By Richard Van Winkle, News of Mill Creek.
Their March 22, 2016, regular meeting was the third time City Manager Rebecca Polizzotto tried to coax East Gateway Urban Village policy decisions out of the Mill Creek City Council during their public meetings. At the end of a two-hour discussion including public testimony from local residents and landowners, the city council quietly ended the discussion without formulating any changes to East Gateway Urban Village land uses or development regulations.
As a result the nine-month old East Gateway Urban Village development moratorium will lapse on March 31st, allowing landowners to once again make plans for developing their property.
East Gateway Urban Village development moratorium history
The Mill Creek City Council unanimously enacted a six-month emergency moratorium on East Gateway Urban Village development proposals at their June 23, 2015, meeting. They expressed concern that too much multi-family housing might be allowed by the city’s mixed-use land regulations and wanted to block further apartment construction.
It was City Manager Rebecca Polizzotto’s first month on the job and she didn’t know what land use recommendations to make, so she suggested hiring a consulting firm to study the situation. The city council unanimously approved her plan.
Washington State law requires a public hearing for development proposal moratoriums, so one was scheduled for July.
At the July 28th development moratorium public hearing Roger Sortino, an East Gateway Urban Village landowner, said that he was close to finalizing a deal to develop his twelve-acres with a major grocery store chain as the anchor tenant. He encouraged the city council to invest in East Gateway by funding a portion of the public infrastructure and asked them not to keep him from developing his property.
The city council voted unanimously to keep the moratorium in place although Mayor Pam Pruitt said the moratorium could be lifted at any time and thanked Sortino for his input.
Economic Feasibility Study
City Manager Polizzotto hired ECONorthwest, a consulting firm specializing in land use economics, to conduct a $30,000 economic feasibility study in October. The study’s preliminary findings were presented to the city council on December 8th.
At this meeting the consultants told the city council that the nearby population density and median household income would most likely attract a higher end retail strip mall or a mixed-use development, but not a hotel or big box store such as could be developed in a higher density area such as Redmond. They went on to say that economic incentives would have to be provided to developers to encourage a hotel or big box store.
This is pretty much the same assessment provided in a 2011 report commissioned by an East Gateway Urban Village landowner who wanted the city to invest in public infrastructure to encourage development of a Target store. The Mill Creek City Council decided not to make such an investment at that time.
At their December 22nd meeting the Mill Creek City Council voted unanimously to extend the East Gateway Urban Village development moratorium another three months until March 31, 2016, to give them a chance to flesh out their vision.
City Manager Polizzotto brought the consultants back to the January 12th city council meeting. She said she wanted the city council to “articulate their vision” so that staff can draft zoning regulations and incentives for East Gateway Urban Village development, “But we can’t get to drafting that language until we know what that vision is. So this is a really critical meeting for council to say ‘This is really the direction we want to go.’”
At this meeting the city council said they wanted the East Gateway Urban Village to be “special,” “classy,” “classic,” “vibrant,” and “walkable.” They brainstormed that a hotel and a movie theater would help to attract visitors to the area.
After hearing the city council’s ideas for East Gateway Urban Village ECONorthwest project manager Morgan Shook said in order to attract this type of land use, the city would probably have to invest in public infrastructure much like the $1.4 million dollars spent connecting 158th Street SE to Main Street to finish the Mill Creek Town Center over a decade ago.
The city council was unable to finalize their vision for the East Gateway Urban Village at their January 12th meeting, so City Manager Polizzotto brought back the ECONorthwest consultants to the February 23rd city council meeting. Her goal was to facilitate a discussion to identify “what incentives or actions may be necessary” to achieve the city council’s goals for East Gateway Urban Village.
After a lengthy discussion the city councilmembers were still struggling to finalize their vision.
Mayor Pro Tem Brian Holtzclaw said he had a hard time seeing how the area would be developed. He doubted East Gateway Urban Village would attract name brand retailers, “We’re not going to get a Barns & Noble or a PF Chang’s… We’re not going to turn East Gateway into a regional destination for retailers like that.”
Mayor Pro Tem Holtzclaw also said he wasn’t sure investing money in public infrastructure was a good idea. He encouraged City Manager Polizzotto to meet with one of his developer friends to get another perspective on potential land use and report back to the city council.
Mill Creek Community and Economic Development Director Tom Rogers told the city council that the East Gateway Urban Village development regulations required high-quality construction and landowner Roger Sortino did submit a preliminary development agreement last year that met those criteria.
March 22nd Mill Creek City Council Meeting and Public Hearing
At the beginning of a relatively unstructured discussion City Manager Polizzotto reported to the city council that she and Mayor Pro Tem Holtzclaw met with two developers the week of March 14th to get their opinion of what the appropriate East Gateway Urban Village land uses might be. She said that both developers have significantly different business plans now than before the 2008 recession because brick and mortar retailers were having trouble competing with online retailers.
Mayor Pro Tem Holtzclaw added that Mill Creek Town Center vacancies are attracting consumer service businesses such as banks and real estate agents rather than high-end retail. He also mentioned that online retailers were making it difficult for property owners to attract retail tenants.
City Manager Polizzotto provided the following series of questions to guide the discussion, but didn't try to direct the city council's deliberations:
- Is the Council willing to change the pedestrian focus of the EGUV?
- Does the Council want to commit City funds to construction of the "Spine Road?"
- Does the Council want to enhance the landscaping and design standards for the EGUV? If so, in what way?
- Does the Council want to eliminate "mixed use" from the allowed uses in the EGUV?
- Does the Council want to eliminate "multifamily" from the allowed uses in the EGUV?
- Does the Council want to allow drive through businesses in the EGUV?
- Is the Council willing to allow vehicle centric uses such as fueling stations in the EGUV?
In a meandering discussion without any formal votes the city council firmly decided that they didn’t want to fund infrastructure development such as the spine road in East Gateway Urban Village, but were unsure about the answers to many of the other questions.
Mayor Pruitt warned the city council that mixed use meant more apartments for the city. She said she was dead set against allowing more apartments to be built in Mill Creek and opposed allowing further mixed use developments in East Gateway Urban Village.
After repeated attempts to become involved in the city council discussion, Mayor Pruitt finally allowed East Gateway Urban Village landowner and developer Roger Sortino to speak. He expressed his frustration with the development moratorium and said his deal with a major grocery store tenant had fallen through because of it.
Sortino told the city council that if they allowed the moratorium to lapse he could put together another deal for his property. He said his new plans include a restaurant, a CVS drugstore, and another yet to be named retail business on six of the twelve acres, and a mixed-use commercial and residential development on the other six acres with partners Vintage Housing and Polygon Northwest. He said retail tenants are very difficult to find right now, “You’ll have a lot of vacant ground if you don’t allow mixed use.”
Blue Grass Meadows residents Kevin and Laura White were the next to speak. They told the city council that they like the Polygon Northwest development standards and the family friendly feel of the sidewalks and Buffalo Park. They said they don’t want big box stores in East Gateway Urban Village and encouraged them to keep it pedestrian oriented with sidewalks and without drive-through businesses or gas stations.
East Gateway Urban Village landowner Jeff Pratt expressed his frustration with the meandering meeting. He said he had expected an economic study summary and got an unstructured discussion. He said that Mill Creek Town Center would have been more successful if there had been true mixed use with residential over commercial use. He encouraged the city council to let the development moratorium lapse because the city’s zoning regulations were well thought out and prepared with lots of public input.
After two hours of discussion Mayor Pro Tem Holtzclaw stated that in his opinion the moratorium should be lifted with no changes to the development regulations because they can’t force the market to build something that doesn’t make economic sense.
Although Councilmember Mark Bond said he didn’t want more apartments in Mill Creek he agreed with Mayor Pro Tem Holtzclaw that the moratorium should be allowed to lapse.
Councilmember Mike Todd said he also agreed with Mayor Pro Tem Holtzclaw in allowing the development moratorium to lapse.
In an anticlimactic fashion the discussion finished without a formal vote to extend the East Gateway Urban Village development moratorium, so it will lapse on March 31st.