Stores, jobs come slowly to pioneering urban village
Issaquah Highlands opens a shopping district 15 years after the first residents arrived in a planned “live-work-play” community.
Seattle Times staff reporter
It’s been a long wait for a grocery, bank and dozens of other stores to come to the Issaquah Highlands.
“They said the retail was going to be in within a year or two. That was 1998,” said Geoff Walker, one of the first residents of the planned community.
But at last, a downtown is taking shape there.
A 12-screen movie theater opened in June, followed by a frequently jammed Starbucks, BevMo!, The Ram, Big Fish Grill and small shops.
Nearly 50 tenants, including Safeway, Marshalls and Wells Fargo, will be open this fall at the gateway to one of King County’s largest urban villages.
It’s a coming of age for the hillside community whose residents have waited impatiently for shops where they could buy underwear or a loaf of bread.
“I’m so excited for Safeway opening I can jump up and down!” exclaimed Stacy Goodman, a resident and City Council member who has been shopping at stores several miles away on the valley floor.
The Issaquah Highlands is one of three large planned communities that broke ground on the Eastside in the 1990s and brought a new kind of urban feel to the edge of the suburbs.
When its last unit is sold or rented in 2015, the Issaquah Highlands will be home to more than 9,000 people.
It was the last of the urban villages to develop a major retail center. Two earlier retail projects fell apart at the Issaquah Highlands, in part because of delayed freeway access and then the financial crisis.
With large tracts of close-in land a thing of the past, and with local governments attempting to direct growth into existing city centers, there won’t be any replicas of the Issaquah Highlands in King County.
But echoes of its compact, pedestrian-and-bus-friendly design can be seen in redeveloping areas from Redmond to Burien to Northgate.
The Highlands was designed to bring a mix of jobs, stores and homes to a high-density community in an area previously zoned for low-intensity rural uses.
Instead of building 5-acre estates across the 2,200-acre face of Grand Ridge — as previous zoning would have allowed — developer Port Blakely struck deals with Issaquah and King County to build the mini-city on 734 acres and turn the remaining 1,483 acres into county and city parks.
Growth-management techniques pioneered at the Issaquah Highlands have since been used to create other forested buffers on the edge of King County’s urban growth line.
Now that all but the last 700 of the Issaquah Highlands’ 4,400 homes have been built, its footprint is clearly visible from the air.
Cottages, duplexes, town houses, four-story condos and single-family homes are — except for a couple luxury-home areas — packed close together in a community bordered by forest on three sides.
The Issaquah Highlands has struggled to attract large employers, just as it took many years to sign retailers. But now, slowly, the jobs are coming.
Swedish Medical Center, which two years ago opened the Eastside’s first new hospital in 34 years there, is eyeing an expansion that could double its size.
Bellevue College has bought 19 acres where it plans to build a new campus.
Microsoft, which long ago gave up on plans for a campus at the Issaquah Highlands, signed papers Friday to sell its 63 acres across the street from the new Grand Ridge Plaza retail center.
The buyer, Issaquah Highlands Investment Fund, hopes to break ground on a project that will include homes and some commercial uses, city officials said.
“As a community we raise each other’s children,” says Rene´e Zimmerman, who moved to the Issaquah Highlands in 2000 with her husband, Erick, and their two sons.
If a child needs help, Zimmerman said, “they know who’s around, they know what adults they can trust. They know they could knock on someone’s door and ask for help. I’m not sure kids can do that in other communities.”
The Zimmermans’ sons, Alec and Austin, used to walk to Grand Ridge Elementary School, and from there to Blakely Hall, the developer-funded community center their mother managed. Now 14 and 11, the boys can walk anywhere in the community.
Zimmerman was disappointed it took so long for more than a small handful of stores to open, and that Grand Ridge Plaza isn’t the University Village-type “lifestyle center” planned before a retail developer backed out.
But she says she’s excited to see stores open and that restaurants are doing a “phenomenal” business.
Regency Centers’ 325,000-square-foot Grand Ridge Plaza is a retail hybrid, with the small street-facing shops of a traditional Main Street in one area and the surface parking lots and big boxes of a strip mall in others.
In the beginning, old Issaquah and the Issaquah Highlands felt like separate places. But over time, Issaquah Mayor Ava Frisinger said, Highlands residents have become more and more integrated into the city of 32,000.
“I think people in the old part of town, as the Highlands has developed, feel a connection there,” Frisinger said. “There are a lot of people who are happy to have Swedish Hospital there. They’ve also made friends. Kids with their sports activities and all kinds of things have gotten people connected.”
City officials are pleased enough with the Issaquah Highlands that they’ve approved an even higher-density urban village on the Lakeside Industries gravel site next door, with 2,000 homes and buildings up to seven stories.
Old town, new town
Frisinger joined the City Council in 1986, as the city was considering the future of forested Grand Ridge, which rises above Interstate 90 just northeast of the old city limits. Because much of the older city core was subject to flooding, “We were happy to grasp the idea of an urban village” on higher ground.
As then-partners Port Blakely and Seattle Seahawks owner Ken Behring’s Blackhawk Corp. were exploring development options in the early 1990s, their point man, Judd Kirk, routinely asked people at public meetings to name a community they loved and would like to see replicated.
Most people fondly recalled a place in Europe or in small-town New England or the Midwest.
“The reason that they liked those communities,” said Kirk, who is now retired, “was the fundamental design that you had porches where you got to know your neighbor, you had small homes which were clustered — and again you got to know your neighbor — and you had narrow, tree-lined streets with things designed for pedestrians, not for cars.”
Many residents talk glowingly about how easy and pleasant it is to walk in the area, often on parklike greenways, even if steep hills discourage some treks.
The internal trail system connects with seven miles of forested trails in King County’s 1,300-acre Grand Ridge Park, carved out of land donated by Port Blakely.
In negotiations with Issaquah and King County, Port Blakely agreed to a little-used technique: For every acre of land added to the high-density urban growth area, 4 acres in the rural area would never be developed.
The Issaquah Highlands was also the first project in a city to boost its density by buying development rights from King County. Transfers of development rights saved 541 acres of nearby forestland.
Building the mixed-use community envisioned by Port Blakely wasn’t easy. While homes sold well, Microsoft abandoned its plans around 2000 to build a campus there, and a retail project died when the state delayed construction of an Interstate 90 interchange.
The direct link to the freeway opened in 2003.
In 2008, a second retail developer, Opus Northwest, abandoned its “High Streets” project that would have brought acres of stores topped by second-floor offices.
East King County’s two other big planned communities landed retail centers sooner, Redmond Ridge with a strip mall, Snoqualmie Ridge in more of a Main Street style.
Significant portions of Redmond Ridge’s and Snoqualmie Ridge’s corporate parks remain empty, although Snoqualmie Ridge attracted three more employers and 600 jobs over the past year.
The Issaquah Highlands has become a significant medical destination, first with Proliance Medical Center in 2009. Proliance, which employs about 200 people, is planning to expand.
Swedish Medical Center, opened in 2011, brought another 1,000 jobs and is in discussions with city officials about a major expansion.
Port Blakely expects Grand Ridge Plaza to bring about 500 retail jobs.
Although Bellevue College has yet to flesh out its plans for its future campus, it has told city officials it could have 1,650 parking spaces and serve as many as 4,000 students.
The Issaquah Highlands, with a 1,000-stall park and ride, has easy freeway access and the most frequent bus service of the urban villages to employment centers in Seattle and Bellevue.
Redmond Ridge and its companion communities, Redmond Ridge East and Trilogy at Redmond Ridge, were built outside any city and connected to Redmond by mostly two-lane roads. Traffic congestion during commute hours is “nearly intolerable,” said Redmond Mayor John Marchione.
“Redmond Ridge has always been difficult for Redmond in the sense that it is outside our borders but has a tremendous impact on the traffic on the east side of the city in particular,” he said.
Twin villages still in the pipeline — YarrowBay’s Lawson Hills and Villages projects in Black Diamond — will be even farther from major employment centers.
While representatives of the Washington Environmental Council and Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust supported the original development agreement, some environmentalists are unhappy about the result.
“It’s not good, concentrated, new urbanist growth,” said Connie Marsh of the Issaquah Environmental Council. “It is something else ... Everybody pretty much has to get in their cars and drive everywhere, including the park and ride because very few people can walk to the park and ride.”
If Grand Ridge had been developed instead with 5-acre lots, she said, “We still would have a forested hillside instead of a stripped abomination off I-90.”
The Issaquah Highlands was largely laid out by Peter Calthorpe, an early advocate of “sustainable,” transit-oriented development and a founder of the Congress for the New Urbanism.
“I guess the lesson here is that building a truly great town — this is a town, it’s not a project — takes time,” Calthorpe said. “We all tend to be very impatient and want to see the vision realized very quickly. It’s naturally incremental.”
Although initially disappointed that Microsoft didn’t become the dominant employer it might have been, Calthorpe said recently, “This is probably for the best. Things are more interesting and quirky and more real when they happen over time.”
Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or firstname.lastname@example.org