Sent by: Dan Ryan
On: November 26, 2017
The Kirkland City Council is about to approve changes in zoning at the Houghton-Everest Business Center. The effort to prepare for future growth has failed. By not setting viable standards for development, changes in the center are effectively deferred until a future rezoning. But maybe we can learn something from what went wrong.
Generally, the new zoning allows 30’ tall buildings (same as today) with a mix of uses. With standard ground floor retail heights of 13’, that’s a two-story building. On some sites, the height limit can be increased a whopping five feet to 35’ if the developer includes a large grocery store. Some would have you think that means three stories at those locations (oops, grocery store ceilings are more than 20’ tall, so the math doesn’t even work).
To build any of this, a developer must submit to added design review, 10% affordable housing rules, residential density limits, a rule that no more than 20% of the upper floors can be office, setbacks of 15 feet above the second floor, added road access requirements, and more.
No knowledgeable observer expects redevelopment under these rules. The only door left slightly ajar is at two sites (Menchie’s and PCC). The city will consider up to five stories if a developer gives the city land to build a turn lane southbound on 6th St. “No promises”, though. The developer needs to consolidate the lots and come to the city with a development master plan. They will be subjected to a robust “community process” after which they might get the zoning to make a development possible. Or they might not.
The City seems confident that developers will accept the risk and bureaucratic hassles of more years of review. Ask a developer, or any business owner, and you might get a different answer.
Eight years after starting work on the Central Houghton neighborhood plan, we are further from revitalizing the neighborhood center than ever. As several members of the Houghton Community Council remarked, the new rules are “not going to give them incentive to change”. “We actually boxed them in a little”.
The city went to the public in 2016 offering three options for comment: a “preservation” scenario that prevents any growth, a “modest change” scenario of 2-3 stories, and a “greater change” scenario of 4-5 stories.
The middle option is a fiction, particularly with the extraordinary load of requirements added on by the Council and HCC. The public should have been offered realistic choices only. Neighbors might have rejected change anyway, but wouldn’t have been confused by a “middle option” that was only a dressed-up no-change policy.
The prospects for strip mall grocery stores aren’t great. Most stores are rapidly upgrading to larger footprints. When possible, they’re doing so in mixed use buildings. Bridle Trails will lose the Red Apple in February. Houghton may lose PCC. PCC is replacing their older stores with much larger ones, often in six-story apartment buildings like Green Lake Village or Columbia City. Don’t bet that the oldest and most depreciated store in the entire chain is immune to the trends in retailing everywhere.
It’s too late for Houghton, but what can we do to avoid a repeat? A few suggestions:
- Vet ideas with developers. We won’t agree with everything they ask, but we need to not waste effort on nonsense that can’t work.
- Move faster. Eight years on-and-off for the city to update a neighborhood plan? Come back with a master plan that we’ll chew over for a few more years? That’s not how business works.
- Have a fresh conversation with the community about neighborhood centers. If people want to live where they might walk to a store or a restaurant, they’ll need to accept more neighbors.
- Listen to a wider range of people. The 35,000 people who work in Kirkland and live elsewhere rarely get a voice in our conversations. Those who are priced out of living here get none.
- Realize that we won’t fix traffic by telling new residents in the region they need to drive through to get to Snohomish County to find a place to live.
- Recognize we’re not building much housing. Despite a local perception of rapid growth, we lag every neighboring city. Not only Bellevue and Redmond and Seattle, but Kenmore and Woodinville and Mercer Island and Newcastle are all outpacing us. If we don’t understand what is happening around us, we won’t have an informed conversation.