As Issaquah Highlands Goes, So Goes The Eastside

FOR dreamers and others on the Web, now's a good time to pause and consider the impact of Issaquah Highlands, the Port Blakely development formerly known as Grand Ridge.

Perched above and east of Issaquah, the Highlands is one of several large developments that required years of negotiations and refinements before enough accommodations were made to accept more bulldozers in the pine woods of the plateau. The first foundations are going in now, with Day One of the opening scheduled for February or March of next year.

Issaquah Highlands will have a dramatic impact on the Eastside. With some 3 million square feet of office space, 3,250 homes and 425,000 square feet of retail space (about the size of Redmond Town Center) the project will house thousands of men, women and children in a community built from scratch, but connected to the world.

No wonder Portland's power company was interested in serving the Highlands with electricity.

"We calculated that about 98 percent of the homes now being built are already obsolete," said Judd Kirk, president of Port Blakely. "That means the homes don't have enough wiring to accept everything the new owners will want and the developments don't have enough infrastructure to support the demands of the community."

Kirk and others decided to fix that by taking control of the wires that go into the homes. The developer laid extra cables in the ground, connecting homes and town together with the expectation that people in the community will be interconnected via PC.

Once inside the gates, the community will run itself and make decisions about things like electricity, cable and high-speed links. In the new communications world, power doesn't always come from the local gas and light company, it comes from whomever is brokering it that year.

"We were very interested in serving Issaquah Highlands," said David Carboneau, president of First Point Utility Solutions, an arm of Enron's Portland office. Enron used to be Portland Gas and Electric, a far too common name, I guess, for the power and communication links that will propel us into the future.

Carboneau said there were regulatory obstacles that would have to be met before any Portland-Issaquah connection could be made, and eventually the deal never went through. But his enthusiasm for Issaquah Highlands was based on the targets available from a wide open, non-regulated energy market. Almost everyone, eventually, can be their own power broker.

This is not a perk of the rich and secluded. Portland's power company is willing to step across state lines and the usual service areas of their competitors to get new customers. Every other power company is doing much the same, which suggests that Issaquah Highlands is just the beginning.

Times reporter Louis T. Corsaletti calculated the total numbers of homes and buyers going in just east of a line between Redmond and Issaquah - four large planned developments, including Issaquah Highlands. Corsaletti reported 700 families waiting to get into Snoqualmie Ridge, a 1,400-acre community on the Lake Alice Plateau - that's 700 buyers for homes not yet built.

Altogether, the planned mini-towns will jump Eastside population by 15,000 with attendant roads, schools, parks and traffic. In addition to Snoqualmie Ridge and Issaquah Highlands, Northridge and Blakely Ridge, which overlook Redmond, will give the Plateau its own, evolving identity. In effect, new towns are being born that someday kids will call home - hometowns with almost no connection to Seattle, that other large, self-contained community to the west.

Before we hear a giant "tsk, tsk" from urbanites who wish it all to go away, or hope that people living in the chateaus of the Plateau will come to their senses, the efficiencies of the new towns should be considered.

I suspect few of the 700 buyers waiting to get into Snoqualmie Ridge expect to commute to Seattle's Fourth and University or Bellevue's Eighth and Bellevue Way. I'm guessing those buying into the high-tech wiring of Issaquah Highlands are not California commuters, willing to drive across the Tehachapi Mountains outside Bakersfield into downtown LA.

We may be looking at a convergence of work by both Jeep Wagoneer and modem that changes patterns of life toward a particular Eastside culture, town mini-centers without a single, central main street. You may call that sprawl; I don't. I call it a much different, semi-independent scattering of high-tech villages with highly efficient use of energy and communications.

We're not there yet, by any means. A drive across the Plateau is like flicking through a Rolodex of names without identities. Does anyone say they live in Braemore or Tibbett's Station or High Country? They are the equivalent of Portland's Enron - names that conjure up nothing. I'm looking at a time when people will just say they live on the Plateau and that will mean something a long way away.

James Vesely's column focusing on Eastside issues appears Mondays on editorial pages of The Times.