Transforming Highway 99: What does future hold for new-look highway?

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    Among the goals of the Highway 99 redevelopment will be to provide a more comfortable environment for pedestrians, unlike this existing situation near Swedish Edmonds hospital. (Photo source: City of Edmonds Highway 99 Subarea Plan)

    This the 6th and final part of our series on the planned transformation of Highway 99 through Edmonds. You can read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 here, Part 4 here, and Part 5 here.

    As the City of Edmonds prepares to move forward with a plan to revitalize Highway 99, one of the unanswered questions is, what types of development will the new-look highway attract?

    Several new multi-family housing projects now dot the landscape in Shoreline following the city’s recently completed Aurora Corridor project, which Edmonds planners have cited as a model of what’s to come for Edmonds.

    City of Shoreline Economic Development Director Dan Eernissee said that Edmonds’ decision to implement a multi-family tax exemption program along Highway 99 bodes well for the city’s ability to attract similar projects to Edmonds.

    Through the program approve by the Edmonds City Council, developers who include 20 percent affordable housing units in future Highway 99 developments — split at 10 percent each between units for low and moderate incomes — receive a 12-year tax exemption.

    Both Eernissee and City of Edmonds Economic Development and Community Services Director Patrick Doherty said the tax exemption program allows suburban cities like Shoreline and Edmonds to remain competitive with downtown Seattle in attracting development.

    “Construction costs (in the suburbs) are identical to downtown Seattle but the rents are not nearly as robust,” Eernissee said. “Seattle has overall low development costs on top of that. They don’t charge impact fees (both Shoreline and Edmonds do) and they also give property tax exemptions as well. It’s a lot cheaper to build in Seattle and the rewards are pretty great for the developer if they can find the right property.”

    An apartment complex proposed for Highway 99 and 234th Street Southwest in Edmonds.

    So far, one major multi-family project has been proposed for the Edmonds stretch of Highway 99 — and is now in design review. The project would include 193 units in five levels of residential over two levels of parking.

    The Shops at Aurora, planned in place of the Denny’s Restaurant off 244th Street Southwest.

    Another new project planned for the highway is the Shops at Aurora, a strip mall that will replace the Denny’s Restaurant at 244th Street Southwest just north of the King-Snohomish County line.

    So far, no other proposals are in the works, although the city’s Patrick Doherty said his office has been fielding inquiries “for both mixed-use (residential-commercial) and purely commercial projects.”

    While none of those inquiries has turned into a project yet, “there is definitely market response to our work and we look forward to more projects, assuming the economy continues to support them,” Doherty said.

    Shoreline City Hall (Photo courtesy City of Shoreline)

    In Shoreline, the city itself made an investment in stimulating economic development along the Aurora Corridor by building a new City Hall on 175th Street Southwest, just a few blocks east of the highway. “That was intentional,” Shoreline’s Dan Eernissee said. The city is also looking to build a community center along Aurora “as another investment,” he added.

    The Edmonds Citizens Economic Development Commission has been studying a similar idea for Edmonds, and plans to present to the mayor and city council at a later date an issue paper outlining its ideas.

    The nine-member commission, an advisory group tasked with researching ways to enhance economic development citywide, for several months has been examining whether any of the city’s downtown facilities —  including city hall and the Public Safety Complex — might be better suited for the Highway 99 corridor. Not only could such a project serve as a catalyst for commercial investment and development — similar to the idea behind Shoreline’s investment — it could also free up valuable property in the downtown core for possible commercial use.

    During their discussions, commissioners raised the idea that Highway 99 may be a better location for the Edmonds Police Department, given that much of the police work is not centered downtown but in neighborhoods to the east, including the highway.

    South Snohomish County Fire, which contracts with the City of Edmonds to provide emergency medical and fire services, also plans to conduct a facilities study throughout its service area to determine whether the existing location of fire stations — including the three in Edmonds — make sense given population growth and call volume.

    Another issue related to Edmonds’ Highway 99 development  involves the current stretch that now comprises unincorporated Esperance. The area includes 1,450 feet on the west side of Highway 99, from just north of 234th Street Southwest to 228th Street Southwest.

    Esperance is the shaded area on the map.

    There has been discussion recently about whether the city will again undertake an effort to incorporate the entire Esperance area — including the Highway 99 stretch — into Edmonds (past efforts requiring a vote of Esperance residents have been defeated). Doherty said the concept is being studied “in detail” before anything is brought to the council for consideration. A major issue, city officials have said, is whether the benefits of such a move would outweigh increased costs to the city in terms of providing police and other city services. Currently Esperance residents are served by the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office.

    Meanwhile, the next step for Highway 99 development is a draft plan from SCJ Alliance, expected in late 2018, outlining how the city can tackle roadway enhancements in stages, as Shoreline did with its Aurora Corridor project. Environmental documentation and right-of-way costs will also be part of the plan. And then, of course, there’s the matter of paying for the estimated $100 million price tag. The city is seeking grant funding for future portions of the project.

    As the city moves ahead with its plan, two long-time Edmonds residents who live near Highway 99 shared their concerns and hopes regarding what the redevelopment could bring to the city — and to their neighborhoods. Both of them served on Edmonds’ Highway 99 Task Force, created in 2003 to study ways to diversify economic development along the highway and evaluate potential traffic and aesthetic improvements.

    Task force member Bruce Witenberg, who lives near the Aurora Marketplace shopping center, said it’s critical that city planners keep in mind the impacts such redevelopment will have on nearby neighborhoods.

    “These single-family neighborhoods represent some of the most affordable single-family housing in Edmonds,” he said.  “There is little on-street and public off-street parking and few sidewalks in these areas and there is certainly potential for increased vehicle and pedestrian traffic on residential streets for those trying to get to Highway 99 and 104 or trying to access the redeveloped properties.”

    Added Jim Underhill, another task force member who for 22 years has lived in a single-family neighborhood near Swedish Edmonds hospital: “It can’t be buses and cars only. It will be these plus well-timed street lights that move traffic and people along, and across, the highway safely. It will be well-designed apartments being built, coupled with new businesses that do not encroach into neighborhoods.”

    Underhill said he also envisions “improvements with our current housing stock, on each side of the highway, both new houses and improved existing homes.

    But the most important aspect of future Highway 99 redevelopment, according to Underhill? “The City of Edmonds embracing this part of town as part of its own, not a stepchild.”

    — By Teresa Wippel

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