Proposed downtown developments heat up dispute over preserving Kirkland’s character

Developer MRM Kirkland wants to build an eight-story building at 434 Kirkland Way in downtown Kirkland, pictured here. The Emerald Building, which is partly owned by Ken Davidson, overlooks the project. Davidson is one of the opponents of the large MRM development.  - Matt Phelps/Kirkland Reporter
Developer MRM Kirkland wants to build an eight-story building at 434 Kirkland Way in downtown Kirkland, pictured here. The Emerald Building, which is partly owned by Ken Davidson, overlooks the project. Davidson is one of the opponents of the large MRM development.
— image credit: Matt Phelps/Kirkland Reporter

The long fight over the Parkplace redevelopment divided many Kirkland residents for years. But the bigger battle was not over one development or even a couple of zoning codes. Many residents said the fight is for Kirkland’s future.

That dispute has been advanced by two proposed projects that the developers say are paramount to creating jobs, economic development and housing in Kirkland.

But some residents are concerned about skyscrapers overrunning downtown Kirkland and changing its small-town character.

City officials are working to manage the fight with the two proposed large-scale projects: the high density, four story Potala Village on Lake Washington Boulevard and MRM Kirkland’s eight-story building in downtown Kirkland.

The extended six-month moratorium for building on BN-zoned properties, triggered by the potential development of the Potala Village project, has dominated headlines in recent months. But that moratorium expires on May 15 and the City of Kirkland has not yet held a public hearing on the project, according to city documents.

The Kirkland Planning Commission had set April 12 for the public hearing, but the council has twice requested a briefing that postponed the public hearing.

The latest council request came during Tuesday’s council meeting. It requested that more information be presented at the April 17 council meeting, potentially pushing the public hearing back further. The council could extend the moratorium again, prolonging the start of the Potala Village project, if a public hearing and decision on the issues are not agreed upon by May 15.

The developers for Potala Village have threatened to sue the city if the issues are not soon resolved.

“The city may not ‘single out’ a building project and put up road blocks for the developer simply because the neighbors do not like it,” said Kristine R. Wilson, of Perkins Coie in a March 19 email that she read to the council on Tuesday. “Potala remains interested in finding common ground … Potala will not, however waive its rights and allow egregious processes to continue without further objection, potentially in the form of legal action against the city.”

Residents have also raised concerns about how long the process has taken in emails to the city.

One change to the Potala project is that the proposal of one large building was modified to four smaller buildings.

"The Planning Commission has prepared some draft regulations, which significantly modify the size, scale, and allowable use for the area," said Kirkland Planning Commissioner Jon Pascal. "However, I agree with the surrounding residents, more work needs to be done before we take these regulations to a public hearing because I am not convinced they are consistent with the city’s Residential Market designation."

But a relatively new project proposal by MRM Kirkland remains a one-building high-density project. The Private Amendment Requests that MRM submitted in December 2010 could ultimately result in an eight- story building in downtown Kirkland, according to city documents.

The city could hear the request starting as early as June, but city staff said that would be ambitious. The Planning Commission has recommended to the council that it be postponed until at least next year.

“Private amendment requests, such as MRM’s, take away valuable city resources that could otherwise be used to advance broader city goals and objectives, specifically making needed code updates to the city’s neighborhood commercial centers or better integration of our new neighborhoods," said Pascal. "I am pleased the Planning Commission will be recommending to council to postpone the MRM request until at least 2013, or when staff resources are available, so the city can tackle some other high priority projects that benefit a greater number of residents and businesses.”

The building would be eight stories, one of the largest in the city. In contrast, the project would be a half story taller than the Bel Lago condominiums that were built by Juanita Beach Park and grandfathered into the city after annexation last June. Bel Lago would not have been allowed under current city zoning regulations.

The MRM project is slated for 434 Kirkland Way, just southwest of Parkplace next to QFC.

“… MRM asks that the height limit be changed from five stories to eight stories, but in no case more than 100 feet above average building elevation as measured along Kirkland Way,” said G. Richard Hill, of McCullough Hill and Leary, in a letter to the city. The law firm represents MRM Kirkland.

Hill cites the Parkplace zoning code changes to make the development larger as comparison for the changes to be made at 434 Kirkland Way.

Kirkland attorney Ken Davidson disagrees.

Davidson, who led the fight against the proposed redevelopment of Parkplace, is also taking aim at the MRM Kirkland project. Davidson is part owner in the Emerald Building in downtown Kirkland, which sits between Parkplace and the proposed MRM site.

He said the zoning changes and increased height that Parkplace developers brought to the project was inappropriate, “but at least an exchange was offered there. (Developers said) we will create a regional shopping center if you will give us more height. MRM doesn’t have anything to offer like that and there’s not going to be a public benefit with their project.”

Davidson pointed out in a letter to the city that this is not the first time the 434 Kirkland Way property has challenged the downtown zoning.

“MRM Kirkland’s PAR brings the same issues before (the city) for the third time within the last 12 years,” said Davidson in a letter to the city. “Each of the last three owners of this property has filed a PAR requesting a change in use to allow a large apartment building.”

Another issue with the proposed multi-use project is that MRM wants to have the option for more than 12.5 percent of the building to be used as residential. This is a main issue for both parties and also concerns the changes for the Parkplace redevelopment.

One of Davidson’s main arguments is that more residential space in downtown Kirkland would “starve” the area of needed office space.

“Central Business District 5 was identified as an employment center,” said Davidson, who served on the Greater Kirkland Chamber of Commerce in the early 90’s, when businesses worked with the Planning Commission to develop the neighborhood’s current Comprehensive Plan. “You need to have a good reputation in the community and there needs to be a synergy where people want to go to that area if they have a professional firm … Throwing in an apartment building in the middle of that is inconsistent.”

But Hill points out that Davidson made the opposite argument in his opposition to Parkplace.

“… he contended that there was already more than adequate office space in the CBD (Central Business District), and therefore no additional office space on the Parkplace site should be approved.”

Davidson told the Reporter that Hill misquoted him.

The city has also received many emails and letters on the topic from residents.

“Please! No more multi‐family structures in downtown Kirkland! We are choking and are starting to look like Bellevue. No to 434 Kirkland Way!” said Kirkland resident Cheryl Sayed in an email to Planning Commission members.

Another email, from Laverne and Syd Smith of Kirkland, urged the city not to build any eight-story buildings in Kirkland.

“We are a delightful, family-oriented, small town right now. We do NOT want to become another Bellevue (‘Little New York’) with high-rises and so much more traffic!! PLEASE, turn down this ridiculous request from money-hungry developers who don’t care about our wonderful, lovable Kirkland,” they said.

Development has been a long-contested issue for the city and these two projects are just the newest in a long battle.

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