How the Town Center plan happened

By Scott Hamilton

Commentary

Aug. 22, 2019: There is a lack of knowledge about how the Sammamish Town Center Plan unfolded and what it is today.

Here is how it happened.

Sammamish became a city in 1999. One of the first orders of business was to create the Comprehensive Plan. The first city council appointed 17 citizens to what was called the Planning Advisory Board (PAB) to draft a plan.

The PAB had a cross-section of Sammamish residents: environmentalists, developers, real estate agents, business people and people simply interested in serving. I was on the PAB.

The PAB worked over 18 months on all elements except one: the area that became the Town Center.

The PAB was directed by that first city council to wrap up its work just as we got to the center of town. Whereas nearly all new cities took three years to complete its first Comp Plan, that city council and the city manager at the time, Ben Yazici, wanted it done in record time.

The center of town was set aside for its own process—which took from 2001 to the end of 2009.

Citizen groups

There were a series of additional citizen advisory groups appointed by a succession of city councils.

All-in, five groups and about 70 citizens were involved. Public participation was long, broad and extensive. There was extensive citizen public comment, volumes of written submissions and public hearings before the Planning Commission  and City Council. I sat through many of these and my wife was on one of the committees.

I was on the Planning Commission that developed the Town Center Plan, with input from these citizen advisory committees.

More process, similar to that described above, then proceeded with the adoption of the enabling ordinances.

More recent events—ie, the MOU with STCA, concurrency debates, etc., are outside of the historical process.

Recommendations

The five committees/commissions and 70 citizens coalesced around the following:

      • 500,000 sf of commercial space;
      • 2,000 residential units, in a mix of single family and multi-family ownership homes, apartments and 10% affordable housing; incentives for another 10% affordable housing were included;
      • 100% on site storm water drainage, gathered in “regional” ponds that would be aesthetically pleasing and not fenced-in “R&D prisons” (retention and detention);
      • 50-100ft setbacks from 228th, landscaped and treed to present an attractive boulevard look and not an “Aurora Avenue” lined with buildings;
      • Height restrictions;
      • Transfer Development Rights from inside the city, with an eye toward trying to protect the Western slope of the Sammamish Plateau from environmentally hazardous development, and from other environmentally sensitive areas;
      • Northwest-style architecture to avoid the metallic, primer-look of Saffron (that complex across NE 8th from Safeway); and
      • Clustering all commercial/retail/office around Sammamish Commons west of 228th so this busy 5-lane street with a build out of 28,000 vehicles daily would not bisect the Town Center.

There were a plethora of additional recommendations sent to the city council for approval.

Adopted plan

Here’s what you got.

      • 600,000 sf of commercial. Then-councilman Don Gerend wanted 700,000 sf; Gerend wanted to have taller buildings than the recommended height restrictions, but he failed to persuade council on his 700,000sf or lax height standards. The 600,000sf was a compromise;
      • Transfer Development Rights from outside city into the Town Center, taking precedence over TDRs from inside the city;
      • No setbacks;
      • No Northwest design requirements;
      • No 10% affordable housing incentive plan;
      • 60% on site stormwater retention instead of 100%. This one came with the city-developed, city-owned Community Center; and
      • Splitting office and some retail space between West and East of 228th; Gerend supported more than 300,000sf of space in the Southeast Quadrant of the Town Center (the Northeast corner of 228th and SE 8th, across from Skyline High School).

You can see with Met Market, the commercial above it and the developments East of 228th, the partial result.

Efforts to upzone

As previously posted, Gerend sought to remove height restrictions entirely in last year’s Comprehensive Plan Docket Request. His request was denied.

As posted on Sammamish Comment Tuesday, STCA in 2017 wanted to add up to 250,000sf of commercial and up to 1,500 more residential units to its portion of the Town Center. The 2017 city council killed this at the staff level.

If anyone thinks these efforts won’t be renewed if a pro-development council majority is elected in November, you are not thinking things through. But this is a conversation for another day.

Favoring the Town Center

Having poured thousands of hours and enduring tons of abuse from certain interested parties who wanted to, in essence, recreate Redmond Town Center with the Sammamish Town Center, let me be clear: I stand by the recommendations the Planning Commission made. I stand by the need for the Town Center to give a heart and soul, to have gathering places and to provide goods and services to Sammamish residents.

Our plan was based in no small part on concurrency analysis that we thought was honest. We now know that the parameters had been set so no development anywhere in the city would fail, a dishonest pencil-whipping of the process.

Concentrating growth is a myth

However, at no time did anyone who understood anything about the Town Center planning process did we ever represent that the Town Center would capture all the future growth of Sammamish. This was an upzoning over the then-assigned growth targets.

Anyone who tells you today that the Town Center will take all the growth for the rest of the city either misunderstands reality or is simply spinning an alternate reality.

The city’s zoning would have to be revisited in a Comprehensive Plan update. People who count on developing their property, either directly (like Moms and Pops) or by selling to developers as their retirement future, those who have paid taxes all these years (in some cases, decades) at the “highest and best use” tax rates, would revolt.

The two city council members who advance this concentrated growth thesis to the exclusion of development elsewhere in the city are just flat out wrong.

Transit Center

In 2018, the city and STCA entered into a Memorandum of Understanding that includes a Transit Center.

This, too, is a pie-in-the-sky thing. It was before the traffic concurrency certificates were issued last week and it’s even more so afterward, if you believe the traffic analysis DEA did upon which the certificate relies.

While on the Planning Commission, I proposed a transit park and ride on the site where the Met Market now stands. I envisioned a parking garage with commercial on top.

This was, at the time, the only feasible location for it. Metro Transit and Sound Transit made it unequivocally clear that they would not route a bus up SE 4th St. to the top of the hill. Time, money and snow were objections. The buses would run on 228th, period.

Not a single other Planning Commissioner supported my proposal. The chair, who lived in a nearby subdivision, was opposed to the Town Center anyway and wanted nothing more that would attract additional traffic. Others said the North End of the city is where a PnR was needed. I agreed then and I do now, but there wasn’t then and there isn’t now any place up north to put it.

Also opposing the PnR: Commissioner Tom Vance, who now is whinging on about the Town Center and concurrency. If the PnR envisioned had been included, there would be real trips reduced from exiting and entering the city at rush hour, not phantom trips from last week’s traffic analysis.

Sound Transit this year rejected any location to the north. The top of SE 4th is on the short list, but 5 will get you 10 it won’t be located there.

Nevertheless, I took my idea to the city council, where Don Gerend, of all people, successfully killed it. His reason: the Town Center is not a trans-oriented development. If the Commission and Council had adopted this obvious, logical proposal, there wouldn’t be the debate today over where and how to build the darn thing—like putting 10 lbs of flower in a 5 lb bag.

Why the STCA concurrency certificates are flawed

When it comes to the modeling of the 419 residential units and 52,000 sf of commercial space of the STCA applications, here is a little Transportation 101.

Using the recognized standard reference book, the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) trip generation manual, the following formulae are used:

Single family units generate 10 trips per day. This includes residents who come and go to work, to the store, to school, etc; and the garbage collection, mail deliveries, FedEx deliveries, etc.

Multi-family units generate seven trips per day, for the same reasons.

So (and setting aside the mix of apartments, condos and single family in the STCA application), let’s be really generous and say the 419 units in total generate the average seven trips a day. This is 2,933 per day (419×7).

ITE uses 10% as contributors to rush hours. So 10% of 2,933 is 293 trips from the residential units. These are distributed in all directions and, generally, figured for a two hour period (7-9am and 4-6pm). Some stay within the city and some go outside the city.

By the modeling used for the concurrency certificates, the city’s outside traffic consultant, DEA, figures roughly 10% of the 10% is all that goes out of the city. I defy DEA to demonstrate just where they come up with this.

However, just like the informercial, But, wait, that’s not all.

There are 56,000 sf of commercial. The ITE trip generation calculates the trips to these “attractions” based on formulae of the type of business and the square footage of this business. So all these trips are added to the residential trips. These, too, have a portion that have to be assigned to rush hours.

Is there anyone who truly believes the modeling assumptions make common sense when these factors above are understood?

DEA claims the model has been validated to the “Nth degree,” that it is “99% accurate.” This statement doesn’t pass the sniff test.

There are so many assumptions, so many variables. So many data inputs that 99% accuracy is probably 99% mathematically impossible to achieve.

DEA acknowledged at the Tuesday city council meeting the model sends traffic down dead end, private streets.

But only about 30 trips leave and return to the city at rush hour. This defies common sense and it defies the level of today’s overwhelming number of workers (reported to be 85%) who commute out of the city every day.

It also ignores the large number of workers who live elsewhere and commute into and out of the city every day to work here. New employment at all this new commercial will generate this new rush hour traffic.

Town Center is needed

The Town Center is needed for Sammamish. Goods and services are needed on the Plateau. Social gathering places are needed. Getting to Redmond or Issaquah is going to get harder, not easier, disregarding Sammamish’s own growth—the growth of these two cities and surrounding areas will see to this.

There is debate over the size of the Town Center and its residential component. But the Town Center will bring benefits to Sammamish.

It will also bring more traffic.

Everything in life is a trade.

2 thoughts on “How the Town Center plan happened

  1. Scott. Thank you. We have spent a lot of time on many committees and the PAB & Planning Commission together. We spent many hours on opposite sides. Your written history is well written and accurate and is what citizens should know. I think a town center can be a wonderful addition for our city but the constant misinformation about how we got here and the lack of care that was truely taken to be good stewards of the building of TC area, is so very frustrating to those that had bought in and believed in it. Thank you for taking the time.

  2. Was chairman of Land Use Committee for BACOG Barrington Area Council of Governments in Illinois in early 1970’s. It is a 90 sq mile community of five towns. They hired Barton Ash, an excellent company to help them develop their concept of this area and to understand any environmental issues. Using the concepts in Ian McHargg’s “Design With Nature” the basic plan was developed. Then citizens did the work of making it happen with committees for every element. It takes years to do it right but it worked and the area is still beautiful and not overrun by overdevelopment. You need to understand the environment you have to work with including watersheds, aquifer recharge areas, wetlands, steep slopes, the wildlife, the natural flora first. Then you decide if you can accomplish what you want to be as a city or if there are trade-offs. You are taking the long view. What will Sammamish be twenty years from now? I look at the changes in the last 36 years and weep.

    Will your children want to live here. Will they smile when they think of Sammamish? This is a very Northwest Place not Pennsylvania or Iowa. We should respect the natural environment and work with it to create a place we want to live. Molly Ciliberti molly.ciliberti@comcast.net

    You cannot control the wind, but you can trim the sails

    >

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