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.
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.