The architects of Issaquah’s future

The 12 members of the Central Issaquah Plan Advisory Task have been entrusted with an enormous responsibility - to lay down the bold brush strokes of what the City of Issaquah should look like in the decades to come.

They have been meeting in board rooms, spare offices, coffee shops; long meetings at all hours of the day and night. Rubbing their tired eyes, over enormous maps and detailed blueprints, they draw ideas, erase them, them draw them again, refining a diaspora of suggestions into an increasingly unified vision. They are planning, hypothesizing, picturing a new landscape, dreaming up an unseen future for nothing less than an entire city.

The 12 members of the Central Issaquah Plan Advisory Task have been entrusted with an enormous responsibility – to lay down the bold brush strokes of what the City of Issaquah should look like in the decades to come. The possible directions are many and varied. Based on their recommendations, Issaquah in 50 years could be a retail complex of strip malls and outlet stores, putting all its eggs into the one basket of sales tax revenue and the shopper’s pipeline of Interstate 90. It could be a bedroom community enclosed in wilderness and parks, a dense metropolis, or a light industrial area famed for its car dealerships and bulk supply stores.

Luckily, the 12 men and women chosen by Mayor Ava Frisinger are in the process of developing a plan that strikes a considered balance of providing for residential and commercial growth while making a feature of the mountains, creeks and trails that increasingly define the city. The plan’s consideration of the wide range of commercial, environmental and social interests in the city is testimony to the thought Frisinger put into selecting just the right people for the job.

But who are they, these 12 who have been charged with such an enormous responsibility, and who now wield enormous influence?

Some have lived in Issaquah all their life, others merely spend their work hours here, but all bring to the table their own unique skills sets and experiences.

The task force is led by chair Joe Forkner, who began with the City of Issaquah as a maintenance man and become a city councilor.

Although it is impossible to assign a single personality to a whole city, there are many similarities between Forkner and the prevailing character of the Issaquah he has called home for 20 years. Raised on a farm north of Spokane, Forkner has always been one those guys who was good with his hands. A large, booming man, talking with him brings to mind phrases like “blue collar,” and “jack-of-all-trades.” Indeed it was as a mister fix-it/jail warden/town marshall in Harrington, Lincoln County, that Forkner first proved himself immensely useful to small municipalities.

“It was good fun, but it got to the point where I had to make a decision whether I wanted to be a cop, or get into maintenance,” he said.

When the City of Issaquah advertised an operations and maintenance vacancy in 1990, Forker was just the right fit. He had never been to Issaquah before, but on arrival had an immediate appreciation for the small town feel, the intimacy of the main street.

“Gilman was all just open fields back then,” he recalled. “You could sit on Gilman, and see all the way across open fields to the grade school on Holly.”

Soon his ambition and technical curiosity led him to outgrow his maintenance role. Having tinkered around with the then groundbreaking engineering software program AutoCAD during his time in Harrington, when Issaquah needed to map its water systems, Forkner put his hand up. It was a time when most small cities were still doing their maps by hand.

After a short stint in the city’s engineering department, Forkner joined a private drafting firm in Issaquah. Self-taught, it was a remarkable career progression.

But it was only the beginning of his involvement with the city. Driven by the small town attitude of getting involved in your home community, Forker joined the volunteer fire department, the Cable Television Commission, and when no one else was interested in filming the various city meetings that took place on an almost nightly basis, Forkner learned how to work a camera.

“So for five years I went to pretty much every meeting to do with the city,” he said.

It was the perfect education for a future councilor, and so when Nancy Davidson stepped aside in the middle of her term, Forkner was ready made. To this day, Forkner has served on more voluntary commissions and committees than perhaps any other resident, including the Development and Planning Policy commissions, the Parks Board, and the Downtown Issaquah Association.

“It’s that small town thing, where if you’re raised in a small town you want to be involved,” he said. “Not necessarily because you want to be, but because that’s the way it just is. I don’t mind giving back to a place that’s helped me so much.”

Forkner loves that from his home on Squak Mountain it takes him 5 minutes to get to work; that his wife can walk down Front Street and talk with her friends that work there; that he can go to Front Street Market and know most of the people in the store. It is exactly these things that Forkner hopes the Central Issaquah Plan will promote in the city – community.

“This sense of community makes everyone aware of themselves, how they behave. It makes you want to be a good person,” he said. “That is a powerful realisation – that these people watching me aren’t strangers. They know me.”

By developing distinct areas inside which people can live, socialize, shop and work, Forkner hopes to see a return to the old fashioned neighborhood, where residents can walk between destinations, and where strangers become friends. It is a vision shared by many on task force, including Boeing security manager, former military intelligence officer and current Mountains to Sound Greenway board member Ken Konigsmark.

A connection with nature

Issaquah has Burger King to thank for Ken Konigsmark. When he moved to the Seattle area in 1984 to work on stealth aircraft technology with Boeing, Konigsmark looked around for a place to live that would appeal to his great passion for the outdoors.

“To be honest, I was disgusted by what I saw in places like Renton, and Kent,” he said. “So, getting pretty tired of looking around, I found myself in a Burger King in Renton. I said to the guy behind the counter, ‘If you could live anywhere you wanted, where would you live?’ The guy behind me in the line turns around and says ‘Issaquah.’ I drove over here, saw Tiger Mountain, saw all the forest, the creeks, and I knew right away. This is where I want to live.”

As a boy growing up in Iowa farm country, he poured over copies of Outdoors magazine, enthralled by the craggy peaks, the deep, forested valleys, the wild rivers. Even during his time in the military he harbored an ambition to one day become a forest ranger, taking every course that had anything to do with the natural world – climate technology, man and the environment.

Even though he never became that forest ranger, through his heralded involvement with the Mountains to Sound Greenway, the Washington State Parks Foundation, and the Issaquah Alps Trails Club, where he is a past president, Konigsmark’s name has become forever connected with Issaquah’s successful push to retain the very things that drew him to the city all those years ago.

“It is such a unique, beautiful place, so connected with nature,” he said. “That’s what this plan needs to reflect. That even as we grow into a dense, urban city, we need to retain that connection with nature.”

Konigsmark’s interest in the land use and development machinations of the city was sparked back in the early days of the Issaquah Highlands development, a period that Konigsmark said was characterized by hidden deals, and questionable contracts with developers.

“There was a plot underway, they called him ‘the mystery buyer,’ for some rich Microsoft guy who wanted to buy 150 acres for a rural mega estate,” Konigsmark said. “The thing was, he also wanted 220 acres of King County public land, which was open space, set aside for him, to surround his property, for fences and security and such.”

When a few members of the community found out about it, they raised hell. Thanks to the persistent lobbying of Konigsmark and others, the mystery buyer gave up. What soon followed was a period of great transparency and cooperation in Port Blakely and the city’s dealings in the Highlands.

“The lesson learned was that you need to engage citizen’s advisory councils for big projects like this,” Konigsmark said. “Since then, the city has done a good job of saying to developers, ‘If you want to come in, that’s great, but you’ve got to fulfill this and this, and be respectful of our goals for certain things.'”

During occasional trips to his home town of Mason City (the setting for River City in “The Music Man”) Konigsmark sees an area that has essentially remained frozen in time.

“It was just like it was in the movie,” he said. “It still is. Corn fields still surround the city. The only difference is they put a Walmart on the outskirts, which devastated the downtown area.”

It was a desire to see Issaquah take greater control of his future that prompted him to respond to Frisinger’s request that he join the taskforce.

“I can’t say no to these things. They’re too important,” he said. “This is so significant to the future of Issaquah, to what it will become.”

Forkner and Konigsmark both recognize one of the great strengths of the 12-person task force is the diversity of its participants. Alongside green space advocates like Konigsmark work development professionals such as Costco’s Director of Real Estate Development, Peter Kahn, and Rowley Properties consultant Lisa Picard.

The smart future of real estate

Picard is the model of a modern real estate professional. It is an industry that in recent decades has moved away from the old school wheelers and smooth dealers, tapping into the tenets of urban design and human behavior. Picard holds two masters degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Real Estate Development and Finance, and City Planning, and has spent the past 17 years all over America, helping build everything from office towers to resort properties, and urban mixed-use developments.

Picard is also the founder of MUSE Development, which in the last few years has been busy planning the redevelopment of Wards Cove on Lake Union, turning the historic fish packing site into an upscale house boat community.

In 2007, Rowley Properties asked Picard to take a look at their long term options in Issaquah, specifically the redevelopment of Hyla Crossing and Rowley Center, which is currently the focus of Rowley’s development agreement negotiations with the City of Issaquah. Given the obvious connection between Rowley’s plans on the western edge of Gilman Boulevard and the broader Central Issaquah Plan, it made sense Picard play a key role in the task force.

“Since the Rowleys have done business in Issaquah for over 56 years, they truly wanted what’s best for Issaquah,” Picard said. “I found that both of us were interested in doing what’s right, not just taking the easiest path to least resistance.”

After a few years studying the area and its natural context, and analyzing local and regional market demographics, Ricard was instrumental in putting together Rowley’s catch-cry for their redevelopment plans in Issaquah, “Let Your Nature Begin,” a phrase the company trademarked in 2008. As a member of the task force, she is now watching a plan unfold that places a great emphasis on nature – a push for more green space in the center of town, connections to trails, architecture which reflects the mountains and trees, the preservation of view corridors.

“This is about implementing the community vision, whereby the city can proactively increase livability and manage change rather than be reactive to it, “she said. “This subarea planning process is a significant opportunity for us to knit the community back together, connecting it to the lake and providing for increased mobility between our unique districts.”

But as much as developers like Rowley may have turned over a new leaf in recent years, repenting for their decades of strip malls and development projects which maximized short-term returns but resulted in a city which is clogged and inhuman in parts, there are astute members of the community which still feel it is important to keep their feet to the fire.

Responsible stewards be vigilant

Born and raised on the flat farmland of Indiana, Mary Lynch has since become one of Issaquah’s most vocal advocates for preserving the natural amenities of this city. Though most know Lynch from her involvement with the Issaquah Environmental Council, fewer would be aware she was one of the first generation of women in this country to break into the male-dominated field of corporate engineering and robotics. A graduate of Purdue University, Lynch first laid eyes on the Pacific Northwest as a young child traveling with her family. When adulthood allowed her to chose her home, she headed straight for the west coast.

“We went on lots of family vacations. We would drive around in our old ’63 Chevy,” Lynch recalled. “Back home, the farmlands were being quickly gobbled up by development. People would sit around on a screened-in porch and drink ice tea. There wasn’t a lot to do outdoors. I saw the west, and I fell in love with the mountains and the ocean.”

When she took a job selling robotic systems to Boeing in 1986, what attracted her to Issaquah, aside from the trees and trails, was that “it was its own city, it had its own government and infrastructure.”

Though always interested in sustainability and the outdoors, it was a chance encounter with Harvey Manning, a giant of the Issaquah conservation movement, that “really educated me, showed me the loopholes, and what was being done to the city without many people being aware of it.”

At the time, Manning, Ruth Kees and the Issaquah Alps Trails Club were fighting against the development of the Issaquah Skyport near Pickering Barn into a retail center.

“That should never have happened. That’s an aquifer out there,” Lynch said, referring to the myriad of flooding problems which have resulted from covering acres of soil and farmland with the impervious surface of tarmac. “Through Harvey, I met all these other people who were switched on. They said to me, ‘Sure, this is a city. But it’s being run by developers.'”

While Lynch said that in the past few decades councilors like Dave Kappler had been instrumental in “turning the tide” to ensure more consideration of ecology and the environment, there was still a need for responsible stewards to be vigilant. As one of the proponents for the city’s heralded tree-preservation ordinance, Lynch said it was disappointing to see immediate exceptions made, like in the case of the property deal to allow easier passage of the I-90 undercrossing project.

“Whenever the city is challenged by major developers, they look the other way,” she said. “Rowley too. I mean, he changed the direction of Tibbets Creek. That was my housing extension, and I realized after I moved in it should never have been built. The city’s looked the opposite way for a long time with him.”

So Lynch is hopeful the balance of backgrounds in the task force will present a plan that is responsive to community concerns.

“You have people like [Gilman Village GM] Aaron Barouh, who have the ownership, know the history of the city and are not afraid to speak up,” she said. “It is also interesting to hear from guys like [Costco director of development] Peter Kahn. Even though he’s this big, corporate guy, he’s also the one talking about the importance of affordable housing.”

Still, Lynch said, as good as the plan may be it is a long way from fruition.

“My concern is we eventually have to hand it over to city staff,” she said, indicating there was still plenty of time for the optimism and sustainable vision of the plan to be corrupted by less admirable processes of development and bureaucracy. “I am worried that in the end it is going to be all about money.”

In addition to Joe Forkner, Aaron Barouh, Mary Lynch, Peter Kahn, Lisa Picard and Ken Konigsmark, the Central Issaquah Plan Advistory Task Force also includes

· David MacDuff, Issaquah community member and Mountains to Sound Board Member

· John Milne, Medical Director for Strategic Development, Swedish Medical Center

· Mel Morgan, Development Commission member

· Sajal Sahay, Planning Policy Commission member

· Tom Sessions, Issaquah business community member

· Steve Willard, Cascade Business Park

The task force meets on the second Tuesday of the month, at the Pickering Room, City Hall NW. The next meeting will be Aug. 17, at 5:30 p.m.