Upscale project eyed for downtown

It may be convenient, but a city-owned parking lot at the corner of Central Way N.E. and Lake St. no longer jibes with ambitious plans to revitalize downtown Kirkland.

That suits Milliken and Martin LLC just fine.

The development company has been tapped by the city to build an upscale combination of condominiums and retail space with two levels of underground parking on the site, said city planning supervisor Jeremy McMahan.

Planning is still in preliminary stages for the four-story project, which might include property currently occupied by the adjoining U.S. Bank branch, he said.

But just the parking lot was identified as one of four opportunity sites in the downtown strategic plan for the city, and the city council authorized the planning department to issue a request for qualifications to potential developers almost two years ago, McMahan said.

Then there was one

"We got 10 responses and short-listed it to four," he added. "And out of that, Milliken and Martin was chosen as the developer we wanted to work with on the site."

That led to the city entering an "exclusive negotiating agreement" with the company last June, and the developers have recently begun outreach efforts that included a presentation for the city council.

"We just saw two conceptual designs the other night," Mayor Mary-Alyce Burleigh said at the end of May. "We found them to be really interesting."

One design, a 20,000-square-foot version, used only the parking-lot property. The other, a 40,000-square-foot concept, used both the parking-lot and bank properties, Burleigh said.

"It will help the whole downtown to have something there besides a parking lot," she said.

George Larson, chair of the Downtown Action Team, agrees. "It helps create a destination retail environment, as well as provides more legs on the street," he said.

The project also follows the state's Growth Management Act goal to create more residential density in cities, as opposed to creating more housing sprawl in the suburbs, Larson added.

"I think the idea is to provide for a concept that will produce traffic on the streets at later hours," he said, adding that would encourage other downtown retailers to stay open later at night. "That's just good for everybody - residents and retailers."

An 'upscale' mix

Larry Martin from Milliken and Martin is on the same page, describing the area as the heart of Kirkland and an important location in city efforts to liven up the downtown scene. "We're very excited about the opportunity," Martin says.

The ultimate number of condominiums will depend on whether the bank property is part of the deal, but he said there would be a mix of studios and one- and two-bedroom units in the building.

Martin isn't sure about the cost range for the condos, but they won't be cheap. "We like to say high-quality, very desirable living units," he said, while noting that the building will be in a pricey market. "The prime location is key," Martin added.

The lower level of the underground parking will be reserved for residents in the complex, but the first level will be set aside for the public andshoppers going to whatever anchor store goes into the project, he said.

One idea that Milliken and Miller is exploring is bringing in an "upscale urban grocery." It's also possible U.S. Bank might set up shop in the building, assuming the existing bank property is acquired for the project. Talks with the bank are going well, according to Martin.

"We are still in discussions with the developer," confirmed U.S. Bank spokeswoman Teri Charest. "Obviously we want to protect our interests (but) without standing in the way of development, which is good for downtown."

The feedback process

Since the parking lot is on city property, the city council has to approve of the project, said McMahan from planning. Before that happens, he added, the project will have to go through a design-review process and an environmental-impact study, which will include a traffic study.

The proposal will also be presented at a public open house. "Our goal for the public open house would be to have that within the next two or three months," Martin said in late May.

Efforts in that area have already begun, including a recent presentation at the nearby Marina Heights condominium, where Larson from the Downtown Action Team lives. "We had a pretty good turnout," Larson said. "There was a lot of interest."

As someone who lives in the area, Larson is enthusiastic about the project. "I think it will increase property values downtown," he said of one reason. Having a grocery store just across the street is another. "I'm very positive about it."

But not everybody in Larson's building thinks the project is such a great idea. David Martin (no relation to developer Larry Martin) sounds downright skeptical about the project's benefits.

The building won't block lake views from Marina Heights, he conceded, but there are other issues. "I think most of us are concerned with the presence of this huge development."

The presentation at his building painted a rosy picture of the development, according to Martin, but he didn't buy it. "I've never heard so much (bull) in my life."

Martin also worried about traffic the project could generate. "Can you imagine a retail grocery store like QFC or Safeway, and having people driving there?" he groused.

Larson sees the downtown traffic issue from a broader, Downtown Strategic Plan perspective, and doesn't believe the development will create gridlock.

"I think one of the things we're trying to do downtown is slow traffic on Central and divert it," he said.

Indeed, Central Way could be reduced to two lanes when future underground utility work is done on the street, Larson noted. "That will make downtown more pedestrian-friendly."

While many people in Kirkland are upbeat about the revitalization possibilities for downtown, Martin is less than enthusiastic about the changes coming to his neighborhood.

"They're going to develop downtown, (but) they don't give a damn for the nature of the area," he said.

Larson understands his neighbor's concerns. "I think it's very natural for people to resist these kinds of changes," Larson said. "But life goes on."

Mayor Burleigh also understands. "People care passionately about downtown ... and change is hard for some people," she said. Burleigh also said the city council is committed to making it a great project.

Still, keeping the public in the loop is important to the council, according to the mayor. "If it's something that the public absolutely hates, we'd have to take a second and third look," she said.

Martin, the developer, insisted his company is anxious to hear public feedback - even negative feedback. "When you develop in an urban area, there's always a lot of opinions," he noted, diplomatically. "Sometimes you can't solve all the issues, but we try."

Martin estimates construction on the mixed-use development will take anywhere from 14 to 18 months, depending on how big it ends up being. He wasn't sure when the work might begin, but Martin does have a rough idea of when it should be done.

"We hope to complete this project in 2006."

Staff reporter Russ Zabel can be reached at (206) 461-1309 or rzabel

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