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Originally published January 24, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 24, 2008 at 1:00 AM

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Tall-building plans meet resistance in Kirkland

There's tall and skinny, like a latte. There's tall and imposing, like a linebacker. And then there's tall and almost universally loathed...

Seattle Times Eastside bureau

Going up?

Three major projects are in the works for downtown Kirkland:

McLeod Project

Where: 1.1-acre site on the east side of Lake Street South between Bank of America and Second Avenue South.

What: Four-story mixed-use building with 41,311 square feet of ground-floor retail/restaurant and three floors of office space. Five-level underground parking structure with 486 parking stalls, plus valet parking.

Status: The Design Review Board is considering the project. If approved, a two-week appeal period follows. If appealed, the decision goes to the City Council, which has the final say. Construction could start two to four months after design-review approval and could take around 18 months to complete.

Bank of America/Merrill Gardens

Where: a half-acre site at 101 Kirkland Avenue at Lake Street South and Kirkland Avenue.

What: 72-senior housing units with 13,325 square feet of ground-floor retail, including a bank and cafe; and 125 parking stalls.

Status: Design Review Board approved the project last week. If no appeal is filed, construction could start in two to four months.

Kirkland Park Place Center

Where: 11.5-acre site at 211-530 Park Place Center, between Kirkland Avenue and Central Way.

What: Touchstone Corp. proposes raising building heights to 4-8 stories, with 1.2 million square feet of technology-office space; 300,000 square feet of retail space; a hotel; and 3,410 parking stalls.

There's tall and skinny, like a latte.

There's tall and imposing, like a linebacker.

And then there's tall and almost universally loathed, like new developments proposed for downtown Kirkland.

Fearing they would blot out the city's most appealing features, residents are resisting three projects that promise taller buildings — up to eight stories — in the city's core.

In other suburbs, tall is the antidote to sprawl. Des Moines, Redmond, Federal Way — even Mercer Island — have lifted height restrictions or granted developers "bonus" stories to create housing in built-out areas and encourage dense, walkable districts.

Kirkland, determined to preserve its small scale and Lake Washington views, is a holdout.

Kirkland will be "a completely different town," if the developments go through, resident Maureen Baskin said. "It will be Bellevue north."

Economic-development director Ellen Miller-Wolfe acknowledges "there are very strongly held views about downtown character.

Some think the city is paying a price for it. Downtown business owners say the area lacks the foot traffic to generate sales and retail rents — up to $60 per square foot — are too high. (Rents in Seattle's central business district range between $35 and $75 per square foot, according to a recent report by GVA Kidder Matthews.)

Business owner Penny Sweet said she's watched four businesses over the past four years move in and out of a Lake Street space near her wine shop.

"Walk-by traffic is absolutely pathetic," said gallery owner Gunnar Nordstrom. "If you get three months of the year out of it, you're doing pretty well."

Nordstrom sent an e-mail to business owners earlier this month urging them to tell the city they support a proposed four-story office building on Lake Street, the city's waterfront drive. The development would bring people downtown during the day and add needed parking, he said.

But even as Google builds a 180,000-square-foot campus with 640 parking spaces on Sixth Street, many residents cling to an image of a small town comprised of small buildings.

"Kirkland has light and character, grass, trees, and sky," wrote Laurie Smith, in an e-mail to the city. "Monster buildings" — like those in Bellevue — would ruin it, she said.

Plans dashed

Kirkland residents have written the book on beating back development.

In 2005 citizens dashed plans for a four-story, mixed-use building at Lake Street and Central Way, persuading the City Council to vote it down. A city councilman and the city's economic-development director quit in protest.

A different developer is now proposing a four-story office building a few blocks away on Lake Street.

In dozens of letters and e-mails to the city, citizens have argued that a four-story building on the east side of Lake Street would be out of scale for the area, causing traffic congestion and creating a canyon of cold, industrial buildings.

Andrew Chavez compared the McLeod project to a box-style building along the lines of Costco. Chavez and his wife, Amy, divide his time between their Kirkland condo and a home in Colorado, asked the Design Review Board to keep Lake Street development at two stories.

Planning supervisor Jeremy McMahan said the city's goal is to maintain a two-story "wall" at street level. Many of the properties have been allowed to go higher, but they step back, so the taller portion of the building recedes from the pedestrian level, he said.

Residents also have taken aim at the Bank of America/Merrill Gardens project, a proposed five-story mixed-use development at Lake Street and Kirkland Avenue.

The project, which includes three stories of senior housing and a retail space, qualifies for a fifth story under current zoning because it includes "superior retail," a category distinguished by the public amenities provided, such as benches or water features.

Projects meet code

Both the Bank of America and McLeod projects work within existing code, but a developer planning to overhaul Kirkland Park Place Center is asking city officials to change its comprehensive plan to accommodate the project.

Most agree the gray concrete plaza, built in the early 1980s, is in need of updating, but the current proposal has riled many residents.

Their biggest beef: a request to allow building heights to increase from 3-5 stories to 4-8 stories. The project also could include taller buildings next to Central Way and Sixth Street.

Ken Davidson, who owns a building on Kirkland Way, said the proposed project is so massive it undermines the openness, views and pedestrian connections that the city and its residents identified as important in the comprehensive plan.

From Peter Kirk Park, the office towers would look like nine stories, not eight, he said.

"Consider the 24-story Skyline Tower that's been there [in Bellevue] since 1983. That's 400,000 square feet. We're talking four and a half times that. Consider Lincoln Square — this is two Lincoln Squares."

The project would double the city's 1.2 million square feet of office space, he told the Design Review Board at a recent meeting.

Detractors add that the eight-story offices would block the lake view and the panoramic vista drivers see as they make their way from I-405 to downtown. They're worried, too, that it would hinder traffic and not provide enough parking.

Some members of the Design Review Board also expressed concern the proposed open space would make poor connections to adjacent Peter Kirk Park and could be darkened by the buildings' shadows.

Sweet, the wine-shop owner, agrees an eight-story building is "intimidating" but added that plans likely will be scaled back, as happened at the mixed-use development in Juanita.

Bill Vadino, executive director of the Kirkland Chamber of Commerce, said well-chosen growth may end up preserving Kirkland's appeal.

"Sometimes we have to grow a little bit," Vadino said, "so people can enjoy the character."

Amy Roe: 206-464-3347 or aroe@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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