Sammamish City Council hears report about economic development roadblocks

June 23, 2012

By Caleb Heeringa

New: June 23, 11:18 a.m.

City officials have long talked of attracting more jobs and commercial development to Sammamish and spent many years developing a Town Center project aimed at achieving that goal.

And though it’s only been a year and a half since the city put the finishing touches on development rules in its future downtown, nary a shovel has struck ground on any new stores or offices in Town Center.

The council got an idea of why that may be and what it can do to help with the presentation of a report from Northeastern University’s Dukakis School at the June 18 council meeting. The report, which cost about $5,000, took stock of how Sammamish compares to similar cities when it comes to the building blocks of a successful business community – a labor force, infrastructure and responsive and flexible city staff, for example.

The verdict was generally rosy, but not without major caveats. Among the report’s conclusions were:

  • Despite high rent for office space in the city (which the report attributed to a lack of supply that Town Center is meant to alleviate) , most of properties available are so-called “type B” office space – easy to quickly renovate to meet the needs of a business owner. Electricity is generally cheap and broadband connections adequate, though connecting to local sewer lines is very expensive, according to the report. The city should consider “proactively devising financing strategies” to help a prospective developer concerned about the cost of sewer for a new project.
  • The city is awash in well-educated workers. The report notes that more than half of the city’s workforce is “technically skilled, managerial or professional.” More than 85 percent of Sammamish residents 25 and older have a high school diploma more than half have at least a bachelor’s degree. But the report also cites the high amount of unionized labor in the area as a potential detriment to its ability to attract new businesses.
  • None of the city’s commercial or office space is within two miles of a major highway or freeway, which is important for getting employees, customers and goods to and from a prospective business. About 75 percent of the city’s retail and office properties are within a quarter mile of a bus stop, which is good; but that bus service is primarily during peak commute hours and very rare on nights and weekends, which is bad, according to the report. The city has plenty of parking at its retail sites, though the report notes that it will need to ensure that is true for future Town Center development.

Mayor Tom Odell said being so far from the freeway is a challenge from a business development standpoint, but he doesn’t feel as though it would be a deal breaker.

“We’re obviously not going to develop another 405 through the middle of our city, nor do we want to,” he said.

  • The city needs to identify what sort of industries might be a good fit and then do a better job marketing itself to those industries as a prospective home. The report suggests considering technology, science and aerospace start-ups, which are very common in the Puget Sound area.
  • The city does not do a good enough job staying in contact with the real estate community and connecting prospective business owners with available properties.
  • The city’s permitting process is generally quick and clear compared to other cities in the Puget Sound. The report notes that the city can generally process a site plan review in 17 to 20 weeks, compared to 48 or more for the average Puget Sound city. But the city lags a bit when it comes to prospective projects that need a zoning variance – it takes 21 to 24 weeks in Sammamish, compared to 9 to 12 weeks in other cities.
  • Sammamish has a high quality of life, which prospective employers would want for their employees. Crime is microscopic compared to similar-sized cities around the country and the school districts are both well-regarded.

But the report didn’t sit well with at least one on the council. Councilwoman Nancy Whitten questioned several of its conclusions, including the idea that the city’s transportation grid and bus service was adequate for larger-scale businesses.

“Public transportation is almost non-existent here with the exception of the 216 and the 269 (bus routes),” Whitten said. “I don’t see this study as being all that helpful.”

Deputy City Manager Lyman Howard admitted that the study had its shortcomings, terming it an “academic exercise” rather than substantive policy document. Most notably was the fact that, aside from one city in California, the study generally uses cities on the East Coast as comparables to Sammamish.

On the topic of Town Center development, Councilman Don Gerend said the project has likely been slowed by the requirements that property owners work together with their neighbors to find a single developer willing to develop a master plan for an area. He said the city would be working towards facilitating local improvement districts that would help expedite the process by allowing resources to be pooled for infrastructure costs.

Mayor Tom Odell said the city needs to do more to court business, but it won’t be a sprawling metropolis anytime soon.

“We’re probably a long ways from becoming another Seattle or Bellevue, or even another Redmond or Issaquah, as far as development goes today,” Mayor Tom Odell said.

 

Reporter Caleb Heeringa can be reached at 392-6434. ext. 247, or cheeringa@isspress.com.

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Comments

2 Responses to “Sammamish City Council hears report about economic development roadblocks”

  1. Alden Linn on June 23rd, 2012 4:41 pm

    I do want you to know that I am really excited to see the results that very clearly and concisely demonstrate my exact thoughts about the Town Center Plan. Below I’ve highlighted some of the items that really stood out to me that Northeastern University pointed out. Give a very large thank you to them for diligently spending time to provide this to us.

    I’ve read the entire report and a few items that stood out to me are as follows:

    Section 3:
    Updating civil, utility, and telecommunications infrastructure can create significant expenses for a firm to incur and therefore, if a municipality does not have adequate capacity in place, a potential firm could decide the location is not suitable.

    This is self explanatory as having no infrastructure in place is a significant deterrent for any project to get started.

    Section 3: D.
    Sammamish has a smaller percentage of parcels that are five acres or more zoned for industrial or commercial development than the CGM

    This is another factor that makes any major redevelopment significantly difficult. Homes on the smaller parcels in the town center are more valuable as residences than they are as redevelopment opportunities. No sales are being made in the Town Center area because values are depressed on the majority of these homes. The town center plan was ratified at the PEAK of the real estate market. The plan needs adjustments to be viable going forward. To be specific the plan needs 1. Flexibility. 2. Flexibility. 3. Flexibility.

    Section 3: D.
    Remaining flexible in zoning would be important for Sammamish as it plans its new town center and any designated development districts in the future.

    Strongly agree with this. The development guidelines are too onerous. Specifically with regard to TDR’s, structured parking requirements, FAR ratios, Infrastructure requirements (impervious road surfaces, storm water handling etc,).

    Section 8: A.
    This prevents any Washington municipality from providing certain incentive programs, including loan guarantees and subsidized loans. While this is a drawback compared to municipalities that can provide a wider array of incentives, Sammamish can help offset some disadvantage by continuing to enhance other more important location factors.

    This is a good point that they make with regards to offsetting other location factors. The Town Center location is not really that good in relation to Issaquah, Redmond, Bellevue because of no direct freeway access points. The cost structures built into the plan are too high to get anything started. Flexibility needs to be available in the plan to offset the tertiary location.

    Sincerely,
    Alden Linn

  2. Frank Blau on June 24th, 2012 11:09 am

    “But the report also cites the high amount of unionized labor in the area as a potential detriment to its ability to attract new businesses.”

    We paid $5000 for an anti-labor op-ed?

    Way to go City Council.

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