City should help finance, kick-start Town Center

One of the issues facing the City Council as it begins its review of the regulations for the Town Center is whether to help finance elements of it to kick-start development.

This issue is not part of the Planning Commission’s regulations recommendations that will be under review beginning March 15 (see following post); this issue was deemed by the Commission to be beyond its scope of work.

As a former member of the Commission, and a long-time activist regarding land use and traffic issues, I was of the opinion going into the Town Center regulations process in early 2008 that the City should not contribute to financing TC stuff–this should fall to the responsibility of the developers under the “growth pays its own way” theory.

But at a City Council meeting, officials from Mercer Island, Mill Creek and a third jurisdiction (I forget which) appeared at the invitation of the City to discuss the development of their Town Centers. Mill Creek was most comparable with Sammamish, starting from scratch as we are. The Mill Creek TC plan initially did not provide for city financing–and the TC languished, until the city reversed course and contributed to kick-start the project.

Mill Creek now has an active TC (I am not thrilled with its execution, but this is a different topic). This got me to thinking that maybe my thoughts on this should change.

Then the capital financing market collapsed in September 2008. It has not recovered. On March 2, I had a conversation with a Sammamish residential builder, who is barely holding on by his fingernails, waiting for the banks to resume lending. This is one of the area’s largest home builders. His projects in Sammamish have been on hold since the financial market collapse.

Potential developers of our Town Center have expressed interest in beginning and they would like to go as soon as regulations are approved–but they are seriously concerned about the continued capital market squeeze.

Here is where Sammamish must reconsider its previously adopted position that it has already done enough.

The City Manager and some Council Members believe that the $2m the City has spent on the TC planning, plus the widening of 228th Ave. and the acquisition and development of the Sammamish Commons, is plenty. I disagree.

Widening of at least part of 228th was planned by the County before we became a city and the rest needed to be done with or without the Town Center. Commitments to buy the land that ultimately became the Commons were also pre-Town Center decisions.

As for the $2m to plan the TC, this is an important contribution, yes, but it does not help kick-start the TC. There are infrastructure issues that exist now and that have to be addressed in the TC regulations, many of which are described in the following article.

Although certain landowners on the East Side of 228th, plus Mayor Don Gerend, argue that the East Side has more infrastructure than the West Side, this vastly over-simplifies the facts. The Town Center Plan points out that there are, in fact, more water and sewer lines on the West Side than on the East and during the fact-gathering process, the Sammamish Water and Sewer District concluded that it would cost $12m to add and upgrade sewers and water lines on the East Side vs. $8m on the West Side.

The East Side landowners and Gerend say the City has to pay for infrastructure, and this is only partly true. Even before the City incorporated, and afterward, it was the policy of the County and now is the policy of the City that developers must pay for the internal streets and utilities of any development. The Water and Sewer District has a policy that developers must pay for 100% of the water and sewer construction.

Where the City has to contribute is to pay the arterial road construction that goes beyond the developer’s “fair share” of road improvements. In other words, SE 4th St. west of 228th, 218th, SE 8th from 218th to 212th and certain other streets and intersections already carry traffic; a developer has to pay for his “fair share” for the incremental traffic, but since you can’t build a portion of a road lane or an intersection, the City taxpayers must pay for the cost beyond the developer’s “fair share.”

The East Side landowners, and Gerend, observe that SE 4th east of 228th is already built. However, the Staff has said this road will need additional work to accommodate the new development.

The East Side landowners, and Gerend, say there are sewers. Well, yes–only along the perimeter and not through–or throughout–the East Side. There are actually more sewers throughout the West Side than the East Side.

The East Side landowners, and Gerend, say there are fiber optics on the East Side. I’ll take their word for it, and they haven’t said (to my knowledge) that there aren’t fiber optics on the West Side, but so what? This would be a developer responsibility, not a City responsibility in any event.

Where the City ought to consider financing are those policies that have been adopted and recommended for policy or environmental or design reasons. This includes “regional” storm water management, so that there aren’t a bunch of retention-detention ponds scattered throughout the TC that are eyesores. The policies call for regional R-D ponds to supplement low impact development so that, in addition to reducing the number of R-D ponds, these may be constructed to be amenities rather than eyesores. Given the cost, complexities and environmental reasons for adopting this policy, this can be one area the City might consider financially contributing to kick-start development.

Another infrastructure the City might consider funding goes to the policy of requiring structured parking. This policy was adopted so we don’t have large, ugly parking lots like those at the Safeway and QFC complexes and to minimize impervious surfaces in the environmentally sensitive Ebright Creek and Thompson Hill sub-basins in which the TC lies.

Parking structures are very expensive, about three times that of surface parking. The City could consider offering financing support to subsidize these as a way to kick-start the TC development.

The preceding post details some specifics about how the City can do this.

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