"Normally at a Planning Policy Commission meeting we look out over all empty seats,” commented Joan Probala, co-chair of the city of Issaquah’s Planning Policy Commission. “It's really nice to see community involvement in this process."
It was evening on the 19th of April. Probala and other members of the Planning Policy Commission were present for a public hearing on the draft Central Issaquah Plan (CIP) and the associated draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The CIP is a plan to convert the valley floor from an area of strip malls, storage units, and parking lots to high-density multi-use development. As envisioned, this development will feature numerous ten to twelve[nbsp]story buildings that will hold about 7,750 additional housing units, 29,225 more employees, and 6.9 million square feet of additional commercial space attracting visitors from around the region.
Probala and her fellow Commissioners looked out on a small crowd scattered across several rows of chairs. In the front sat people who had worked on the CIP and associated projects, including staff and consultants. Representatives of Rowley Properties sat in the center, and local environmentalists grouped together on far right (mostly sitting on the ground or standing with their backs against the wall). In the darkness behind the seats stood journalists, late arrivals, and interested residents. Almost everybody was taking notes.
The public hearing was the latest step in a plan development process designed to engage the public and encourage input from residents, businesses, developers and other stakeholders. The turnout pleased the city as well as the Planning Policy Commission.
“This is really exciting to see folks here to tell us their thoughts about the plan and on the environmental review," said Trish Heinonen, City of Issaquah Planning Manager.
Yet, no one in the audience had signed up to speak.
City offers developer incentives
The public hearing opened with a presentation by staff from Issaquah's Planning Department. While providing a high-level summary of the plan, its guiding principles, and the environmental review, the presentation emphasized aspects of the plan that are intended to spur the local economy.
A slide placed “Support Economic Vitality” at the top of a list of the four primary objectives of the plan. A subsequent slide elaborated on ways the plan would support economic vitality through developer incentives, process changes, and more lenient developer requirements. These modifications would include a streamlined permitting process and a loosening of certain standards. Allowing more impervious surface, changing in building height and density standards, and removing requirements for setbacks and building envelopes would, according to Trish, make it easier for permit applicants to “be creative with their site planning."
Another slide highlighted developer incentives, including tax exemptions. The initial development projects would receive additional incentives such as exemption from the affordable housing requirement.
Critics hang back
After the staff presentation, Joan Probala initiated the public comment period. Because no one had signed up to speak, Joan urged members of the audience to speak if they wished. The first several speakers were largely supportive of the CIP.
Two speakers represented Rowley Properties, Inc. They lauded the plan for making efficient use of the valley floor, aligning well with the guiding principles, and preserving the characteristics that make Issaquah unique. Matthew Bott, Chamber of Commerce CEO, emphasized the role the plan could play in attracting jobs and enhancing Issaquah’s competitiveness with neighboring cities, while preserving and enhancing a sense of community. A representative of the environmental organization Forterra, one of the City’s partners in development of the CIP, expressed strong support and urged the City to continue working with the developer community so that the vision articulated in the CIP becomes reality.
A couple of speakers indicated general support of the plan but suggested that it doesn’t go far enough and that the provisions for open space and a "green necklace" of parks should be reconsidered in favor of space for true mixed-use roads and affordable housing.
It wasn’t until the sixth speaker rose that a more critical view was offered.
Final speakers offer a diversity of views
“I agree with all of the guidelines. The guidelines were wonderful then, they're wonderful now,” said Kay Haynes, who had participated in the design process in its early stages. “But the vision that I'm hearing expressed tonight is not the vision I have for Issaquah.”
Haynes suggested that the City’s growth commitments and the guiding principles could be met without ten to twelve story buildings. Some members of the audience responded audibly with mutters and titters. “Building height and open space are huge variables in terms of how livable a community feels,” said Haynes, “and what brought a lot of us here to begin with was the livability.”
Bryan Weinstein, a prior Planning Policy Commissioner rose next. In an engaging speech, he questioned whether CIP reflects what residents really want Issaquah to be in the future. He expressed doubts that the transportation level of service would not get worse, and articulated concerns that provisions that would allow developers to pay money in lieu of compliance with certain standards would result in a city devoid of common spaces and green spaces.
Finally, Connie Marsh, an outspoken Issaquah resident and business owner, summarized her concerns with the draft EIS and the CIP. “The sense of place for people who live in Issaquah is different than the business owners’, who want to grow,” she said. Using large, hand-written cards, she summarized the growth-related issues that concern her the most, including elements that could prevent the CIP from meeting objectives related to affordable housing, transportation, environment, and walkability.
“I want to speak”
After Connie returned to her seat, Joan Probala offered her closing comments. “I really appreciate all the ideas that came up,” she said, and summarized the process by which the public input would be considered. Suddenly, she noticed a member of the audience standing.
The woman, an Issaquah resident, indicated that she wanted an opportunity to speak, and was invited to the podium.
“I really want the city to stay green, and it needs to stay unique,” she said, opining that twelve-story buildings will make Issaquah seem a part of neighboring Bellevue. “If you want a city that looks like Bellevue, why don’t you go live in Bellevue?”
She may have been the last attendee to speak, but she probably won’t have the last word.
“This is a community process,” said Probala, “ and to get as many people involved as possible is really important.”
Residents, employers, property owners, and developers still have an opportunity to speak out about the Plan and help direct its final implementation. Concerned stakeholders can send comments and questions via e-mail to email@example.com or speak out during an upcoming City Council meeting.
Issaquah's Central Issaquah Plan site