Report explains ways to start Town Center development
August 10, 2013
By Ari Cetron
New: Aug. 10, 11:14 a.m.
There are options about how the city of Sammamish might kick-start development in Town Center, it just depends on how many compromises the city is willing to make.
Chris Mefford, of Community Attributes, spoke to the council’s Economic Development Committee July 9 and to the full City Council July 15.
In both instances, he laid out the city’s options in a preliminary report. In broad terms, Sammamish can adjust its policies to try and get development started, or it can wait for property values to increase to the point where development pencils out.
“Are you going to wait for the market to come to you, or are you going to be more assertive and go to the market?” Mefford asked July 9.
Mefford’s company has been studying the city’s economic situation and giving the council regular updates. This month, he presented them with concrete options.
The largest single way for the city to spark development would be to reduce development costs, Mefford said. He suggested a menu of different items, each of which might help reduce the cost to developers, and therefore make more projects economically viable.
The biggest single factor is parking. Right now, the city requires that most developments in Town Center have 80 percent of their parking located in garages, as opposed to surface lots. Parking garages, however, are far more expensive to build. If the city were to reduce that to 60 percent, more projects would become viable.
The second-most effective option is to lower stormwater costs. If the city were to reduce the amount of stormwater runoff a development must capture, that would also lower costs significantly, Mefford noted.
He also suggested a series of other options of varying degrees of effectiveness and complexity.
Community Development Director Kamuron Gurol said the city should tread carefully in what changes it is willing to make.
“We don’t want to see bad development just to get any development,” he said at the July 9 meeting.
While the parking and stormwater changes would require amending city codes, Mefford suggested a package of smaller ideas that would be easier to implement. He suggested creating a “user guide” and designating a staff member as a “help desk” to help developers navigate the thicket of regulations surrounding Town Center.
He also suggested the council might want to implement an incentive package for early developers, although he didn’t go into detail about what would be in the package. Such a package might help some developers be more interested in being the first one in.
“There’s a lot more risk perceived to be the first developer into a new area,” Mefford said.
However, he was careful to say that Sammamish is still generally desirable for developers, and the city shouldn’t have to move too far.
“There’s enough market demand that you don’t have to give away too much,” Mefford said.
Some on the council were skeptical of the proposals. Councilwoman Nancy Whitten said she was unhappy with the vision statement Community Attributes was developing. She said on July 15 that her input into the statement has been ignored, and she doesn’t agree with what’s suggested in the draft plan.
Building on that foundation, she also said does not agree with the goals that support that vision.
Whitten called for a study session for the entire council to develop a vision statement.
Councilman John Curley laid out some numbers to form more concrete concerns. Sammamish has a population of about 47,000.
About a third are under age 18 and another third leave the plateau to go to work every day. Because of the city’s geography, people who are not from Samammish do not come to shop in the city, and many residents leave to do their shopping.
As a result, he questioned if there was a sufficient population to support the businesses envisioned in the Town Center plan.
He also questioned some of the study’s data, in particular a finding that residents spend only 31 percent of their grocery dollars in Sammamish.
Mefford said the number of people spending their money in other communities could be seen as an opportunity to capture market share or a drawback to a potential retailerlooking for profitability.
“Do you see that as opportunity, or an insurmountable hurdle?” he said.
Mefford said he will bring back a more refined report in the fall.
The council is ready to move forward on some ideas; it voted 5-2 to have city staff report back with a set of actionable items for starting development. Whitten and Deputy Mayor Ramiro Valderrama were opposed.
Councilman John James, a real estate professional, said the city needs to make some changes. He noted the plan was developed prior to the recession, and that some underlying fundamentals have changed.
“Unless we change the plan,” James said, “the vision of Town Center will go away.”