Kirkland City Council candidates talk density, housing, transit at local forum

Six of the eight Kirkland City Council candidates talked affordable housing, density, parking and transit, among other things, during a candidates forum hosted by the Kirkland Rotary and the Greater Kirkland Chamber of Commerce Monday night.

The forum held at the Woodmark Hotel was moderated by chamber and rotary member Patti Smith.

Council Positions 1, 2, 3, 5 and 7 are up for election this year.

In Position 1, Deputy Mayor Jay Arnold is facing Martin Morgan, who were both in attendance at the forum Monday. Arnold has been on the council since 2014. Morgan, who has had a contentious relationship with the city, has run for council four times in the past starting in 2009.

Tom Neir, who intended on attending the event but was called away on business, is running unopposed for Position 2. He had previously applied for this seat when former council member Shelley Kloba vacated the position last year.

Incumbent Penny Sweet, running unopposed for Position 3, also attended the event Monday. She was first elected to council in 2010.

For Position 5, Mayor Amy Walen will seek re-election and is running against Jory Hamilton. Walen was at the forum, but Hamilton declined to participate, according to Rotary President Steve Shinstorm. Walen was first elected to council in 2009 and has been mayor since 2014.

Finally, for Position 7, Jon Pascal is up against Uzma Butte, who were both in attendance. In December 2016, Pascal was appointed to fill vacant city council Position 2.

The event began with a three-minute introduction for the six candidates during which they gave a brief background on themselves and addressed why they are running for office. Then the candidates had the opportunity to ask their opponent a question. This was followed by several questions generated from the roughly 40 audience members in attendance.

DENSITY

One audience member asked, with respect to the comprehensive plan and neighborhood plans, how council would deal with the need to add density in neighborhoods that don’t want it.

Arnold said these discussions are occurring in the neighborhoods right now. He pointed to a recent neighborhood discussion around the closing of the Bridle Trails Red Apple, which will close in February 2018. The community began to talk about how allowing density, like apartments, in the area might have done something to help save the family-owned grocery store.

Morgan said it’s up to each neighborhood to find where higher density would fit best in the community.

“This is a topic that’s very important to me,” Walen said. “If we say we’re welcoming and inclusive, that means taking density and growth. And it is difficult.”

Walen said the city has tried to channel the “unprecedented” growth into the Totem Lake Urban Center and downtown, but the neighborhoods are also going to need to help.

“It’s a game of inches,” she said. “We do need to look at our neighborhood centers that are on transit, that are on transit lines, that can take some height. We need to call on our neighbors to be neighborly and be gracious about accepting some of those.”

Sweet echoed Walen’s statements.

“We need to build where we can build and where it’s appropriate to build,” Sweet said.

She talked about building schools taller and co-locating housing with businesses.

“The next time we get a Google coming into town or when Amazon decides to come to Kirkland, let’s make sure they build housing on top of their office buildings,” Sweet said.

She said this will also help preserve neighborhoods.

Butte spoke of transit-oriented development, pointing to urban areas near Interstate 405 that’s a “good place” for office space, park-and-rides, child care centers and retail grocery shops.

“To accommodate growth we really need the infrastructure and services to serve that growing population, and I think it’s natural to look at these commercial centers throughout the city,” Pascal said. “These are areas of opportunities where you have services and housing.”

He spoke of his time on the Kirkland Planning Commission, during which they identified areas like Totem Lake to take on that density.

HOUSING

Another audience member asked what the city would do to work with the school district to accommodate the need for affordable housing.

Pascal spoke of his work on the Lake Washington School District’s Long-Term Facilities Task Force and their efforts to bring forward a bond strategy. He pointed to the successful 2016 bond that rebuilds and expands various schools within the district, including Juanita High School.

He also said he is currently working with the school district on how they can bring forward more workforce housing for teachers, firefighters, police officers and service industry workers.

Butte pointed to the King County Housing Authority, which serves low and moderate incomes throughout the county, as an example. She said she echoed what Pascal had to say.

“We need to grow in a way where we can accommodate the teachers, the nurses, the families who are moving in,” Butte said.

Sweet said residential suites work and the city should be looking at them more closely, particularly around high-density areas where services are readily available like park-and-rides and grocery stores.

“We have kind of a missing middle, where people think of single-family housing and high-rise apartments and don’t think of anything in between,” Arnold said. “That’s something we have to enable in our neighborhoods. Duplexes, town homes — we need to work at the state level to figure out why no one is building condos anymore.”

He said the city needs to continue focusing growth on the urban areas like Totem Lake.

Morgan said it’s about fixing some of the city policies.

“There was two houses next to me; they tore them down. They built six of them,” Morgan said. “There was only supposed to be five and that was jamming those in there. But they allowed them to stuff another one in there, provided it was affordable housing. Except for they let the builder buy that off so then he was able to sell that 2,200-square-unit for a million bucks. So I think there’s just some flaw in that.”

He pointed again to the fact that neighborhoods are the ones that know where density will best fit in the community.

TRANSPORTATION

Earlier in the evening, Butte asked Pascal, if he had a “magic wand” to solve transit issues, how would he do it.

Pascal, who said transportation is one of the reasons why he ever considered getting involved with the city, said there is not a “magic wand” solution.

“In my mind, it’s about a range of solutions. There’s no magical answer. I wish there was,” he said. “It starts at the small scale, at the neighborhood scale: pedestrian, bicycle, making our walk routes to schools safer. Then it’s getting up at the higher level. It’s 405, its our transit investments…so we can get around by transit, so we can access transit.”

He pointed to the Sound Transit 3 investment of more than $300 million at Northeast 85th Street as well as the Cross Kirkland Corridor, connecting to Woodinville and Redmond and down south to Bellevue.

Later, an audience member asked all candidates, prefacing it with the fact that about 5,900 new housing units are coming into the city this year adding, she figured, 10,000 new cars on the road, how council would solve the transportation issue in the short term without mentioning mass transit.

Sweet, who said she rides the bus and walks, pointed to Pascal’s way of thinking: tackling it with a variety of solutions like improving pedestrian and bicycle routes and working on the trails.

“The other issue of course is money,” she said. “How do we afford these things?”

Arnold said that each new home can’t mean another car on the street — the city has to provide other options.

“We’ve worked really hard on this council making sure we got investments in Sound Transit and through the state on 405,” he said. “Bus rapid transit on 405 is one of the first projects ST3 will do. I think it’s scheduled to open in 2023 or 2024. That’s every 10-minute bus service and it will stop in Totem Lake and it will stop at 85th and connect to downtown.”

He said the city still needs to invest in how these transit items will connect within the city.

Morgan suggested an inter-city shuttle service to get people around town.

Pascal, again, pointed to a holistic approach. He pointed to projects like 100th Avenue corridor widening that brings bike and pedestrian amenities, vehicle access and connectivity.

Butte said congestion only happens during the peak hours.

“Maybe that’s how we time our errands,” she said. “We have to work at getting cars off the street.”

The other questions revolved around the annexation sales tax, the Houghton Transfer Station and downtown parking.