- Plan envisions high density in single family neighborhoods.
- 13 growth centers outlined throughout the city.
By Miki Mullor
Should Sammamish neighborhoods be transformed into mini high density “town centers”?
Yes, if you ask the city’s Planning Commission.
In what will likely to become an election issue, a new vision for the city, centred on high density housing and retail centers, has been put forward by two Planning Commissioners and supported by the entire planning commission and two council members.
This is a departure from the current strategy of “absorbing” or “focusing” growth in the Town Center, spreading growth all over the city.
“Sub Area Planning” – a different kind of Sammamish
The city council was presented in November a 20-year vision for Sammamish, called “Sub Area Planning,” prepared by two Planning Commissioners, Eric Brooks and Jane Garrison, that calls for a massive change to the character of the city.
The vision, touted by Planning Commission Chairwoman Shanna Collins as “a new vision, a new up-to-date vision, for the next 20 years,” calls for upzoning throughout the city to make neighborhoods “walkable” by turning them into mini “town centers,” with apartments and commercial spaces.
Upzoning means to increase the density of housing that is allowed.
For example, most neighborhoods in Sammamish are currently zoned R-4 which means four units can be built per acre. This translates into the single family home type neighborhoods seen in most of Sammamish.
When “upzoned,” these same neighborhoods could be designated as high as R18/24, allowing high density apartment buildings with up to 24 units per acre directly adjacent to the existing single family homes. R18/24 density necessitates multi-story construction.
An example of this type of upzone can be seen where the new Plateau 120 apartments sit next to single family homes in the new Town Center. The net effect of the upzone could be multi-story apartment homes appearing in what are currently single family homes neighborhoods.
A conceptual map of the plan, above, shows neighborhoods throughout the city, designated with black circles, that are envisioned to be transformed to high density “walkable” neighborhoods with apartments and retail space replacing single family homes.
Their illustration below depicts the Tibbets Station neighborhood (Duthie Hill Road & SE 32nd Str4eet) and how it may be transformed under the new vision.
The single family homes that make the neighborhood today will be replaced with apartments and commercial space (R18/24) at its center and be surrounded by high density townhomes (R8).
No traffic reduction
The plan’s description follows the same narrative that applied to the Town Center during its planning phase–that high density development with commercial space reduces traffic as people walk to services and use more transit.
However, in a remarkable and a candid admission, Garrison acknowledged that high density development will not reduce traffic, contrary to the narrative being advanced by the city for the last 15 years:
“We give up cars when the cost outweighs the benefits”, said Garrison in a Nov. 15 Planning Commision meeting, “We’ve got to start forcing people to want to get rid of their cars. Make it inconvenient. Like Seattle, “ added Garrison, when suggesting prohibiting parking spaces in the new vision.
Collins added what most residents known already: “Our city can’t really afford to build our way out of the traffic problem, it’s too expensive. It’s not practical.”
Garrison and Brooks’s full plan can be found here.
“Homegrown – a plan for people, housing and community”
The “Sub Area Planning” vision is one part of a greater, and formal, update to the city’s comprehensive plan, called Homegrown, being recommended by the Planning Commision and staff.
The work on Homegrown started in September 2017, by the previous council, to update the housing element (chapter) of the city’s comprehensive plan.
The plan then proceeds to prescribe strategies of how to “close” the gap that will result in a massive transformation of Sammamish housing to increase high density units.
The plan includes data about the makeup of the current housing inventory in Sammamish and concludes that there are gaps in the types of housing in Sammamish compared with other cities.
A decision to “close a housing gap,” or in other words, change the character of Sammamish, is a policy decision vested exclusively with city council. Nevertheless, the city council has not given such direction to staff or the Planning Commision, making Homegrown an unsanctioned policy-making document, developed independently from city council.
At tonight’s city council’s meeting, the council will review a final revision of “Homegrown.”
Under the guise of a “housing affordability” and “community needs,” Homegrown recommended a variety of strategies to upzone the city to higher densities under keywords such as “sub-area planning” (the “walkable neighborhoods” vision), “incentives to expand housing choices,” “ADUs,” “transit oriented development, “ “zoning to allow range of housing affordability” and “subdivision code update.”
The Planning Commission’s desire to upzone was evident when it debated “Homegrown” on July 19.
During the meeting, Collins made it clear she’s mostly concerned that the Town Center plan doesn’t have enough units and what is most important to her was to look at increasing the number of units in the Town Center.
“Homegrown” can be viewed as justification to upzone the Town Center to a higher number of apartments.
Currently, the Town Center is planned for about 2,300 units, mostly apartments. Collins believes that’s not nearly enough. For comparison, Issaquah Highlands is about 4,000 units, in total.
Garrison, who headed the development of the sub-area planning vision, said she doesn’t want to start thinking Town Center is the only place for mixed use (apartments and retail) and wanted to expand it to other areas, no matter where it is.
No public testimony
“Homegrown” has been developed by staff in deep cooperation with ARCH (A Regional Coalition for Housing).
ARCH’s website describes itself as a partnership between agencies to “preserving and increasing the supply of housing for low– and moderate-income households.”
The Planning Commision heard from Staff, ARCH and the builders.
Staff also met or contacted “Human Services Providers” (Friends of Youth, LifeWire, Issaquah Food & Clothing Bank, and Issaquah Community Services), local businesses and Lake Washington School District.
It was not explained how these groups were chosen and how they represent the residents of Sammamish.
The residents were represented through an online survey that ran for 21 days and collected responses from 474 individuals (what the plan calls a “community-wide survey”).
The survey reveals that the community doesn’t want a radical change to the housing mix Homegrown recommends:
- Overwhelmingly, 80% of the respondents agreed that “New housing should fit and preserve the character of the existing community.”
- When asked whether they agree with the statement that “There is more single family housing for families [in 20 years],” only 19% disagreed, showing very little support for high density housing from the survey respondents.
The builder’s involvement in Homegrown is not hidden. The plan includes a summary of meetings the builders held with the Planning Commission and several strategies the document recommends are labeled as offered by builders.
Builders are expected to advocate for more development, but a yard sign recently created by the Master Builders Association reveals a marketing campaign to build support for high density housing that uses emotional messaging designed to play on residents’ social conscious.
“Walkable neighborhoods,” “Vibrant Neighborhoods,” “Neighborhood Character,” high density housing (triples, fourplex and ADUs) and affordable housing (“this city is for everyone”) are all messages that can found within Homegrown.
City council’s mixed reaction
City council first saw a draft of Homegrown in September, and of Sub-Area Planning in December.
The reactions were mixed.
Mayor Christie Malchow, Deputy Mayor Karen Moran and Council Members Tom Hornish and Chris Ross reactions ranged from skeptical to negative.
Council Members Jason Ritchie and Pam Stuart were highly supportive of both Homegrown and Sub-Area Planning. Council Member Ramiro Valderrama also voiced support but not enthusiastically as Ritchie and Stuart.
Sub-Area Planning puts forward spreading high density development throughout the city, a 180 degree change in development policy. Many people supported the Town Center on the belief that it would limit growth to the Town Center and inhibit development throughout the city.
After getting push back from the majority of city council, staff has trimmed the more aggressive upzoning implementation strategies; however, leaving room to reintroduce those in the future.
A likely election issue
Three council seats are up for election this year: Malchow, Valderrama and Hornish’s.
Homegrown and Sub Area Planning represent a dramatic change to the character of Sammamish, making it look more like Bellevue.
Former city council candidates Mark Baughman and Ritjua Indapure are on the Planning Commision and supported the proposals and may run for the city council.. Sources speculated to The Comment that it’s possible Planning Commision Chair Collins may consider running this year as well.
Should those three decide to run, it would give Sammamish voters a clear choice whether to support the high density vision of the Planning Commission or possibly an alternative vision supported by other candidates.