City Council Debates Density Limits on Potala Village Site, Two Others

Council members split 4-3 on whether to allow 36 or 24 residential units per acre on the upscale Lake Street site and two others in Kirkland's BN" family of zones.


The controversy over the proposed Potala Village apartment project simmered before the Kirkland City Council Tuesday night, with council members outlining levels of residential density they feel are appropriate for the site on upscale Lake Street and two other areas in the same zoning category.

As usual, opponents of the project -- originally proposed as a 143-unit development -- showed up wearing red, a symbol of their group STOP Potala, and argued for lower densities than the council is likely to approve.

Two new developments resulting from the meeting are that the council is split 4-3 on whether 36 or 24 residential units per acre should be allowed -- the project site is 1.2 acres -- and that all sides in the dispute continue to meet in good faith in a mediation process begun last week.

No action was taken by the council on densities. It had been asked by the city’s Planning Department and Planning Commission for direction on a final proposal for code amendments to the city’s Comprehensive Plan that would impose density limits in the family of zoning categories known as “BN,” for neighborhood business. Final action is expected at the council’s Dec. 11 meeting.

The BN designation applies to three locations in Kirkland: the Potala Village site across three lots on Lake Street at 10th Avenue South, an area of Rose Hill near the Bridle Trails neighborhood and the Market Street area near downtown.

The Planning Commission is recommending that density be limited to 36 units per acre at the Potala Village site and 24 per acre at the two other locations. Opponents of the project have urged consistency across all three sites, and council members Tuesday night agreed.

However, Council Members Dave Asher, Toby Nixon and Bob Sternoff said they preferred limiting density to 24 units per acre, while Mayor Joan McBride, Deputy Mayor Doreen Marchione and Council Members Penny Sweet and Amy Walen favored 36.

Currently the BN designation does not impose density limits. But Walen and McBride noted that density is limited anyway by the physical scope of a project site and height restrictions already in place.

“We’ve said in the past we should let the market decide,” Walen noted. But “I think there should be a number so we can avoid unintended consequences. These sorts of areas are intended as commercial districts. Thirty-six units per acre is a good number for me.”

McBride said she would agree to 36 units per acre. But she alone preferred no imposed density limits, arguing that urban “smart growth” policies favor pedestrian-friendly housing clustered around neighborhood businesses in areas near major transit routes. “We can only do that with density,” she said.

The council late last year had directed the Planning Commission to make a recommendation on density limits in BN zones after Dargey Enterprises proposed a 143-unit apartment complex on the Lake Street site, setting off loud protests by neighbors. Neighbors argue the level of density proposed is out of proportion to the neighborhood, would change its scenic character, lower property values and worsen already congested traffic on Lake Street.

If the Planning Commission’s recommendation of 36 units per acre is approved by the council and applied to the Potala Village project, only some 40 units could be built on the site.

Councilman Asher argued for the lower density level of 24 units per acre. “It seems to me these commercial zones are really designed to enhance the neighborhood and not be intrusive,” he said. “I would opt for the least possible density of residential units. It certainly should fit within the neighborhood.”

Members of STOP Potala, who have also hired two lawyers to help fight the project, argued for 12 units per acre in the BN family of zones. “We truly believe this is the established density  of the neighborhood,” said Karen Levinson, who lives near the proposed Potala Village site. “Compatibility is the issue.”

Another member of STOP Potala noted that the city, the developer and neighbors continue to meet with mediators for an agency managed by King County, despite considerable distance between respective positions. City Manager Kurt Triplett agreed, saying "All parties are working very hard and in good faith and we're hopeful."

The council did vote unanimously to extend a moratorium on the issuance of building permits on projects in the BN family of zones to the end of the year, allowing it time to make its final decision Dec. 11 on the code amendments.

For several previous Kirkland Patch stories on the Potala Village proposal and the zoning code changes, click here.

In other business:

  • The council adopted regulations that would allow in Kirkland the construction of high-density “residential suites,” a new form of housing with small units that share common areas, such as kitchens. At least two such developments have been built in Redmond. They would be allowed only in urban areas near transit facilities. A residential suites project has been proposed for a site on Central Way downtown, in the current location of the Crab Cracker restaurant. The council voted 6-1 to approve a Planning Commission recommendation to allow such projects, but added a provision that they must be built to environmentally friendly “LEED gold” standards. For details, see the city web pages here.
  • The council heard a report from Norm Storme, Kirkland organizer of the annual Eastside Food Drive for Hopelink, on the highly successful results of this year’s effort. Some 220 volunteers who asked for donations outside Kirkland grocery stores in September collected $1,995 and 14,050 pounds of food. That compares to $760 and 3,115 pounds in 2011. “Wow,” Storm said. “I think it sounds better when you say seven tons of food. I think it really shows the citizens of Kirkland are fully aware of the need for assistance. I’m so proud.” The council gave Storme a hearty round of applause.
Inappropriate Council Action October 18, 2012 at 01:26 PM
Regarding the SRO issue, I was surprised to learn that somehow the number of residences that could have shared facilities like kitchen and bathroom went from Mr Pantley's earlier comments that I think indicated 7 units would share some of these facilities... now at 13 units sharing facilities??? Is there an upper cap on this? Biggest concern is that this was initiated by a private citizen and then is not following the process that is prescribed for times when citizens bring forward requests. It is being fast tracked with the false claim that it is not a citizen initiated request. The private citizen process is supposed to start with a December 2012 application and a 2013 review. This type of circumventing the rules is what gets Kirkland into trouble.
Greg Johnston (Editor) October 18, 2012 at 01:44 PM
It is an interesting concept that apparently is working well in Redmond, but boy it sure packs folks in. The developer must still go through the entire permitting process, of course. I'm not sure about the process of this specific action, but it is obvious the City Council is easing regulations where it can in an effort to ramp up the economy. That could come with tradeoffs. Thanks for your comments.
Inappropriate Council Action October 18, 2012 at 02:44 PM
Easing regulations through the proper process is one thing and is legally within the purview of City Council. Circumventing the process required for privately initiated zoning code amendments is contrary to the city's zoning code and comprehensive plan so it would be inappropriate for City Council to ease regulations without following our laws on how that needs to be done.
JuneGloom October 18, 2012 at 04:59 PM
Kirkland could use some affordable housing. I'd be very happy to see this built.
Greg Johnston (Editor) October 18, 2012 at 05:16 PM
No doubt affordable housing is a real issue in Kirkland JuneGloom, thanks for your thoughts. Incidentally, groundbreaking is later this month for the South Kirkland Park and Ride "transit-oriented development," which includes affordable housing as well.
Kirkland Tony October 18, 2012 at 06:12 PM
June, I don't understand your comment. Manhattan and Beverly Hills, and Chelsea in London, Tokyo... these places "could use some affordable housing". But they won't get it. My gripe with "affordable" housing is the unintended result: crime and decreased property values. Everyone knows, but no one dares to say because the PC police censor more than any government... Section 8 is a near perfect correlation with crime. To avoid the haters from the left that hang out here... See the Janikowski study for a methodical analysis. And the Dubuque study... which intended to prove the opposite. The Hanna Rosin may also support this, but is perhaps less reliable. There have been a few studies claiming no correlation, but all have been thoroughly discredited for using well out-of-date census data for their demographics base. And there's even two good reasons: Density correlates to crime well, and Section 8 subsidies cannot be lost for bad behavior such as a conviction, while a job can be. There are affordable units nearby - e.g. Crossroads, Lynnwood. Let's not invite more crime to our neighborhood.


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