This is the second 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. The introduced the Central Issaquah Plan and the factors motivating its development. This article explores how the future might look if a Central Issaquah Plan is not adopted.
“I’d like to keep things the way they are,” says a Squak Mountain resident who has lived in Issaquah for twelve years. She moved to Issaquah because its suburban atmosphere combined with the hillside views of blue sky, white clouds, and the mature trees fit her stereotype of the Northwest. “I liked that it appeared to be a small town and that it was really close to Seattle,” she says.
Issaquah’s leaders share these views to a certain extent. Yet, when asked what is the greatest risk to Issaquah, most of them agree that the biggest danger is failure to plan for change.
Continuing the course
Jump ahead to 2040. We are walking east along NW Mall Street from Route 900 in a Central Issaquah that was shaped by the development agreements and the Comprehensive Plan that existed in 2011.
We are walking through a landscape of concrete, brick, and glass covering about 80 acres on both sides of Route 900. Every block, a tower or two extends ten to twelve stories into the sky. Terraces and some two to six story buildings that separate the high rises let light hit the sidewalk and allow us to catch glimpses of the trees on top of Squak Mountain to our right. The buildings house about 500 residences with sweeping views of Lake Sammamish, the Issaquah Alps, and the Cascades, as well as office suites for a diverse mix of businesses. These businesses, along with street-level merchants, employ about 6500 people. Many of them share the six-foot sidewalk with us, and others sip coffee at tables under awnings. Along most of the street, buildings come right up to the sidewalk, creating a street wall. This is the portion of Central Issaquah developed by Rowley Properties, Inc.
When we reach 12th Avenue NW, we find ourselves in an Issaquah of a decidedly different character. Turning either direction, we are on a tree-shaded sidewalk that meanders through broad bands of landscaping. The two to six story structure are set back from the street with only 40-65% of the land covered by hard, impervious surfaces. The residential complexes, malls, business campuses, and medical centers are similar to those of 2012 except that they are taller and denser. Expansive parking lots have been replaced by parking structures or integrated into the lowest levels of the buildings. These parking structures and streets are congested with the vehicles of 1500 new households and 20,000 employees working in Central Issaquah, as well as people from the surrounding neighborhoods who travel to the area to shop. In comparison, the sidewalk is mostly empty. These are the 1020 acres of Central Issaquah developed under the provisions of 1995 Comprehensive Plan as amended in 2011.
Though this vision of the future may be far from reality, developers are already poised to start projects in the valley as soon as market conditions allow. The city’s skyline will change even if the City Council doesn’t approve a Central Issaquah Plan.
“A lot of people wonder why can’t we just stop development,” said Planning Manager Trish Heinonen in a recent interview. “But that’s not a real option.”
Controlling our destiny
Many of Issaquah’s leaders fear that, as Issaquah inevitably changes, the changes will not meet the future needs of the community unless the City adopts a new plan that promotes economic and environmental sustainability.
Heading the list of fears are expansion into the Issaquah Alps; inadequate infrastructure and services including multi-use roads, parking, schools, law enforcement, fire stations, water, and waste processing; failure to build public spaces needed to preserve and sense of community; loss of green spaces and tree canopy within the city; and degradation of critical habitats needed for the survival of well-loved and endangered wildlife.
“My biggest fear is that people will trap themselves into looking at the future from their narrow perspective of 2012 and the existing makeup of the valley floor, and think that it will only get worse,” said Ken Konigsmark, member of Central Issaquah Plan Advisory Task Force. “In fact, we have a great opportunity if we are smart about this to do things much better and to improve everything even as we grow,”
“What could stop that is a failure to realize the importance of being bold and standing up and saying this is who Issaquah is and this is what we want to be,” said Matt Bott, Chief Executive Officer of the Issaquah Chamber of commerce. “We need to take control over our own destiny as a community. Change is hard, but we have a responsibility to take care of this place and to do the very best we can to pass it along better than we found it.”
But what makes Issaquah a uniquely attractive place to live and work, and can we build a plan that preserves and even enhances those characteristics while accommodating future growth? A couple of years ago, Mayor Ava Frisinger appointed an advisory task force to find out.
The third article in this series will explore the recommendation developed by the Central Issaquah Plan Advisory Task Force appointed by Mayor Ava Frisinger.