Council members, residents voice opinions on Houghton/Everest Neighborhood Center building heights

Reporter file photo.

Reporter file photo.

Kirkland’s City Council approved an ordinance last week that limits the Houghton/Everest Neighborhood Center building height to three stories and creates five-story incentives on the Everest side.

Ordinance O-4629 amends the HENC zoning code to restrict building height to three stories and 35 feet maximum as the planning commission and Houghton Community Council recommended. Currently, the five-story incentives, nicknamed the Arnold Amendment, only exist in the Everest Neighborhood comprehensive plan, which will not become zoning code when the council votes for final approval on Jan. 22.

The Arnold Amendment will only affect the Northwest block of the HENC intersection. Under the ordinance, three-story development will only be allowed in the zoning code until a developer presents a master plan for the Northwest block that will be subject to a legislative process and council approval.

“Because it’s legislative, the council can make up any additional requirements we want on the fly,” council member Toby Nixon said. “If we as a community decide that the proposal, on balance, is better for the community, then we might approve it, but it’s completely discretionary.”

According to Nixon, this gives the council negotiating power for future redevelopment.

The Arnold Amendment already establishes several requirements for the additional two stories and the council didn’t include this framework in the zoning code as a compromise with the community.

“While the zoning sets the requirements for today, we’re also amending the comprehensive plan which sets the 20-year vision for the neighborhood,” council member Jay Arnold said.

Community contention

The council’s push for five-story incentives in the HENC has been met with a vocal push-back from community members over past months.

Locals voiced their opposition and fear of increased traffic in the already congested area. Through numerous letters, phone calls and public comments, they urged the city follow the three-story recommendations.

Rick Whitney, chair of the HCC, called this the greatest amount of public participation for any issue in the city’s history.

“There’s no question that in appearance to the public, the city council is disregarding the unprecedented public input on this decision,” he said. “The appearance that the city council doesn’t care about or honor the public process is not worth the Hail Mary chance being offered by the Arnold Amendment.”

The ordinance technically satisfies the HCC recommendations, but that was not enough for Whitney nor Anna Rising, chair of Everest Neighborhood Association.

“Not only did you ignore the feedback from residents, but you ignored the recommendation from the planning commission and HCC,” she said. “You’ve really discouraged any public participation in the future and it’s very hard as a neighborhood chair to tell people that their opinions count.”

Council consideration

Not all residents oppose the incentives and some voiced their support saying the increased density would actually decrease traffic beyond an additional right-turn lane, which is required in the Arnold Amendment.

Some supporters argued that the multi-family housing would increase walking and biking in the neighborhood because people can live closer to work instead of commuting. This was echoed by Nixon.

“Perhaps there are a few hundred people out of the 87,000 residents of Kirkland who may disagree with this action,” he said. “But I believe it’s the right thing to do for the interest of the broader community, including those who will become residents of Kirkland in the future.”

This sentiment was previously argued by Mayor Amy Walen, who said she wants Kirkland to be welcoming as the affordability crisis grows.

The ordinance was approved 5-2 by council members Nixon, Arnold, Walen, Penny Sweet and Doreen Marchione.

Council members Dave Asher and Tom Neir dissented and while Jon Pascal previously expressed his opposition, he will not rejoin the council until January.

Neir wanted to uphold the public’s recommendations despite his own opinion that the area badly needs redevelopment.

“I think that the community worked very hard and while we may not agree with their outcome, I respect the process,” he said.

Additionally, he argued that that city processes already exist for developers to request an additional two stories, without the Arnold Amendment.

“We don’t need to create a new door for someone to walk through,” he said.

Despite their differing votes, Nixon also pointed this out.

“That would be the case even without any of the language we’re proposing today because these amendments could be proposed at any point down the road,” he said regarding comprehensive plans that can be amended annually.

Essentially, Nixon argues that a developer could request an additional two stories regardless of the Arnold Amendment and by preemptively providing this framework, the council gains flexibility in future redevelopment negotiations.

Community members will still have opportunities to voice their opinions on five-story development at future public hearings when the council deliberates on a tangible proposal.

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