Lake and Central fallout begins <br><em>Controversial decision leads to multiple resignations</em>

Bowing to public pressure, the Kirkland City Council voted 5-2 last month to put an end to an ambitious public-private partnership that would have transformed a parking lot into a four-story, mixed-use project with underground parking at the corner of Lake Street and Central Way.

Opponents of the project were overjoyed, claiming that people power had prevailed to prevent what amounted to the desecration of downtown Kirkland.

However, others thought the city council made the wrong call. They included council member Tom Dillon, who resigned in disgust immediately after the vote.

"The big lie wins," he said of the contention that the Milliken Martin project would have destroyed the small-town character and charm of downtown Kirkland. "You tell a big lie often enough, people will believe it," he added with some heat.

Dillon also found it ironic that the project would have been "almost the mirror image of what's sitting across the street (to the north)."

He also questioned the judgment of the other council members who voted against the project. "I think generally they mistook a loud and vocal group as representing the entire city."

The group, Citizens for a Vibrant Kirkland (CiViK), was inclusive as possible, according to its president, Jeff Leach. "It was really only rolled out to the public on Oct. 24," he said of a meeting at Lake Washington High School.

The general consensus, he said, was that the process was moving too quickly and that people wanted to hear more about the project. A steering committee appointed by the city and heavily weighted with CiViK members also held workshops and conducted surveys, Leach noted.

Some could accept a three-story building, but they were in a minority, he said. "The preference, if you ask most people, was two stories."

However, given the economics of development, building a two-story - or even just a three-story - project on the lot simply wouldn't pencil out, according to Larry Martin of Milliken Martin, the development company the city chose among 14 who responded to a Request for Proposals.

The city council vote came as a surprise to him and Milliken, Martin said. "I've never seen an instance when a city did not support its own plan, particularly when the developer was invited in." Also disturbing was council unwillingness to adhere to its own zoning codes, which allow four-story buildings, he said.

Martin also slammed the opposition. "CiViK formed very late in this process, and it was disturbing to see them spreading information about the project that wasn't accurate."

He points to 7,000 postcards the group mailed to Kirkland residents as an example. The card pictured a grouping of 12-story buildings. "It's obviously not Kirkland at all," Martin said.

He also mentioned a Power Point program opponents prepared that included a huge computer-generated, black box layered over the site as another example. The box looked like Darth Vader's garage and nothing like the stepped-back, redesigned project Milliken Martin came up with.

Some of the staunchest opponents of the project live right across the street and also just a few blocks away, and that was significant, according to Martin. "A feeling that downtown is their back yard did come into this," he said.

Leach denied CiViK is a NIMBY group, though. "I think CiViK was just trying to give a voice to the public."

Dillon doesn't buy it. "The (CiViK) survey was an absolute joke," he said. People were asked if they wanted high-rise buildings in downtown Kirkland, for example, Dillon said.

Besides, the public had already weighed in on redevelopment in Kirkland with the Downtown Strategic Plan (DSP), according to George Lawson, chair of the Downtown Action Team, which put the report together.

The plan, he said, was the result of three years of work, and it included public hearings and viewpoints of people from all over the city.

Consultants were also involved in developing the plan, Lawson added. "They were able to help all of us understand what it would take to revitalize downtown Kirkland."

Milliken Martin changed the design of the project twice, and Lawson believes the end result meshed well with the DSP. "From my point of view, Milliken Martin changed the plan not only to be acceptable, but great," he added.

Leach from CiViK has no problem with the DSP. "We embraced the Downtown Strategic Plan," he said. "But there's a lot of room for interpretation."

Perhaps, but Dillon said the city council ignored all the work the Downtown Action Team did and turned Lake and Central into a "sacrificial lamb."

Still, the steering committee that voted unanimously to reject the project included three Downtown Action Team members, conceded Lawson, the DAT chair.

But he said the set-up of the committee was bad from the beginning, alleging that committee members who supported the project were attacked and bullied. "It was brutal," said Lawson, who added, "No one is going to admit that."

Milliken Martin spent more than $500,000 on planning for the doomed project, Martin said, and that won't be lost on the development community. "I think there will be a bit of skepticism about working with the city again on a public-private partnership," he said.

Dillon, who works in the commercial and retail real estate field, was even more blunt. "There's not a developer would ever touch this again," he said. "It will be 30 or 40 years before anybody forgets this."

Lawson was a bit skeptical about the 30-to-40-year claim, but he agreed that killing the project won't help the city's reputation. "It's not going to help their relationship with the development community."

Mayor Mary-Alyce Burleigh, who voted against the project, said the amount of anger about the project was something the city council hadn't seen before. "I thought it had just become so divisive, to go forward would have engaged us in a battle that would have lasted months, if not years," she said.

The steering committee, which was made up of residents from all over Kirkland, was also a factor in her vote, the mayor said. "The point is, by the end of the day, they gave a unanimous vote against the project."

Burleigh said she wasn't sure what kind of Lake and Central project would be acceptable to Kirkland residents. There are many ideas as there are people in the city, she said.

The best thing to do now, Burleigh said, would be to set the idea aside for the moment, let things calm down a bit and then revisit the issue in around a year.

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