More than anything else, I think this Port Blakely/City of Issaquah deal in the Highlands is about trust.
More than the specific concerns about traffic, and landscaping, retail activity or stormwater mitigation, the feeling I got from watching Monday night’s public meeting about the Issaquah Highlands TDR is that the residents don’t trust the managers of their community.
“Like most folks up there, I decided to buy into a higher density area with the understanding that there would be green space set aside,” said Highlands resident Peter Masten. “It seems like every year another project comes up that seems to negotiate away some of that.”
His comments were pretty typical of many we heard on Monday night – “this ain’t what it said in the brochure.”
It is important to distinguish which parts of the TDR deal the residents are right to feel aggrieved by. Though many of them would disagree, it isn’t the city’s offer to allow Port Blakely to build 500 additional units. As Connie Marsh said on Monday night, the Highlands is still not developed to the extent originally allowed. The 500 units were always there.While the allowance is increasing, it’s still well below the cap.
And it isn’t really the school. Fear and mistrust manifested itself in some confusion, as it often does, on Monday night when residents held the city and Port Blakely accountable for possible overcrowding at Grand Ridge Elementary. These public comments were a wasted opportunity for concerned residents to hold feet to the fire – class sizes and overcrowding at schools is strictly the business of the school district and the State Legislature, and will have no impact on how the city views an expansion of the Highlands.
What I think they do have a right to be aggrieved about is the development of 35 acres of land which, as it is, stands forested and undisturbed just west of Central Park. This is contrary to the idea of urban density whichever way you spin it, the very basis of which is to prevent continued urban sprawl by concentrating development on areas already cleared and paved over.
I don’t think anyone would mind so much – developers all over are doing similar things and not getting the flak that Port Blakely is – if not for that fact that urban density and conservation of green space was exactly their selling point.
It was the brochures of town houses and shops surrounded by preserved open space that convinced people to fork over their hard earned money in the first place, and it was the reason for the national acclaim that drove early home sales there. Port Blakely lived by that sword. If developers are going to profit from their promises, then they also need to be accountable to them. “Green, sustainable, urban village” should not be just a marketing slogan, but an obligation.
Understandably, the residents are now frustrated that, having made their own investment in the Highlands, Port Blakely is reneging on theirs.
Obviously the developer will point to the economic downturn and say, “it just isn’t profitable at the moment.” And herein lies the problem – cost consideration is the overwhelming factor in all development possibilities. When the money isn’t right, all bets are off – it is decided the promises are only valid as long as it doesn’t cost those who made them.
So the residents are mad. And who can blame them?
Port Blakely’s commitment to their initial vision has been waning for some time, in this plan to spread the boundaries of the Highlands, but also in the parking lot, and the gas station proposal. All these compromises have fostered a feeling of mistrust, a fear of the fine print, and a lack of faith in the masters of their universe.
As Mark Neiman said “we’ve got a partner here in Port Blakely that has struggled, I think it is polite to say, in accomplishing what they set out to do. I’m not sure if the council wants to have that type of partner involved in additional growth up there, and the management of it.” Fair point.
Which is why it is so important that residents keep a close eye on where it all goes from here. So much will change, the city and the developer will both stray from their stated intentions, either by necessity or convenience, and is important they are kept in check by as many watchdogs as can be mustered. People like Connie Marsh, Mary Lynch, and Dave Kappler, though people may tire of seeing them hold forth at council meetings, are worth their weight in gold in keeping our managers accountable. They have long memories, and detailed records.
A few things I heard Monday make me think the retractions and repurposed promises are not far away.
1. – Fred Butler on the mountain bike skills park, a key part of the TDR package: “…or if that doesn’t come to fruition, using that money for additional recreational facilities.”
2. – Keith Niven on the interim parking lot: “What happens to them at the end of the day? Do they just become surface parking lots, or do they turn into swans, as well hope they will? I don’t think we know. I think that’s part of the faith we have in the partnership with Port Blakely.”