'CiViK' group digs in against developer

A proposal to a sell city-owned parking lot at Lake Street and Central Way to a developer for $2 million has led to an organized campaign of opposition complete with pre-printed postcards that were sent to 7,000 Kirkland residents.

Calling themselves Citizens for a Vibrant Kirkland (a.k.a. CiViK), the opposition group is seeking to block developer Milliken and Martin LLC from building a four-story building with 28,000-square-feet of ground-floor retail space, 85 condominiums on the upper three floors, and two levels of underground parking. The U.S. Bank property next to the parking lot on the site would also make way for the development.

CiViK's Web site (www.civik.org) laments the loss of the small-town feel and human scale of downtown Kirkland if the project is approved. The Web site lists 31 Kirkland businesses and approximately 270 local residents who oppose the project.

"We just think the city needs to slow down a bit a determine what's best for everyone," said CiViK president Jeff Leach. "We're not anti-development," he stressed. "We just want to make sure any development will benefit the citizens."

Part of the objection is based on the economics of the proposed deal. There are currently 58 parking places on the site and plans call for replacing them in the underground garage at the city's expense. Replacing them at ground level elsewhere would cost $18,000 to $20,000 per stall, according to city studies.

Stalls in an underground garage would cost substantially more, although exactly how much isn't known at the moment because soil and water-table studies have yet to be performed.

But some project opponents contend that Kirkland could come out on the short end of the stick in the deal. That's because it might end up costing more than the $2 million selling price to pay for the underground parking, some fear.

Mayor Mary-Alyce Burleigh doesn't see that happening. "We'd never structure a deal where we'd lose money," she said of the city council. By the same token, the goal is not to make money on the deal, either, the mayor added.

"You know, the impetus for all this is we have a Downtown Strategic Plan," said Burleigh. The plan, she added, identified the Lake and Central property as an opportunity site at a quaint-sounding "Main and Main" location.

The proposed project - which falls within existing zoning codes - has a base height of 45 feet with a maximum of 53 feet in some places on the roof for heating and air-conditioning equipment, said city Planning Supervisor Jeremy McMahan.

But CiViK thinks that's way too big for the downtown corner and staged a Dec. 10 event that included floating balloons to a height of 53 feet to demonstrate "why a controversial proposed development of that height will be out of scale for the heart of downtown Kirkland."

Some opponents of the project have suggested that a three-story building with retail on the ground floor and offices on the top two floors might be a more appropriate use for the property.

That wouldn't be much of an improvement, according to Burleigh. "If you build a three-story office building, it would only be four feet shorter," she said.

That figure is based on retail space having a height of 15 feet, office space having a height of 13 feet and residential space having a height of 10 feet, the mayor said.

In any event, a city council hearing in December about the project drew stiff opposition. "We had about 50 people who spoke," Burleigh said. "Maybe six supported the project."

On the other hand, it was unclear what those at the meeting would like to see built on the property, instead, she said. CiViK on its Web site says the group agrees that "the current use of the property does not maximize its potential for strengthening the village character."

CiViK also agrees that economic revitalization of downtown is needed and that Kirkland as a whole needs to grow and thrive, according to its Web site.

The question is how that should be done. "We do not feel it is in the public's best interest to sell the property and develop it in a way that best benefits the developer and the relatively few who can afford to buy upscale condominiums at a premium price," CiViK states on the Web site.

Others have a different perspective. George Larson, chair of the Downtown Action Team (DAT), said last summer that the project would "create a destination retail environment" that would produce more pedestrian traffic on the streets at later hours. "That's just good for everybody," he said, "residents and retailers."

Leach isn't sure that's a valid viewpoint because it doesn't include the larger community at large. "Right now, most of the perspective is from the DAT and city staff," he said.

CiViK also seems to be taking a wag-the-dog stance about the proposed project. "We should keep control over what happens at this key site, so that what we love about Kirkland can be preserved for generations to come," the Web site says.

Whether CiViK can take control of the process remains to be seen, and Leach denies that's really the organization's aim. But the group has certainly gotten the attention of the Kirkland City Council. "Obviously, when you hear well-organized opposition, you listen," Burleigh said.

That is a good start as far as Leach is concerned, but he would like to expand on the concept. "We're going to try to move into a collaborative phase with the city," he said.

It's only fair, according to Leach, because city property is involved. "If we were changing a park owned by the city, there would be a lot of input from citizens," he said. "If it was a private development, we wouldn't even be having this talk."

Burleigh said that each city council member was going to prepare a list of concerns to be sent to City Manager Dave Ramsay for comment by the Jan. 4 city-council meeting. "And everybody has lots of concerns ...," the mayor conceded.

The mayor said she hopes the council will be able to come to a decision one way or the other by the second meeting in January. That might be difficult, she said, because council member Larry Springer is heading to Olympia for his new job in the state legislature.

Burleigh said she hopes he can be persuaded to still come to the two meetings so there won't be just six council members and the possibility of a tie vote on the issue.

"Hopefully, out of the process we'll come up with something that will be good for Kirkland," she said.

Staff reporter Russ Zabel can be reached at rzabel@nwlink.com or (206)461-1309.[[In-content Ad]]