Why the Town Center is needed

The Sammamish Town Center plan was about seven years in the making, controversial throughout. Then development was held up by the 2008 Great Recession. Ground was finally broken in 2015. The first store, Metropolitan Market, opened this year. And now the Town Center is again at the center of controversy over the building moratorium.

By Scott Hamilton

There has even been a call to revisit the plan.

Here’s why doing so is not a good idea and why the Town Center is needed.

Evolution of the Plan

Sammamish Comment explained the evolution of the Town Center plan in a long post in August 2016 as part of its History of Sammamish series, long before the Center became embroiled in the current debate. A recap of this evolution today won’t be repeated; simply go to the link for the history.

Today’s post focuses on the future.

Disclosure: this writer was on the Planning Commission that wrote that Town Center plan, so there is an understandable bias supporting the work.

Quick Review

Sammamish is a land-locked “island,” with residents dependent upon King County, Issaquah and Redmond to exit the City. There isn’t one road Sammamish controls to get “there” from “here.”

When Sammamish incorporated, there were very limited services—just the Sammamish Highlands (Safeway/McDonalds) and Pine Lake (QFC) centers and 7-11 on East Lake Sammamish Parkway. Safron, across from Safeway, came later.

Aside from a few fast food chains, a few boutique restaurants and a highly limited number of boutique retail stores, there were few other shops and services.

Residents wanted more. As reported in the August 2016 post, the City Council, several citizen committees and commissions went through a long, public process to create the Town Center plan.

This includes up to 600,000 sf of commercial/retain/office space and up to 2,200 residences. (The Environmental Impact Study evaluated traffic and environmental impacts up to 700,000 sf and 3,000 residences, after which a Supplemental EIS would be required.)

Why the Town Center is needed

In addition to residents’ desires for more services, a city core, an activity gathering place and more housing variety, there is a very practical reason such a center is needed. It’s the problem of simply getting out of Sammamish to anywhere else.

The Town Center includes offices, to enable home businesses to have offices if wanted—or for small businesses to open here.

More amenities, including stores with more goods, are envisioned. More restaurants are, too.

Gathering places are envisioned as an important part of the Town Center, where a sense of community can develop.

This sense of community was something that came up in the recent City Council election.

Rituja Indapure, Minal Ghassemieh, Karen Moran and Karen Howe, among the 11 primary candidates and again some during the general election, noted a lack of a sense of community and offered ideas about bringing diversity together, especially in these current times of division, animosity and antagonism. With no core and a city notable for its neighborhoods marked by cul-de-sacs that create nodules, the absence of a city core of gathering places is what fits into the campaign rhetoric of just a few months ago.

This was, in its own way, something envisioned by citizens and planners during the creation of the Town Center plan 10 years ago.

Housing diversity

Sammamish is notable for its predominance of single-family homes. Town Center was envisioned to provide diversity, with a mix of apartments, condos and some affordable housing (although admittedly the latter is rather subjective by King County standards) along with more single-family homes.

Ten percent of the 2,200 units are intended to be affordable housing. Then, as more recently with the City Council candidate forums, it was noted that teachers, police officers and fire fighters can’t often can’t afford to live in Sammamish. Bringing a diversity of housing into the Town Center plan was intended to address at least some of this.

Traffic impacts

Today, the Town Center is criticized because of the eventual traffic impacts it will bring. This was hardly lost on the citizens involved in creating the plan, the professional planners who assisted, the traffic engineers who analyzed impacts and the City Councils who approved the plans.

All these studies and were done in good faith and participants all weighed the impacts of congestion vs the benefits. There were trade-offs on the “cost-benefit” analysis.

Suggestions by some property owners in the Town Center to dramatically increase the commercial/retail space and residential numbers were rejected, for commercial viability reasons but also for traffic impact results.

Were there mistakes in the traffic impact analysis? It’s now been revealed that underlying methodology was flawed. But these flaws were unknown to the citizens, commissions and even the City Councils that approved the plans.

Environmental impacts

The citizens creating the plans were very concerned about environmental impacts. Recommendations included “regional” storm water retention ponds designed as amenities instead of the then-prevalent multiple small retention-detention (“RD”) ponds surrounded by chain link fences, derisively known as “RD Prisons.”

The plan envisioned what was called the “green spine,” a large, rectangular green space that could be a play field—beneath which would be a huge RD vault.

The Town Center plan was intended to protect the George Davis and Ebright Creek basins.

Unless the approving or subsequent City Councils, or staff, eliminated this from the plan, the recent bumbled effort by Council Ramiro Valderrama to engage this issue—and use it as an excuse to flip-flop in a double pirouette on the Town Center moratorium—remains a puzzle.

The moratorium

When the City Council enacted an emergency building moratorium to give time to examine traffic concurrency, it was city-wide, including the Town Center.

The vote was 6-0, with Council Member Kathy Huckabay absent.

When the Council took up the moratorium a few weeks later to refine the ban, the Town Center was exempted on a 4-3 vote, with Valderrama—who a year earlier proposed a moratorium only for the Town Center—joining with other Council members to exempt the Center.

Valderrama’s reasoning was bizarre. He claimed the moratorium was not about transportation concurrency, despite it being specifically called out in two sections of the resolutions. He said that, from his perspective, his vote was about storm water management, but moratoriums could only be enacted about concurrency (thus undermining his own statement in the process).

A firestorm erupted over his deciding vote to exempt the Town Center. Sammamish Comment revealed that Valderrama totally misrepresented the reasons for the moratorium. Support he claimed from two Sammamish Plateau Water commissioners and the City’s leading environmentalist, Wally Pereyra proved to be false. So were claims that “injection” of storm water weren’t discussed.

Valderrama’s explanation over whether injection was or wasn’t discussed, or infiltration was meant, evolved to a point where he finally said he “misunderstood.” This is a remarkable claim for a six-year veteran of the Sammamish City Council.

Should the Town Center be exempt?

When the Council, on the 4-3 vote, exempted the Town Center, this writer noted on Facebook that this was the right decision.

To be perfectly blunt, development of the Town Center should—and most probably will—continue, regardless of the outcome of the concurrency analysis. The benefits outweigh the negatives.

Valderrama’s focus on the storm water management remains a puzzle. He did yet a second 180 pirouette, coming full circle, and voted to rescind the exemption, this time citing concurrency. His logic was tortured.

Council Member Kathy Huckabay, about whom Sammamish Comment has been immensely critical in recent years, is right: including the Town Center in the moratorium will delay development by 4-12 months. The latter is more likely, for a Comprehensive Plan amendment is needed and this doesn’t come until this time next year.

Creating confusion and divisions

Valderrama’s ham-handed bungling created huge divisions in the Council. His misrepresentations and outright falsehoods over the reasons for the moratorium, support he claimed for his brokered storm water management solution and claims and “misunderstandings” over injection or infiltration irreparably damaged his credibility among Council members and some of his supporters. His overt ambitions to be the next mayor almost certainly have gone down in flames because of these events.

The largest developer of the Town Center, STCA, is caught in the middle. It faced a go, no-go, go, no-go situation—largely due to Valderrama’s flip-flop, flip-flop, 360-degree turn-abouts.

Sammamish now has a reputation of a dysfunctional City Council, largely thanks to Valderrama’s antics.

Revisiting the Town Center Plan

Suggestions in some quarters emerged to revisit the Town Center plan. The reasons: it’s 10 years old, much has changed, the traffic analysis was based on flawed assumptions and it generates too much traffic.

All true. But not compelling enough to revisit the plan.

Doing so would be a multi-year process. It requires a Comp Plan change, public hearings, etc.

Delay is not in the best interests of Sammamish citizens. Traffic at the choke points will get worse. Viability of the new businesses that are in the Town Center now could be threatened. These businesses need the support of those 2,200 units envisioned in the Town Center for their business models.

The new City Council, with four new members, will have to address the moratorium again. A moratorium can only be in place for up to six months at a time, at which point it must be renewed or dropped. It can be modified as well.

It can be modified or dropped before the six months. A debate whether to do so before the April 6 six-month anniversary will occur. The Council would be well grounded to have a solid debate on concurrency issues,

The pros-and-cons of exempting the Town Center for the cost-benefit issues are outlined above. Traffic or not, citizens will be well served to exempt the Town Center from the moratorium.

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