Town Center: East vs West

Recent letters in The Sammamish Review (Jan. 13, 2010) and The Sammamish Reporter (Jan. 15) by John Galvin saying he isn’t proposing adding 210,000 commercial space and 144 residential units to his Southeast Quadrant in the Town Center, instead proposing to shift it from other quadrants, is highly revealing.

First, it demonstrates that his long campaign is about him and not about what’s best for the Town Center landowners and the City of Sammamish. He suggests taking zoning from other landowners who are counting on decisions made by the City over five years. These landowners depend on the financial benefits from these upzonings. Galvin proposes taking this away from these citizens for his own benefit. I imagine that the Westside landowners will find this revelation distressing.

Second, Galvin attempts to perpetuate the myth that all infrastructure on the Eastside is in place and ready to go. This contravenes studies by the City’s own consultants that estimated it will cost $12 million to provide infrastructure on the Eastside and $8 million on the Westside. The Eastside has some advantages over the Westside and vice versa. The argument is not black-and-white, but shades of gray.

Third, Galvin argues that the majority of the commercial development is on the Westside where there is “no” infrastructure. Although the underlying premise is false, assume his infrastructure assertion above is correct. The Eastside has 180,000sf of commercial. There is another 90,000sf adjacent City Hall, where full infrastructure truly exists: 270,000 of 600,000sf of commercial has “infrastructure.” His assertion, therefore, would be barely true.

Fourth, he complains that Sammamish has no money to provide infrastructure and “developers can’t do it, either.” The first half of the statement is largely correct: Sammamish doesn’t have surplus funds sitting around to dedicate to the Town Center. The City’s Capital Budget is earmarked for other street, park and sidewalk projects outside the Town Center. These are budget decisions taken by a series of City Councils.

But the City does have the ability to issue what are called councilmanic bonds, which are limited tax obligation bonds, which could raise millions (I think the current limit is around $30 million) without having to go to a public vote. These could be issued by a majority vote on the City Council and would become general obligations of the City. Furthermore, the City Council could adopt a utility tax and pledge this to repay the bonds, which would give a higher credit rating to these, as the repayment would be from a guaranteed source of income rather than from the general fund.

As for Galvin’s assertion that “developers can’t do it,” this assertion is, well, bullchip. Every single development in Sammamish, before and after incorporation, has infrastructure paid for by developers. The Sammamish Plateau Water and Sewer District requires developers pay 100% for installation of sewers. King County and Sammamish require developers to pay for the internal roadways and installation of the power lines. Developers are required to pay for their “fair share” of arterial roads and intersections, some of which may be blocks or miles away because of traffic impacts. Galvin likes to point to the existence of SE 4th Street on the Eastside. This was paid for by Eastside Catholic High School (the “developer”), not by Sammamish. Galvin points to the existence of a sewer line along the perimeter of the Eastside (though not, as his general statements infer, throughout the internal Eastside). This was paid for by the developers (Murray Franklin and Polygon) for their projects at the top of SE 8th Street east of 228th, miles away, as a requirement by the sewer district to provide service. (The Westside actually has more internal water and sewer lines existing than the Eastside.)

All internal streets, sewers and all other infrastructure on both sides of the Town Center have to be paid for by developers to varying levels. The City may contribute further to infrastructure and it will have to pay for its portion of improving SE 4th West of 228th because non-Town Center residents use this street now.

I believe the City, as a matter of policy, should issue councilmanic bonds to help kick-start the Town Center construction. Successive City Councils have made it policy to develop a Town Center. The investment to-date in all the studies is a City expense but doesn’t kick-start actual construction. Investment in 228th and the Sammamish Commons is pointed to by the City Manager as the City’s capital contribution, but these are weak arguments. 228th improvements were slated under County jurisdiction prior to incorporation and were needed whether or not a Town Center is created. Creation of what became known as the Sammamish Commons began with the very first City Council in 1999-2000 when it approved purchase of the 10 acres that is now occupied by City Hall and the Library. The purchase of the 20 acres that is the “bowl” of the Commons logically followed for a City park. Thus, 228th and The Commons are investments that were unrelated to the vision of the Town Center.

I think the City, especially in this economic market, should issue councilmanic bonds to kick-start development. These bonds should be for the first developer ready to go. Whether this is for the Southeast Quandrant, the Liu property next to City Hall or the core at SE 4th and 220th is irrelevant. The City has made it policy that storm water facilities be “regional” within the Town Center so there aren’t a bunch of “pond prisons” (retention ponds surrounded by chain link fence) and there should be parking garages instead of surface parking for environmental protection. These bonds can help front these costly infrastructures that, while tied to specific developments, have larger policy implications.

Finally, Galvin accuses the City and everyone involved in creating the Town Center plan of engaging in a Florida swamp land fraud. This is an insult to the successive City Councils who have set policy in good faith; the hard-working City staff and their Consultants, who have toiled with dedication and thousands of hours of over-time to create the proposals, policies and studies necessary for the advisory committees to formulate recommendations for the City Councils; and to these advisory committees, made up of volunteers who worked with sincerity, dedication and for no personal gain to craft recommendations.

The Town Center plan is the result of seven years of study by the City involving the Planning Advisory Board (17 people), the Special Study Area Task Force (17 people), the Town Center Committee (some dozen people), the 2007/8 Planning Commission (7 people, reviewing it twice), the 2008-2009 Planning Commission (7 people, this time for proposed regulations) and the 2007-2008 City Council (7 people, reviewing it twice). The Parks Bond Advisory Committee also reviewed it from their perspective as did the Parks Commission.

There were years of public meetings including one held by the PAB that had some 200 residents in attendance giving feedback and opinion. This latter meeting in particular was a public rejection of plans advanced by the PAB for “villages” at six locations throughout the City, including what is now the Town Center, or a “corridor” concept that would have had commercial development along the full length of 228th from the Pine Lake (QFC) Center to the Sammamish Highlands (Safeway) Center.

A professional study by the consulting firm Community Attributes recommended no more than 575,000sf of commercial/office space for the Town Center. The 2008 City Council settled on 600,000sf. While the various citizen committees and commissions all recommended that commercial development be immediately adjacent City Hall and surrounding the Sammamish Commons Park, the 2008 City Council settled on providing 180,000sf of commercial space on the Eastside–twice the amount this very same Council in 2007 concluded was desirable on the Eastside. (And which, I will note in a future post, Galvin himself pleaded for as acceptable; now he wants 300,000sf in his quadrant alone, or 6.6 times what he originally found acceptable.)

The 60-90 people who served on the seven committees, including the City Council-deciders, had varying opinions on specific elements and locations but the end result is the Town Center Plan that was adopted.

Galvin’s years of verbal and written abuse and accusations have been insulting and a disservice to these volunteers, the City staff, the City consultants and the City Councils–as well as his own land-owning partners, who get tarred with Galvin’s antics.

There have been mistakes made during the process, no doubt about it. I believe the first mistake was by the 2001-2003 City Council which directed the PAB to stop work on the Comp Plan before it could complete work on what is now known as the Town Center, the last thing the PAB had to do. The PAB had proposals from the Lynette-Liu properties (next to City Hall), the SE Quadrant group and a group of residents then and now represented by real estate agent Bill Stern for development.

The PAB was about 16 months into its work to write the City’s first Comp Plan and there was pressure from the City Council and the City Manager to finish in record time. The average time for a new city in Washington then was three years. The PAB was told by the City Council to stop work, so it did–and the Comp Plan was adopted in 18 months, in 2003. This was pointed to with pride at the time but it lay the foundation for the timing-and-delay complaints that followed by the Town Center landowners. To this day, I am convinced that had the PAB been allowed to complete its work in another 6-12 months (ie, leading to adoption of the Comp Plan in 2004 or 2005), development of the Town Center might have begun in 2007. But this is speculative, and the timing going into the September 2008 financial crisis would have been problematic.

It may well be, in an unintended turn of fate, that the delays were the best thing to happen, for had the Town Center construction begun shortly before the financial capital market and economic meltdown, what might have been the result? A stalled construction (like the “big holes” in Seattle and Bellevue) and empty stores?

There have been major policy differences between volunteers and Staff, between Staff and Councils, between Commissions and Staff and between Commissions and Councils. In the end, compromises were reached, consensus was reached and policy adopted by the City Council.

Although Galvin loves to point to one person (me) as responsible for the Town Center plan, as detailed above, scores of volunteers, Staff, Consultants and Citizen input contributed to development of the plan. In the end, only one body of people has the “buck stops here” responsibility: the City Council. These seven people are the deciders and make the final policy decisions. I often disagree with their decisions on any number of issues, but their motives and dedication are sincere.

It’s too bad Mr. Galvin doesn’t see this.

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2 Responses to Town Center: East vs West

  1. Pingback: Applicants seeks 1.38m sf in Town Center « Sammamish Comment

  2. Pingback: City advances SE Quadrant Docket Request | Sammamish Comment

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