This is the first in a series of articles exploring the proposed Central Issaquah Plan and its implications for the people who live and work in Issaquah. The Central Issaquah Plan is a blueprint for converting 1100 acres of valley floor from an area of strip malls, storage units, and parking lots to high-density multi-use development. The City Council hopes to approve a final version of the plan by the end of this year.
Leap forward to 2025. We are walking east along NW Maple Street.
The three-story HighMark Medical Center building, finished in 2011, stands on our left. It and its surrounding parking lot are partially hidden by numerous trees. The sidewalk here passes through a broad, lush, suburban streetscape. The center was the first medical office building in Issaquah certified to meet the rigorous LEED Gold environmental standards.
Across Route 900, some of the parking surface on the left side has been replaced with another office building. This two-story building is similar in character to the HighMark Medical Center, except that it is built right up to the sidewalk. There is ample parking for visitors behind. Construction of two slightly taller buildings in the space adjoining the office building is underway. Together, the three buildings will eventually form a “street wall.”
Otherwise NW Maple Street and the rest of Central Issaquah look much the same as they did in 2012.
Although this vision of the future is a work of the imagination, Issaquah developers and City planners share it to a considerable degree.
“If you walk down any [Central Issaquah] street ten years from now, it is not going to be significantly different than it is today,” said Mark Hinthorne, the City’s Senior Policy Advisor and Special Projects Director in a recent interview. “The scale of change that you would probably see in [the next] ten years will be along the lines of what we have seen over the last five years or maybe even ten years.”
Keeping pace with regional growth
In 2025 the world’s population will have grown from seven to eight billion people in only 15 years. King County will contribute its share. Officials predict that the county’s population will grow faster than many others in the nation, increasing by about 300,000. The birth rate will continue to exceed the death rate, and the population will be augmented by immigrants from other counties, states, and countries.
Issaquah will keep pace by developing new homes and business space in the Issaquah Highlands, on the slopes of Cougar Mountain, and in the vicinity of the old gravel pit alongside Highlands Drive.
Thanks to this development, Issaquah will harbor about 2000 new households in 2025. With the annexation of neighboring communities, Issaquah’s population could grow by 13,000 to 43,000.
But growth won’t stop there, and it will eventually spark a transformation in Central Issaquah.
Making room for more
“As the region keeps growing, everybody is going to need to continue to take their share,” noted Hinthorne. Under the State of Washington’s Growth Management Act, each county is required to accommodate twenty years of growth and to allocate that growth among its various urban and rural areas. King County forecasts that its population will grow 16% over the next twenty years, expanding from 1.9 million to about 2.3 million people in 2031. Issaquah has agreed to accommodate at least 5000 more households to fulfill its share of this requirement.
Central Issaquah is an obvious location to absorb this growth. The Central Issaquah subarea covers 1100 acres of the valley floor on either side of I-90. Not only is it adjacent to a major Interstate and Route 900, but it is arguably underdeveloped. It is a landscape dominated by old storage units, single-story office buildings, and barren pavement. 75% of the area is covered by parking lots.
Predicting how Issaquah will look as it accommodates the expanding population over the next few decades is difficult at best. It is impossible to accurately forecast how the economy will change over the course of ten, twenty, or thirty years, or how technological improvements and evolving cultural norms will affect development. A city can help form its future, however, by creating long-term plans with ordinances that support their implementation. As computer scientist Alan Kay said, “Look, the best way to predict the future is to invent it.”
Issaquah needs to invent a future that accommodates tens of thousands more people and jobs, with the services, infrastructure, and amenities to support them.
Issaquah’s leaders are attempting to invent this future by developing a Central Issaquah Plan to guide Central Issaquah’s long-term transformation to a higher-density development that can sustain future growth.
The City’s leadership has considered two plan proposals. The first, known as Task Force Recommendation (Action Alternative 1), is based on recommendations developed by a citizen task force. The City administration developed the second proposal, known as Core Growth Center (Action Alternative 2), which features higher density housing in the urban core.
The versions grow out of somewhat different visions of what Issaquah needs to succeed. Each proposal possesses controversial features. Each entails an element of risk. Both face opposition from residents who chose Issaquah for its suburban character.
So what happens if Issaquah does not adopt a Central Issaquah Plan?
The second article in this series will explore what an Issaquah of the future might look like without the adoption of a Central Issaquah Plan. Parts three and four will take a closer look at the two alternative recommendations.