inflammatory speech was not coming from residents.

“I think, in general, it’s important to listen to arguments that we find upsetting. I think that the idea we should shield ourselves from anything upsetting is a bad idea,” council member Marts said “But, what we don’t have to do is provide a venue for people who have no connection to the community in any way, shape or form, who are merely trying to sort of co-opt the mechanisms of democracy to find just another venue to spew nonsense…that has nothing to do with our community, that’s not part of our job.”