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  THE TOWN PAPER
VOL. 5, NO. 2 -- SPRING 2003
 

New Towns -- Issaquah Highlands, Washington



An award-winning urban village is climbing the hills of Issaquah (IH-suh-kwah), Wash. Issaquah Highlands, designed by Calthorpe Associates and developed by Issaquah-based Port Blakely Communities, is the latest in a growing line of TNDs nationwide that are proving what can be done when political will exists -- and the politicians listen to the public's desires.

The 2,223-acre TND (1,500 of those acres will be set aside as permanent open space) is ponderous in its scope, but nimble in its execution. Five pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods will comprise the finished project, each neighborhood named after its own signature park: Ashland Park, Summit Park, Village Green, North Park and Central Park. Single-family residences will number 3,250; so far, 700 have been built. A town center (slated for 2003 or early 2004) and village center will combine to provide 900,000 square feet of retail, as well as 500 living units (mainly condos and apartments, with a small number of townhomes). Three million square feet of office space will soon be claimed by Microsoft, the Redmond-based software giant that is building a campus in Issaquah Highlands dubbed "Microsoft Highlands."

After years of planning and its share of controversy, Issaquah Highlands is finally coming out of the ground. A central park welcomes pedestrians. A deli and an insurance broker have set up shop. A few live/work units are built, providing real-life examples for future buyers. "It's already a true town," says Judd Kirk, president of Port Blakely Communities.

Issaquah Highlands' initial timing was unfortunate. In its planning stage, the development bumped into the city of Issaquah's urban growth boundary; in fact, the boundary line bisected the property. While the developer gathered input from local residents, in the end the decision to move ahead was a political one, based on the project's design and type: It wasn't a typical CSD. For example, its proportion of developed land to permanent open space was balanced enough to bring the environmental contingent on board. Next -- predictably -- came the codes blockade. "We had to change most of the development regulations," says Kirk. "We worked with the mayor and council to establish the vision, then we went to the fire marshal and others to get the variances we needed."

The land itself proved a challenge. Like many parcels in western Washington, the site was steeply sloped (8 to 12 percent grades), posing a design conundrum. Calthorpe Associates accommodated the topography in part by specifying "hillside cottage lanes," which are clusters of cottages that step down the slopes. The cottages face shared, terraced parks or greens, and capture westward views down the slopes. Garage-fed alleys pass behind the cottages and connect to the main roads, which run parallel to the slopes. Since smaller homes work better on flat land, Kirk went looking for builders who would design homes for the topography, would do different layouts, and would build on hillsides.

Kirk tells a familiar tale when he speaks of the builder learning curve. Not surprisingly, he found himself skimming through a pool of builders who were used to throwing up McMansions in record time. He carefully selected eight builders, then flew all of them to Kentlands, a TND in Gaithersburg, Md., so he could show them a precedent for building smaller houses on 3,500-square-foot lots. They climbed on board and broke ground.

Issaquah Highlands will draw residents with its compact fabric and walking-distance amenities, but it has a few other tricks up its sleeve, too. Port Blakely is actively pushing a "Built Green Program," the brainchild of a local Master Builders group that rates builders on their products and practices adherence to indoor air quality, energy conservation, solar access, and low-toxic materials use, among other criteria. Homeowners who purchase a home from a builder with at least a three-star rating will gain a higher-quality product that carries with it the advantages of improved health, energy-cost savings, and a higher resale.

Port Blakely Communities is also drawing the high-tech work force by requiring that every home - from the upper-$100,000s carriage houses to the $1,000,000 single-family homes - be wired to accommodate their needs. Buyers get an in-home LAN, data outlets throughout the home, a fiber optic connection to a data panel inside the home, 100 Mbps network speed, free community Intranet connection, and the choice of DSL, cable, or even fiber optics for high-speed internet access. The entire network is supported by a corporate-grade data center. In short, it's a technology geek's dream.

A variety of creature comforts and conveniences are queued up for development. They include an elementary school, ball fields, a 1,000-car Park-n-Ride station with express bus service. The second phase of development (the hillside cottages) is under way, allowed to proceed after a three-year hiatus because the new interchange that connects Issaquah Highlands to Interstate 90 is now half built, and will be completed in August 2003.

That arterial's connection to the town center is itself a lingering controversy. As the arterial approaches the town center, it splits into one-way couplets that are separated by a block; the arterial becomes a grid of one-way streets that pass through the town center, then come together again on the other side. This approach is being questioned by some new urbanists and retailers, who say that it lessens walkability and retail viability by speeding up traffic flow. Kirk disagrees; the "jury" of residents will likely weigh in after the town center is complete.

But the first Issaquah Highlands residents are already making their feelings known, says Kirk. "They love the density; they love the whole aspect," he says. "Whenever you spend time here, this attitude really comes through."

Jason Miller is a new urbanist freelance writer and editor based in St. Paul, Minn. Contact him at goodwords@juno.com or 651.503.6304.