A mixed use project with 323 apartments on this site failed because of high parking requirements.

In 2014, Kirkland embarked on an effort to reform over-sized residential parking minimums that were much higher than neighboring cities. The effort was a failure, raising minimum requirements for many buildings where they should have been lowered. Just two years after the revised requirements were enacted in 2015, a series of failed developments are forcing a second look.

It had started promisingly. Partnering with Metro, overnight parking counts were conducted at multifamily buildings across the county. A second round gathered more local data. A model of right size parking needs was developed to match minimums to current usage. But fears of spillover parking and a hostile reaction from neighborhood activists overwhelmed the analysis.

What emerged were parking minimums far above current demand. The adopted rules started with the right-size parking averages, then added a 15% cushion for varied demand at some buildings, then layered on another 10% for designated guest parking. The result fairly guaranteed nobody anywhere would ever lack a parking spot in a residential building, even if many stalls went unused.

The prior code included an important data-driven element that mitigated its worst impacts. A developer could conduct a parking study, demonstrating lower utilization at similar buildings, and gain a ‘parking modification’ to build only the stalls they needed. Since 2015, parking modifications have been padded with the same 15% cushion and 10% guest parking as the base code.

In Totem Lake, the previous code was more flexible, allowing a case-by-case parking analysis to encourage urban development. That was updated to the same restrictive standards as elsewhere in the city.

What happened next should not have been a surprise. High and inflexible parking minimums are a tax that increases the cost of housing. In a sufficiently high-demand market, some projects pencil anyway. In Totem Lake, where rents are lower, parking requirements can kill an otherwise feasible project. In just two years, several projects with hundreds of homes have been cancelled.

A recent staff memo to Kirkland’s Planning Commission details planned developments that were derailed by high parking minimums.

One developer conducted a parking study for a site across the street from the NE 128th freeway transit station, finding 1.2 – 1.3 stalls per unit would be sufficient. The final ratio, after adding the 15% cushion and separate guest parking was close to 1.5 stalls. That was high enough that the developer abandoned the 390-unit project for another location where they could use above-ground structured and surface parking.

Another developer purchased the same site. With their proposed mix of units, a 1.4 parking ratio was required by code. A parking study for their units supported a ratio of 0.79 to 1.2 spaces per unit. When the 15% cushion was added to the higher estimate, the requirement increased to 1.38 or almost the code minimum. With their parking study useless, the 340 apartment building will include 479 stalls, requiring an extra level of parking.

Elsewhere, a South Totem Lake development would have had 323 apartments in a six-story mixed use building. The 15% buffer over their needed parking resulted in development costs 10-20% higher than anticipated. The project was abandoned.

A fourth project was cancelled for reasons that are not clear. These are only the projects that came to the attention of the city through the permitting process. It is unknowable if other developers walked away before permitting.

Recognizing the damage, the city is now moving toward a limited reform of its parking code that would remove the 15% buffer from parking modifications within the core of the Totem Lake Urban Center. The proposal is now with the Planning Commission, and final action by the City Council is anticipated by December. Some reform seems very likely. At a first hearing, however, the Planning Commission seemed intent on extracting developer concessions in exchange for repairing the earlier error.

The Totem Lake permit pipeline appears busy with several thousand units at an early stage of permitting. City leaders express optimism the urban center may at last be poised for growth. Yet no significant residential construction is underway. Developers appear to be awaiting reformed rules before deciding if their projects are viable.

15 Replies to “Revisiting parking minimums in Kirkland”

  1. The eastside’s over bearing parents don’t seem to be able to help the area get past its awkward teenage years and grow up.

    1. You are literally correct. A bunch of baby boomers who got bored in retirement and now sit on the city councils (region-wide) dictate policy that doesn’t necessarily help, nor is wanted by, their children’s generation.

  2. I’m always baffled by people insisting on residential parking minimums. If parking is highly available by housing, more people will have cars and drive. That will mean worse traffic for me going to work and more difficulty finding parking when I go out.

    1. Their thought process starts with the assumption that every person owns a car (some, multiple cars), every trip is a car trip, and nothing that anybody can ever do will ever change it.

      Once you make this assumption, the effect of parking supply, transit service, walkability, or anything else on driving levels is, by definition, exactly zero. The only way to reduce the number of cars is to reduce the number of people.

    2. If you build a residence with no parking, there will certainly be less induced demand, less traffic, etc. But there will also be people that still choose to drive & need to park somewhere, which then means less parking for everyone else that already lives nearby. So it comes down to what do you value – less local traffic, or more available parking.

      In neighborhoods that are sorta urban and sorta suburban – such as downtown Kirkland and (soon) Totem Lake – it’s not urban enough for the majority of trips to be easily car-free, but it’s not suburban enough for there to be ample parking. So you get caught in the middle, and people get fired up.

      When I lived in the Midwest, no one cared about parking minimums, because there was so much parking it didn’t matter if one development mooched more public parking than another one.

      1. Fair point. I guess if my house/apartment didn’t have a spot for me, for free or for a fee, I might be in favor of parking minimums. But given how long parking minimums have been a thing, I wonder who is in that circumstance.

      2. The problem in a semi-urban neighborhood is making the transition. If new buildings were built with less parking, it would encourage people to travel by other means. More parking would facilitate more driving. But if historically an area hasn’t had a lot of walk/bike/transit trips, it’s hard to get elected officials and planning commissioners to take a leap of faith and move towards less parking. With less parking and more walk/bike/transit facilities, you can start to encourage the development of a virtuous circle.

    3. This shows that people care more about parking than about congestion. They’re always saying to widen the freeways but they don’t very often say to widen the arterials. They spend a lot more time being concerned about the exact number of parking spaces in every single building. And they want a space for every person who might be there sometime during the day: each resident, each simultaneous shopper, and a few more for guests. Because god forbid they might create more competition for street parking, which is usually either free or cheaper than garages.

  3. If only somebody would have warned Kirkland City Council before they made the indefensible decision to raise minimum parking requirements along with disallowing the practice of getting modifications via a parking study…

    Oh wait… we did tell them (myself included).

    It’s even worse than what Dan describes here. If you go back and watch the video you can see multiple council members (IIRC it was at least Penny Sweet, Amy Walen, Jay Arnold) admitting on the record that they were not able to separate in their heads the two issues of downtown public parking availability and multi-family private parking requirements. Yet they then went right ahead and voted to raise the multi-family private parking requirements based on the fact that residents were complaining about:
    1) difficulting finding free street parking downtown
    2) people from outside Kirkland using the street parking in neighborhoods along transit lines, mostly 255 & 540, from park-and-hiding by driving into Kirkland, parking for free on streets in the neighborhoods, and getting on a bus to Seattle or Bellevue or …

    Neither of these issues have anything to do with private multi-family parking requirements. Increasing or decreasing m/f parking reqs has no impact on either of these issues. Yet that was the reasoning most council members used when voting to raise the m/f parking reqs and disallowing modifications. The resoning the rest used was just that they always all vote together (except for Toby Nixon but his reasoning for voting against, while sometimes is the right vote, is almost never based on any kind of sensible reasoning).

    The other reason for this mockery of governing was councilmember Toby Nixon presenting an anecdote that when he visits church members at their apartments, he has a hard time finding visitor parking. He did not say he was ever unable, just that it was difficult.

    The only council member who had anything sensible to say about this whole subject was the now-retired Doreen Marchione who was the only council member who actually lived in multi-family parking. She testified that she never had problems with finding parking at her building, even when hosting a party with quite a few guests who all needed to park their cars. She testified that there was enough unused parking in her building’s lot that she just got permission from some of her neighbors to use their unused parking spaces for the night in addition to the underused visitor parking. So this testimony both 1) validated the data that the Right Sized Parking study had found – that m/f developments currently have an oversupply of parking and 2) disputed the anecdote from Toby Nixon about finding parking being hard.

    It was maddening to watch this. The whole council session was to pass a Right Sized Parking policy that would allow developments to include less parking when building in areas with high capacity frequent transit. And then council goes on to:
    1) review the data
    2) say they don’t believe the data without any reasoning of how that could be possible
    3) listen to testimony from their councilmember colleague who actually lived in m/f housing and said that the data matches what she sees in her own and friends apartments/condos
    4) listen to angry testimony from residents about parking that had exactly zero to do with m/f parking reqs
    5) ignore the resident testimony from me and others who supported reducing parking because it lowers the cost of housing, attracts residents who don’t drive everywhere, thereby adding residents with less traffic impacts
    6) even some support for reducing the requirements to zero (from me) near transit and also making the RSP reduction apply along the CKC where people can choose to bike to work or to frequent transit…..

    aaaaaannnnndddd then they (I believe unanimously) decide to increase the minimum parking requirements and disallow modifications to build less parking even if developers could prove that the requirements were above what the residents of the building would use.

    That’s Kirkland. And now that Doreen Marchione has retired and Jon Pascal is on the council (who was on the Planning Commission, maybe even chair, at the time this passed so it had his stamp of approval), the city has 100% single family home-owners who will continue to make nonsensical decisions about multi-family housing that they know nothing about.

    But hey, at least they have pedestrian crossing shame flags, right? That makes it all better?

  4. Would anybody like to make a fair comparison between the condition and economy of Portland these last forty years ago and those of Detroit? From which, economically, socially, and politically, the United States of America seceded?

    Very large difference between Woodward Avenue, a main spoke in the half-wheel that spreads the city around where the avenue meets the Detroit River, and any arterial in Portland:

    Every foot of Portland streetcar track has a city across the sidewalk from the tracks. Woodward is developing a casing of new residence about two blocks thick each side of the car-line. Including a few blocks of the Wayne State University complex on the west side, and the very large and excellent Detroit Art Museum.

    For many square miles past the casing- Detroit’s no Portland. So fair to say that while streetcar money might have built more people more bus service- what’s the evidence anybody ever would? Anymore than if the few blocks of very expensive things will ever expand their benefit below most local people’s income bracket.

    Which also does not mean that if current gentrification wasn’t there, same money would’ve been wider spread? Beyond the Detroit city line, rich suburbs carpet the Lower Peninsula of Michigan (looks like a mitten) all the way north to Lake Superior.

    Detroit’s “return” is nowhere near as fast as relatively low property prices led people to believe. This isn’t about property development, but a rebuild of the First World economy that used to carry the place. Truth probably is that Detroit will truly “come back” when the United States government gives investors enough money to rebuild and own the place.

    Or if country’s politics change, give Detroit’s people enough to do the same thing. For now, go see Detroit, streetcar and all, and make up your own minds. As to whether the people now left out could ever possibly benefit from the car-line as one means to let themselve “back in?, or never. I’d seriously suggest a public vote if the Q-Line should stay or go.

    Including, more important, whether or not to pave over the tracks and take down the catenary. My own feeling is that a decent bus system including the streetcar would probably win. A good beginning for the transit system a prosperous industrial Detroit had before the US broke and ran.

    Google DSR- Detroit Street Railways.

    Mark Dublin

  5. As someone who just very recently moved to Kirkland, I’m interested in getting involved and active on this issue, and other land use and transit issues. Does anyone have any advice for how to do that, in terms of organizations to look into and such?

    1. New in Kirkland, there’s not much that’s organized in terms of land use and transit issues, but it’s very needed! Try the Liveable Kirkland group on Facebook. There’s also Kirkland Greenways for walk/bike advocacy, getting more and more into land use.

    2. Also, if you want to get involved I suggest applying to be on the city’s boards and commissions. Planning Commission has the most sway. Also Transportation Commission. The normal vacancies and applications are early in the year I think. So sign up for e-mail notification on the city website and then apply in Feb/Mar.

  6. I recently watched this short video on parking laws https://youtu.be/Akm7ik-H_7U

    It doesn’t surprise me that Kirkland has ridiculous parking requirements, they’re the most NIMBY city on the lake even declining light rail in ST3 because it would negatively impact a small handful of homeowners.

  7. They should include the parking costs separately in the rent. They should then show that the parking lot pays for its self.

    The parking minimums should be challenged in court as a unfair burden to the renter.

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