Necessary evils, and the greater good

Issaquah council wrestles with difficult concessions, but still votes unanimously to proceed with Port Blakely deal

What for months has loomed as a transaction that could significantly alter the community of the Issaquah Highlands has finally caught the attention of the people who live there. Dozens of them showed up at Issaquah City Hall on Monday night to urge the city council to reevaluate the terms of a Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) Agreement with developer Port Blakely that could change the size and nature of the neighborhood, while securing the preservation of a 102 acre section of Tiger Mountain known as Park Pointe.

And while the large number of residents who addressed the council and Mayor Ava Frisinger at the specially scheduled public hearing were clearly opposed to many provisions of the deal, at the end of the meeting the council voted 7 – 0 to authorize Frisinger to sign off on the agreement, a small but important step to its realization.

The TDR would grant Port Blakely permission to build an additional 500 units in the Highlands, open an undeveloped 35 acre area for development, and grant Port Blakely exemption from parking and signage standards. In return, the City of Issaquah would achieve the preservation of Park Pointe, a long time city goal, while also securing funding for transit and other improvements in the city.

Though the council vote was unanimous, most councilors expressed significant concerns about aspects of the TDR deal, particularly the provision for a 725 space interim surface parking lot. But, as councilor Fred Butler related in explaining his support of the agreement, many of the details about its implementation were still to be worked out, and would be the result of an ongoing public process which he urged Highlands residents to stay involved in.

From the resident’s point of view, the big sticking point appears to be what welcoming an additional 910 residences to the Highlands will do to Grand Ridge Elementary School on Northeast Park Drive, which in the past few years has suffered from overcrowding. At Monday night’s meeting, parents accused the council of compromising their children’s education. Some pointed to the use of portable buildings at the school as evidence of overcrowding.

“It’s nice to save some trees on the other side of town, but my kid’s education is vastly more important than that,” said Highlands resident Matt Barry, who currently has two children attending Grand Ridge.

In 2008 and 2009, Grand Ridge had almost 900 students. However, due to the attendance area boundaries adjustment which will take affect this coming school year, that number will fall to 614 in a matter of weeks. According to councilor Tola Marts, who in 2007 and 2008 was part of the Issaquah School District’s boundary review board which changed the feeder boundaries ahead of a new elementary school on the Plateau (Creekside), and the conversion of the Pacific Cascade Freshman Campus to a middle school, a key part of the change was to anticipate growth in the Highlands.

“When (Grand Ridge) goes to 614, it’s going to be at a lower capacity than those other schools which are currently using portables,” he said.

Marts said the boundary change process included moving a number of students out of Grand Ridge in order to make way for future capacity increases.

“It was a tough decision,” he said. “We actually had to clear a bunch of students out of Grand Ridge that were not living in the Highlands.”

Issaquah School District officials believe the school is well equipped to handle the expected arrival of new families in the Highlands over the next 5 to 10 years that would result from an increase in the number of allowed residential units.

Future developers in the Highlands will be required to pay development impact fees, a portion of which will go to the Issaquah School District.

While class sizes are a matter for the Issaquah School District and the State Legislature, not the Issaquah City Council, more relevant to the proposed agreement were questions over the wisdom of expanding the boundaries of the Highlands and developing more tracts of forested land.

“I am a big advocate of density,” said Highlands resident Tony Cowan. “But as anyone who has studied geometry knows, density means increasing what is inside without expanding the volume.”

Cowan suggested granting 500 extra units to Port Blakely in already developed areas, rather than continuing urban expansion by clearing the undeveloped 35 acre parcel south of Grand Ridge Elementary, a key part of the exchange that would allow the City of Issaquah to purchase Park Pointe.

“If it’s determined that we need the traffic improvements, if it’s determined that it’s in the best interests of the community to have the extra 500 units, we should look at those things on their own merits, rather than trying to horse-trade forest to get them,” Cowan said, adding that if these things were important to the community, the community should seek another way to pay for them.

His comments were echoed by valley resident Mary Lynch, one of the key players in the push to save Park Pointe years ago. She said there were existing development opportunities the city could grant Port Blakely.

“Seventy percent of the downtown area is parking lots,” she said. “There are other alternatives we could find to make this a win-win situation for everyone, including Port Blakely. If we’re going to build, we need to be sustainable, and build on already developed land.”

The clear message from the Highlands was that residents there do not feel the deal is a win-win situation as it is. Even tentative supporters recognized it needed improving.

Issaquah’s Raymond Extract, a member of the City of Issaquah Planning Policy Commission, but not representing them at the meeting, said concerned residents should stay involved with the progression of the agreement to ensure that when the time came to make concrete its provisions, any development reflected the community’s desires.

“What they will gain from this won’t be developed for many years,” he said. “I don’t think we ought to scuttle (the agreement). I think we ought to work with it, and work out the details.”

Standing out among those details is allowing Port Blakely to build a 725 space interim parking lot to satisfy Regal Cinema’s designs in the Highlands. While some residents are opposed to allowing the parking lot at all, others are skeptical about whether the city can hold Port Blakely to their intention to remove it as soon as they can afford to build the preferred garage, multi-level structure. A number of councilors, too, recognize the parking lot allowance as a necessary evil which would allow them to accomplish a greater good. As most of the councilors stated, such is the process of negotiation.

Responding to the statement by Extract that Port Blakely was a “white knight” for making possible the purchase of Park Pointe, councilor Traeger brought attention to what the city may have to sacrifice in return.

“Port Blakely is not a white knight. They drive a hard bargain,” he said. “And so do we, and we’re trying to work for the public interest.”

The Major Planning and Growth Committee will take a close look at what areas in the agreement need special attention in their next meeting, Sept. 27.