CiViK victory halts Bank of America project

After months of deliberations, accusations and heated arguments reminiscent of a TV courtroom drama, Kirkland’s summer-long soap opera is over.

After months of deliberations, accusations and heated arguments reminiscent of a TV courtroom drama, Kirkland’s summer-long soap opera is over.

The Kirkland City Council voted 4-3 at an Aug. 5 meeting in favor of a resolution supporting the appeal of the Bank of America/ Merrill Gardens (BofA) redevelopment plan on the corner of Kirkland Avenue and Lake Street. The appeal, brought by Citizens for a Vibrant Kirkland (CiViK) on April 15, challenged a decision by the Design Review Board (DRB) to approve developer SRM’s plans for the site. The DRB is a volunteer board of design professionals to advise the city on building developments.

Council members Jim Lauinger, Dave Asher, Jessica Greenway and Tom Hodgson voted in favor of the appeal. Asher, who voted to give SRM a chance to modify its plans, said he was frustrated by attempts to use the flexibility of the building code against the council. He promised changes would soon be made to clearly define the city’s building regulations.

“People … believe they can get certain things that we aren’t prepared to approve,” he said.

The appeal was brought by the same citizen’s group that stopped a four-story mixed use development in 2005 on Lake Street and Central Way. CiViK’s stated goal is to protect the economic vitality of the area and the livability and “small-town feel” of downtown Kirkland. Representing CiViK at the hearing, Bea Nahon and Jim McIlwee laid out their case a final time as their lawyer, J. Richard Arambaru, sat silently nearby.

“Something great should be developed there,” Nahon said. “But it is time for all of us to move on.”

SRM presented a revised plan July 1, but in the interim made several changes in response to comments from the council. They hoped a re-imagined concept of two separate buildings and further setbacks and stepbacks would satisfy previous concerns.

Still opposed to the project, CiViK maintained a variety of reasons left the council little choice but to overturn the DRB decision.

“This is about zoning. And this is about doing the right thing,” said Nahon. “We know we have given you the legal sufficiency to do so.”

But at the end of the process, the council decided to deny the project on narrow grounds of two objections raised in the appeal, according to findings adopted by the resolution.

First, a fifth story for the property is permitted only if the development includes “superior retail space,” a city code designation intended to promote “the desired pedestrian character and vitality” of the downtown area. The council decided that SRM plans to keep an existing drive-through which exits onto Kirkland Avenue was inconsistent with the allowance, and ruled against the proposed fifth-floor.

Second, the proposal did not meet requirements to reflect the appearance of two stories along Lake Street South. Instead of emphasizing the appearance of two stories, the BofA plans offered a wider sidewalk than required and a small plaza and water feature at the intersection of Lake Street and Kirkland Avenue. Despite the pedestrian-friendly amenities and a minimum 26-foot setback, the council ruled it wasn’t enough to comply with the code.

Immediately following the end of the council meeting, individual members gravitated to the sides they supported in the appeal. Mayor Jim Lauinger handed CiViK’s McIlwee the pen he had used to sign the resolution.

“I’m damn glad this is over,” Lauinger said. “I think I’ll enjoy the rest of the summer now.”

SRM Developer Any Loos said no decision has been made on their next step and remained confused on what was permitted for the site.

“We’ll just regroup and come back with something else, I guess,” he said. “We’re still not completely sure what they want.”

In its wake, the appeal left a number of supporters from both sides fuming at the council’s indecision; prompted a number of DRB members to resign; and damaged the reputation of councilman Tom Hodgson. He offered a confidential memo, widely believed to be a document that discusses legal strategy, to CiViK attorney Arambaru during the July 1 City Council meeting. The disclosure is a violation of state ethics codes.

To remedy the incident, the city hired attorney David Boerner to speak with council members and propose a solution. According to councilwoman Jessica Greenway, Boerner suggested at a July 30 closed meeting that the council agree upon a solution that was amenable to all parties. On August 4, they met in public and Hodgson read a prepared statement in which he expressed regret for “actions that did not contribute to the collegiality” of the council and was required to pay a reparation of $500. Greenway said the money was lent to him during the backroom session.

“It was a barrier to our work,” she said. “Personally, (I’d say) let’s just make everything public.”

With varying degrees of enthusiasm, several council members said they believed the matter was concluded.

Meanwhile, SRM attorney Molly Lawrence lodged an official request for Hodgson to disqualify himself from the hearing and complained the incident also had violated their right to due process. Remaining on the dais on August 5, Hodgson said he sympathized with her request to see a copy of the memo provided to CiViK, but refused to do so.

“I wish I could, but I can’t,” he said.

Both the decision to deny the project and Hodgson’s participation are grounds to file suit in Superior Court.