A panel from the Urban Land Institute presented its recommendations for transforming the Totem Lake Business District to the community yesterday, July 20, at a meeting at Northwest University, 5520 108th Ave. NE.
Among its recommendations there was a theme of getting the most bang for the city’s buck and being mindful of what the market will bear in terms of short and long term private investment in the commercial center. The panel members said they feel something catalytic is needed there.
The Kirkland City Council has made a priority of -- which generates more tax revenues than any other city neighborhood -- since last year. In September it hosted a symposium of more than 40 businesses to generate ideas on revitalizing particularly the area south of and the Totem Lake Mall.
The non-profit Washington, D.C.-based Urban Land Institute, which has offices in Seattle, has been tasked with examining the city’s 2011-12 Action Plan incorporating many of the ideas. Ellen Miller-Wolfe, Kirkland's economic development director, said the institute was paid $15,000 to examine the city's plan and make recommendations.
The panel recommended the city put a focus on acquiring a portion of the Burlington Northern right of way, also known as the Eastside Rail Corridor, which runs between Snohomish and Renton and is currently owned by the Port of Seattle, to create bike and pedestrian paths to the area that would begin to transform it and improve accessibility. Another possibility could be to consider developing it as a dedicated right of way for other alternative transportation, such as electric scooters or golf carts. Such a move could brand Kirkland as progressive on transportation, the panelists said.
“We think the trail could mean a good payoff,” and be a catalyst for rebranding the district’s image, said committee chair Al Levine, who is the deputy executive director of the Seattle Housing Authority. “For an area like this to compete, you’re going to have to step up.”
Panelist Susie Detmer, of Cushman & Wakefield, referred to 405 as a “raging river” that sharply defines the viability of the center for certain uses. The location wouldn’t be as likely to appeal to a grocery store, for example, because the freeway cuts off a lot of the potential market for such ventures, she said. Detmer said that while lunch spots could expand there, it would be hard for sit-down restaurants to grow without the presence of a destination tenant there, such as a movie theatre.
Panelist Scott Matthews, senior director of Acquisitions for Vulcan Real Estate in Seattle, said the city should consider relaxing some of its zoning restrictions in the area to allow smaller incremental development that is more feasible right now, while encouraging developers to plan for future use. For example, he said, loosening the definition of first-level retail to allow for uses such as dentist offices, while requiring developers to build those spaces with higher ceilings and other considerations that would make them useable for more traditional retail as the market swings back could spur additional investment by allowing developers to more readily fill storefronts.
While the city’s zoning is a good long-term plan, in the short run it makes it difficult to draw investment when retail is still soft, Matthews said.
The panel also agreed that the area is not ripe for development of multi-family or office spaces higher than five stories within the next 10 years, because of the current tepid market, though higher density development could be possible farther into the future.
About 60 people came out to hear the recommendations and ask questions, including Kirkland Deputy Mayor Penny Sweet, and council members Amy Walen and Doreen Marchione.
The city will receive ULI’s formal written report soon, Levine said.