A settlement dating back 125 years and tucked into the Cascade Range foothills is where you might expect to find a former logging camp or mining ghost town. But that’s not so for the city of Issaquah — which started with approximately 500 residents in 1892 as the town of Gilman, officially became the town of Issaquah in 1899, then the city of Issaquah in 1959 — and has seen more residents and businesses move to the area over the years.

Issaquah counted fewer than 2,000 residents as recently as 1961. But that changed when the population grew by nearly 5,600 people (or 18.4 percent) between 2010 and 2017, largely due to two master-planned urban villages: Issaquah Highlands and Talus. Annexations also grew Issaquah’s size.

Issaquah is projected to add approximately 4,000 housing units and 17,500 jobs by 2031, and a Sound Transit Link light rail service is scheduled to reach the city by 2041.

Swim Labs in Issaquah

Swim Labs in Issaquah. Photo by Joanna Kresge

“One thing about Issaquah that is particularly important is that we are done annexing,” said Keith Niven, the city’s economic and development services director. “Geographically, we know what we’ve got, we know what’s coming, we know our growth numbers. We get to spend a lot of time thinking about the same pieces of property (and asking), ‘How do you fit in all the growth that is coming?’ That’s a challenge we talk about almost every day.”

The city is hemmed in by three mountains (Cougar, Squak, and Tiger — a trio of peaks that helps comprise the Issaquah Alps), Lake Sammamish, and a busy, noisy ribbon of Interstate 90 that cuts the city in half. Issaquah Mayor Fred Butler said traffic is the biggest complaint made by his constituents.

“What is really killing us is regional pass-through traffic,” said Butler. In the morning, residents of Covington, Maple Valley, and other areas of South King County drive north toward Interstate 90, clogging downtown Issaquah arterials. The process is reversed and repeated during the evening commute.

What’s more, Issaquah’s population expands and contracts every day, with about 14,000 residents leaving the city to commute to work, and about 21,000 people commuting into the city to work at Costco, Microsoft, and other local employers (about 1,500 residents both live and work in Issaquah).

Representatives of the City of Issaquah, Downtown Issaquah Association, and the Issaquah Chamber of Commerce recently invited our staff of writers, editors, and designers to learn more about Issaquah by offering a tour of the city. Here are some highlights:

Costco's international headquarters in Issaquah

Costco’s international headquarters in Issaquah. Photo by Joanna Kresge

Issaquah’s Costco Connection

Costco opened in Kirkland in 1983, merged with San Diego-based Price Club 10 years later, and moved its corporate headquarters to Issaquah in 1994. “When we merged with the Price company, we doubled our size overnight,” said Jackie Frank, a 25-year Costco veteran and vice president of the company’s real estate division. “We realized this little rental space in Kirkland was not going to cut it. The opportunity came up to acquire 30 acres in Issaquah, and then we started expanding.” The company went on to construct two more buildings and a nine-story parking garage on its Issaquah campus.

Costco is the world’s second-largest retailer (behind Wal-Mart), with more than 90 million members and approximately 25 new store openings every year. More stores mean more employees at its corporate headquarters to support those stores.

The city and Costco recently reached an agreement to allow the retailer to add 1.5 million square feet of office space to its campus over the next 30 years. Costco has submitted a proposal to build a 600,000-square-foot Class-A office building, and 1,800-stall parking garage, according to Frank, which could be completed by 2021. In addition, the company provided $23 million of a $44 million project to extend Southeast 62nd Street, allowing improved traffic flow in, out, and around the Costco campus.

“We love it here,” said Frank. “Issaquah is a great community. It’s definitely our home.”

A City in the Sky

SanMar Issaquah

425 Business toured SanMar’s Issaquah headquarters. Photo by Joanna Kresge

It’s only two miles from City Hall to the Issaquah Highlands commercial hub, but this urban village is perched some 500 feet above downtown Issaquah, and offers views as far off as the Olympic range on clear days.

With some 10,000 residents, a major transit center, shops, restaurants, a movie theater, and even a large hospital, Issaquah Highlands feels like its own city in the sky. And there are still sizeable pockets of land to be developed, according to Niven, who noted a few spots where growth in the Issaquah Highlands could continue, such as:

  • Swedish Medical Center opened a 550,000-square-foot facility in 2011, and owns a parcel of land one block north that could be the site of a 500,000-square-foot medical office building;
  • Bellevue-based developer Shelter Holdings could build a 1.86-million-square-foot mixed-used project on a 21.5-acre site;
  • And the city owns a 32-acre plot of tree-covered land that could be the site of a new elementary school. “The school district needs more schools,” said Niven, who noted voters recently approved a $500 million levy four new schools “just to keep pace with the growth that is happening now, let alone future (growth).”

Tapping Tourism

Issaquah’s potential for tourism is huge, according to city officials, with amenities such as Cougar Mountain Zoo, Lake Sammamish State Park, a salmon hatchery, The Village Theatre, Gilman Village, and the Historical Train Museum & Depot. The Downtown Issaquah Association hosts more than two-dozen events annually, drawing visitors to events such as art/wine walks, live concerts, and festivals.

But the city wants to do more. A recent study offered several recommendations to boost tourism, one of which was to use lodging tax revenue to create a Visit Issaquah organization and hire a full-time director. Similarly, the city is exploring the creation of a destination branding and marketing campaign that also could be unveiled next year.

Yum-e Yogurt Issaquah

We stopped by Yum-e Yogurt during the tour for samples. Photo by Joanna Kresge

“I’m hoping it all falls into place and we can have the visitors’ bureau in place and working by the end of the first quarter of 2018,” said Tim Dutter, the city’s economic development manager.

Rowley Center and Kid Row

Rowley Properties has developed projects in Issaquah since 1954, and is poised to turn two neighborhoods — Hyla Crossing and Rowley Center — into mixed-use hubs.

“The vision that Rowley Properties has is to create a walkable, livable urban center here in this area, specifically because of our proximity to the Issaquah Transit Center and, eventually, light rail,” said company spokesperson Marisa Ozburn during a visit to SwimLabs, a Rowley Properties tenant.

The swimming school is one of many small businesses located in the Rowley Center neighborhood that spans Northwest Gilman Boulevard, Northwest Mall Street, and Northwest Maple Street. Local affectionately refer to the areas as “Kid Row” because tenants include Eastside Baby Corner, Inspire Academy of Dance, JuzPlayKids, Gymnastics East, and Universal Energy Martial Arts.

“We envision this as being a dense city center, but also maintaining our connection to nature, growing up instead of out so that we continue to have these beautiful mountain views,” Ozburn added. “Our vision for the next 30 years is to find some anchor tenants that want to come into this great growing city and share in our commitment in honoring the balance between what we build and nature.”


Thumbnail photo by Joanna Kresge