The dream of Black Diamond's big development is an alternative to suburban sprawl | KUOW News and Information

The dream of Black Diamond's big development is an alternative to suburban sprawl

Feb 22, 2017

So how did King County's largest development in recent history end up way out in Black Diamond?

It happened in part because of Black Diamond's history as a company town. 

In company towns, land ownership and power belonged to the companies that founded the towns. In Black Diamond, the legacy of these ownership patterns survived the collapse of the coal industry.

As suburban developments popped up around cities near Black Diamond, the city itself was girdled by land held by coal and timber companies.

Eventually, those companies decided to develop that land – for housing and stores. But by that time, Black Diamond had seen the effects of suburban sprawl on neighboring cities. Elected officials wanted the city to follow a different path.

Read more: KUOW is embedding in Black Diamond for a month. 

Jason Paulsen was hired in the 1990s as Black Diamond’s first planner. “When we looked at the development happening in Covington and Maple Valley, there was nothing coordinated about it," he said, "There was no attempt to seize upon the region’s natural beauty of forested corridors in any meaningful way.”

But the forested hillsides and streamways were still intact around Black Diamond. 

“And so the core part of the vision for the city (of Black Diamond) was this concept of 'Rural By Design,'" said Paulsen. "It was, 'How can we maintain that rural character so that it feels like it did then, 20 and 30 years into the future?'”

The unique landownership around Black Diamond helped the city avoid the fate of its neighboring cities, where piecemeal development 5 acres at a time proved more difficult to plan around. There were instances, Paulsen said, when roads in Maple Valley's new developments just didn't connect.

In contrast, around Black Diamond just a few landowners owned huge pieces of land. And they wanted something the city could offer: annexation. That would bring their lands inside the urban growth boundary so that they could be developed to a much denser standard. 

Black Diamond used to be a company town for miners working in the coal industry. This image dates from somewhere between 1910 and 1913.
Credit Maude Shorey photographer, via Black Diamond Historical Society & Bill Kombol

The city and the county made a deal with the landowners: The land would be annexed. In exchange, the landowners must preserve about 1,600 acres of open space. 

For a young planner like Paulsen, it was a career defining opportunity to practice the art of planning at a landscape scale, at a time when his peers were stuck in cubicles checking to make sure individual homes met setback requirements.

Critics say the circa 6,000 house development is a fine project in an inappropriate location, far from freeways and light rail.

But Paulsen said it's unlikely a project like Black Diamond's could have been developed anywhere else in King County, because other places don't share the simple land ownership patterns that existed around Black Diamond, thanks to its roots as a company town.

Brian Ross is with Oakpointe, the developer. He said the Black Diamond project is unique for its scale and its ambition.

“This is frankly part of a life work for me," Ross said, "so it’s worth spending more time and money because it’s part of a legacy... and we take that seriously.”

It’s been hard to watch the town get mired in fights over the size of the development. But the project’s fans hope people will come around when they see what gets built.

Joshua McNichols can be reached at jmcnichols@kuow.org. Have a story idea? Use our story pitch form.