The Earth Moves: Suburban Sprawl in Issaquah

On November 13th, 2015, while most of the western world was watching images of the ISIS attack in Paris, a portion of Cougar Mountain began to move. It had been stripped of trees and surrounded by townhouses, its soil denuded of root systems and flooded with water. From this shifting slope, a person can see not only Tiger Mountain and Squak Mountain, but the majestic Cascade Mountains and Mount Si rising behind them. This view alone increases the real estate price of any homes built on this slope, so naturally there are plans to build 90 new homes. But on Friday the 13th the earth began to move. Water burst through and out the porous and rootless soil. The paved roadway buckled, with one half rising a foot higher than the other. To everyone already living in the townhouses below, it looked as if Cougar Mountain was going to erase their homes.


The City of Issaquah was initially a small town nestled between Squak Mountain and Tiger Mountain, its economy dependent first on coal mining and then on logging. The town grew at the confluence of several creeks and rivers that flowed into Lake Sammamish. Between the mountains and the lake stretched a large marshland that teemed with life and was replete with fertile soil along its edges. As western civilization developed in the area, the Sunset Highway was opened between Spokane and Seattle. This two lane highway became US Highway 10 in the 1920s until it eventually became the Interstate 90 that we all know today. Once this eight lane mega-highway was built through the Issaquah valley in the 1990s, a new phase of development began that was not dependent on coal or lumber.

TM talus
In 1990, the population of the City of Issaquah was somewhere around 8,000 people. Today that population has quadrupled to 35,000. In the last twenty five years, nearly all of the marshland between the mountains and Lake Sammamish have been turned into an immense feeding trough for all of this new development. Target, QFC, Trader Joes, McDonald’s, Taco Time, and the familiar host of corporate food distributors have set up shop in the valley to feed the 27,000 new residents of Issaquah. The marshland valley was sacrificed to industrial warehouses, corporate offices, hotels, and commercial outlets. The slopes on either side of the marshland valley were heavily developed by two major projects that clearcut the hills and leveled the slopes. To the east is the Issaquah Highlands, a development that staggers the imagination in its immensity. To the west is the Talus development on the slopes of Cougar Mountain. Residents in the Highlands can look across the valley at Talus, just as residents at Talus can see the Highlands. Between them is the cemented-over marshland valley, Interstate 90, and the majestic trees that remain atop the mountains.
Views of the surrounding area go for a premium price in these developments. If your townhouse is tucked away behind the mammoth Regal Cinema with no view to speak of, it may cost less than $500,000. But if your house has a view of Lake Sammamish and the surrounding forests, that house will start getting close to $1,000,000. There is a mixture of housing prices in these developments, to be sure, and they have attracted a solid mixture of working class and middle class families. But the primo views always go to the upper class millionaires who can afford to build on the highest slopes.


At the edge of the remaining marshland valley near Lake Sammamish, Microsoft has its Issaquah campus and many of its 2,500 local employees have purchased homes in the Issaquah Highlands and Talus. At one point Microsoft planned to build another campus in the Highlands, but those plans fell through in 2013. Since then, Microsoft has been laying off thousands of employees as its market share continues to collapse. It has even closed one of its three buildings in the marshlands amid the downsizing. Nevertheless, hundreds of Microsoft employees have chosen the Issaquah Valley as their permanent home and helped fill the vacancies in the new developments.


But it seems one of these new developments has run into a problem. As mentioned above, the earth has begun to move underneath the Talus development. Hundreds of housing units have already been built on this slope of Cougar Mountain, and now several dozen townhouses are threatened with an imminent landslide during the next major storm. The developers at Triad were not content to leave the hillside be. They had to extract the maximum profit from every parcel of land. Their proposed 90 homes will generate tens of millions of dollars for everyone involved, but before building them they had to first remove all of the trees. With the root structures destroyed by the clearcut, the hillside no longer wants to stay still. It is moving towards equilibrium and the residents of the townhouses below are in its path.


Earlier in 2014, a group of homeowners in the Talus development began to protest at City Council meetings against the proposed development on the slope. Triad proposed to build gigantic 45 foot retaining walls to hold back the hillside from collapse. Despite much negative attention being cast on the Issaquah City Council and the developers, the plans were approved and the hillside was cleared. Over one year later, this eastern slope of Cougar Mountain is threatening to collapse and work has been halted on the new development.


On Friday, November 20th, a group of people began to disrupt construction on the hillside and forced the work crew to shut down early for the day. On the weekend of November 21-22, anonymous individuals sabotaged the construction equipment left unguarded at the development. The developers did not disclose the amount of damage caused when it was discovered on Monday. The City of Issaquah was forced to issue a statement to discourage residents from taking matters into their own hands. “Please allow workers to do their jobs and do not create an unsafe work environment,” they said through their spokesperson. The desperation in the voice of the City is plainly visible in this statement.


We encourage all people to take matters into their own hands and stop all destructive development in the region. As long as the places we live in are created by the market and not ourselves, we will be at the mercy of whatever disasters they create for us. Capitalism is wholly insufficient for creating a sustainable environment and brings only ruin and desolation in its path. The pursuit of profit is behind this impending disaster, just as it has been behind so many others. We applaud those who took direct action against Triad and the City Council. Defy the bureaucrats and the capitalists, the master builders and the city assessors! Build a new world today!

ed. note: as this goes to print on February 3, 2016, Cougar Mountain is still moving.


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