A familiar story is playing out in Kirkland’s Houghton neighborhood. The Houghton-Everest Business Center is a collection of strip malls and small offices, mostly over 40 years old. Retail spaces are antiquated and undersized. The pedestrian environment, dominated by curb cuts to parking lots, is unsafe. But it is just a block from Google’s office, less than a mile from downtown Kirkland, and served by every major bus route in the city. The area is primed for reinvention into a prosperous mixed-use neighborhood if the zoning allowed.
After years of discussion and delays, an obtuse proposal emerged that probably prevents any redevelopment. The current 30’ height limit will be selectively raised to 35’ on a few properties. The added five feet would only be available to developers who create a new grocery or drug store over 20,000 square feet. Even then, the economics of new buildings will be constrained by added design review, 10% affordable housing rules, residential density limits, a rule that no more than 20% of the upper floors can be office, setbacks of 15 feet above the second floor, added road access requirements, and more.
The Kirkland City Council has yet to review the proposal, but can only rubber stamp it (a first study session is scheduled for Tuesday). The undersized zoning changes are the creation of the Houghton Community Council (HCC). The HCC has veto power over land use changes in most of Kirkland south of 68th St, and will block any Kirkland Council action that differs from their proposal.
Community Councils (“municipal corporations” in state law) were authorized by the Legislature in 1967 to ease annexation into larger cities, and were generally viewed as transitional arrangements. There were never many, and most were dissolved over time even though state law does not require a sunset. Just two remain. The Houghton Council dates to the annexation of the city of Houghton to Kirkland in 1968. The East Bellevue Community Council (EBCC) was created when unincorporated neighborhoods were annexed to Bellevue in 1969. No recent annexation has included the creation of a Community Council.
East Bellevue Community Council has a contentious history with Bellevue. The EBCC is currently in litigation with PSE over the routing of a transmission line. The EBCC wants the power lines moved away from 148th Ave SE which they characterize an “urban boulevard”. Even though the City of Bellevue has already approved the project, the EBCC’s appeal is funded by Bellevue. In the past, Bellevue has had to fund lawsuits even against the City. Elsewhere, the “Energize Eastside” project, a key PSE trunk line, may be routed circuitously through more densely populated Bellevue neighborhoods, including the Spring District, to avoid permitting risk within the EBCC area.
There are two paths to abolishing the remaining councils. Voters must reauthorize the councils every four years or they disappear forever. In 2001, the Sammamish Council (another neighborhood in Bellevue) was voted out. The council had attempted to block rebuilding of a local school because a new gym might bring more cars to nearby streets. They also appeared to consider blocking a nearby mosque for the same reasons. Concerned parents organized and voters rejected the Sammamish Council.
East Bellevue had a close call at the same election when the EBCC survived by just 75 votes. The EBCC had refused a mixed use development in Lake Hills after it was approved by the City of Bellevue. A much reduced version was finally approved in 2005. Recent elections have been more favorable with approval votes over 75% in both East Bellevue and Houghton.
The other path to removing the community councils is through the Legislature. Bills were introduced in 2011 and again in 2012. On both occasions, bills passed the House before fading in the Senate. After that, conflicts between community councils and their cities were muted and the urgency of reform seemed to have passed.
Community councils are inequitable, “protecting” one part of a city from development. Because their authority is to disapprove land use changes enacted by City Councils, their role is strictly obstructionist. As with the PSE lines, their impact often spills over into other neighborhoods outside their jurisdiction. When Kirkland updated residential parking minimums in 2015, Houghton deliberated on the citywide rules before the Council did, and yet could have opted out of the final rules within Houghton. In the end, the high parking requirements Houghton asked for were applied citywide.
Imagine how much less developed the region would be if similar neighborhood vetoes were institutionalized everywhere. Consider if every neighborhood could prevent new housing that generated additional car trips. The added bureaucracy alone would slow progress even if the councils were not so adamantly parochial.
About 10,000 people live in the area of the East Bellevue Council, and some 6,300 in Houghton. In each case, it is fewer than 8% of the population of their respective cities. The Councils have no responsibility to the broader city, or to anybody not already a resident in their neighborhood. By historical accident, they have a particular voice in their cities’ affairs not granted to other residents. It’s time the Legislature revisited their anomalous and anti-democratic position.