City preserves Tiger Mountain forest in historic milestone
The long-running saga to preserve Park Pointe — a slice of Tiger Mountain forest near Issaquah High School — ended late March 24, after more than a decade of public and behind-the-scenes negotiations to halt construction of hundreds of houses once proposed for the land.
The tradeoff: Under the agreement, city leaders steered construction from Park Pointe to the Issaquah Highlands instead, and, as a result, preserved more than 140 acres in the process.
“I think that this will transform the community in a very, very positive way,” Mayor Ava Frisinger said, minutes after the deal closed. “It has the three elements of sustainability. It has the environment — the environmental protection and preservation. It has a huge social element. It has economic vitality benefits as well.”
The historic conservation effort is part of a complicated transfer of development rights.
City planners and officials shepherded the agreement through the arduous process after Frisinger outlined the landmark opportunity to preserve Park Pointe in late 2008.
In the years since, representatives from the city, highlands developer Port Blakely Communities and other partners pursued the project until the recession scuttled the developer behind the proposed Park Pointe development.
Since a Seattle bank foreclosed on the land from the defunct developer last March, the preservation effort lurched into gear. Issaquah and King County officials adopted a series of agreements late last year to advance the process.
Finally, in another historic but little-noticed decision March 21, the City Council approved a set of housekeeping agreements to complete the process and preserve Park Pointe.
“It certainly is the light at the end of the tunnel — and that’s not a freight train coming at us,” Councilman Fred Butler said before the unanimous decision. “It is what is going to allow us to secure Park Pointe and deal with some of the minor technicalities associated with the other transaction. It’s another big step forward.”
Under the agreement, the city preserves 101 acres at Park Pointe, plus another 43 acres near Central Park in the highlands.
“We finally freaking did it,” citizen activist and Issaquah Environmental Council member Connie Marsh said.
Park Pointe pact required ‘guts’
The other key component of the agreement allows construction on 35 acres adjacent to the highlands site. Bellevue College and local homebuilders plan to add a satellite campus and homes on the 35-acre parcel. The pact allows for up to 500 residences on the site, but developers proposed 100 in initial plans submitted to the city in October.
In order to serve the additional construction in the highlands, the agreement outlines about $2 million in transportation upgrades for the neighborhood.
The transfer-of-development-rights package includes another incentive for highlands residents: recreation improvements for Central Park and the surrounding area.
Bellevue College could break ground on the highlands parcel in the near future, although construction on the campus could stretch for decades.
City Major Development Review Team Program Manager Keith Niven, the point man on the transfer of development rights, logged years on the project.
“The reality is, we never controlled all of the pieces,” he said. “So, there was always a chance that one of the parts could just pick up their toys and go home. I couldn’t worry about that, because I didn’t control it — ever. I marched forward with this blind faith that it was either going to happen or it wasn’t.”
The multipronged effort to preserve Park Pointe dominated politics and government in Issaquah for more than a decade.
Cynthia Welti, Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust executive director, praised Issaquah leaders and residents for not abandoning the project despite the long list of challenges. Park Pointe is part of the 101-mile-long greenbelt from Seattle to Central Washington.
“The average city the size of Issaquah would have not had the stamina or the mental horsepower or the guts to tackle this,” she said.
Observers also credited former City Administrator Leon Kos, former Councilwoman Maureen McCarry, David Kappler, a councilman turned citizen activist, and other officials and environmentalists for toiling to preserve Park Pointe.
In perhaps the most dramatic decision attached to the process, the council decided in February 2008 to cancel the planned Southeast Bypass — a Tiger Mountain road link meant to serve Park Pointe and alleviate traffic congestion through downtown.
Celebrating a conservation milestone
The last set of plans presented by the developer, Wellington Park Pointe, proposed 251 units or 344 units for Park Pointe. The required environmental studies for the proposed neighborhood raised questions about traffic congestion near Park Pointe and runoff from the mountainside.
Since Wellington Park Pointe proposed building homes on the land in the mid-1990s, opponents maintained Park Pointe could harm the environment, clog nearby streets and mar the Tiger Mountain panorama.
“Development would have been a huge visual blight on what people presumed was forest,” Welti said.
The builder collapsed into bankruptcy in late 2009, and a Seattle bank foreclosed on Park Pointe last March.
In the same period, the cooling real estate market caused the price for Park Pointe to dip from $18.9 million in early 2009 to about $6 million in late 2010 — a critical boost for the deal.
“To a degree, an unexpected outcome of the down economy was that this became purchasable,” Frisinger said. “For years, people tried to figure out how this might be accomplished, and even with all of the efforts of the Cascade Land Conservancy and others who put together ways of purchasing land, it just was too expensive.”
Issaquah could offer the open space to other agencies. The city could transfer the highlands land to the county for inclusion in Grand Ridge Park, and shift Park Pointe to the state for Tiger Mountain State Forest.
Representatives from the city and the state Department of Natural Resources also conducted discussions about options for jointly managing the Park Pointe property, as the transfer of development rights neared completion.
In the meantime, Issaquah Environmental Council teams plant to tackle the invasive plants choking the Park Pointe property.
The mayor said city officials plan to discuss future goals for the preserved land soon — after some celebrating, of course.
“I don’t think I have any Champagne in my house,” Frisinger said. “But I was about to look for a bottle of something that would be a good substitute.”
What the Park Pointe deal means
In addition to preserving 144 forested acres, the Park Pointe transfer-of-development-rights deal includes changes to transportation and recreation.
For transportation: Developers agreed to add transportation upgrades in the Issaquah Highlands, including a traffic signal along Northeast Park Drive at 15th Avenue Northeast, a road running parallel to Northeast Park Drive from Central Park to 15th Avenue Northeast, and the completion of a missing link of Northeast Discovery Drive near Seventh Avenue Northeast.
For recreation: The tradeoff also means the addition of a trail network west of Central Park in the highlands, paved parking and a restroom facility at the park, and assistance from highlands builder Port Blakely Communities in creating and funding a mountain bike skills course in the neighborhood.
The process to halt development at Park Pointe started more than a decade ago. The developer once proposed hundreds of homes for the forested site.
1994 — Regional planners recommend designating Park Pointe as urban land.
1997 — City amends Comprehensive Plan to include a Park Pointe urban village.
2001 — City changes long-term plan for Park Pointe, and calls for public or private open space instead.
September 2008 — Mayor Ava Frisinger proposes a transfer of development rights to preserve Park Pointe.
June 2009 — Consultants release environmental impact statement for Park Pointe, days after developer defaults on loan.
November 2009 — Park Pointe developer Wellington Park Pointe files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
March 2010 — Wellington Park Pointe nixes plan for land and Regal Financial Bank forecloses on Park Pointe.
October 2010 — King County Council shifts urban growth boundary to allow additional Issaquah Highlands development.
December 2010 — City selects Bellevue College and homebuilders to purchase highlands land, and then annexes site.
March 2011 — Issaquah concludes successful transfer of development rights and preserves Park Pointe.