Downtown Kirkland is likely to be designated as an Urban Center early next year. On Tuesday evening, the City Council is expected to approve applications to King County and the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC). If approved, it will be the region’s 30th regional growth center.
The proposed “Greater Downtown Kirkland Urban Center” encompasses the central business district, the I-405 BRT station at NE 85th and the Rose Hill Business District just beyond, the Sixth Street corridor including Google, and the northern half of the Houghton-Everest neighborhood center. Also included to form a contiguous and regularly shaped center are some more residential areas around downtown with mostly higher density residential uses.
The proposed center is home to over 6,700 residents and more than 17,000 jobs. Those include three of the top five employers in Kirkland. The center is expected to add another 9,000 jobs and to double in population by 2035.
Downtown Kirkland will be the first new center since a revamp of the process for designating regional centers in 2018. Those reforms created two classes of regional center; the largest are ‘metropolitan’ centers and others are ‘urban’. The new procedures were responding to the wide variation in center performance. Some centers such as those in downtown Seattle and Bellevue are vastly larger and more successful than others, and will be designated as metropolitan centers.
Many suburban growth centers are not growing at all. It’s often a desolate commercial area where political leaders hope to see redevelopment, but where little market demand exists. Several current centers do not meet minimum standards to be designated as urban centers today, and might eventually lose their center status. A number of other places not recognized as centers for planning purposes, including downtown Kirkland, are more active than most designated centers.
Market demand to live and work in downtown Kirkland is healthy. With 45 activity units per acre today, downtown Kirkland easily clears the required standard of 18 activity units and will rank among the most intensely developed urban centers. (Activity units are a measure of density, calculated by summing employment plus population). Kirkland’s other urban center at Totem Lake, designated in 2003, has just 20 activity units per acre.
The designation is a belated recognition of downtown Kirkland’s success in urban place-making despite the historical ambivalence of regional policy makers and city politicians who had preferred to concentrate growth into Totem Lake. The pedestrian-friendly downtown business area and lakefront amenities have long made Kirkland a high-demand community for residential development. More recently, this has been balanced by employment gains at fast-growing technology firms.
Previous efforts at urban center status for Kirkland were hampered by the lack of high-capacity transit. The city’s application, however, now encompasses two qualifying stations. The BRT station at I-405 and NE 85th Street is scheduled to open in 2024. The standard for high-capacity transit is service at 15 minute or better headways, 16 hours a day. Thanks to the expanded bus service in the North Eastside Mobility Plan, the downtown transit center will meet this threshold in 2020. A RapidRide line will connect downtown to Bellevue in 2025.
Because existing policies already plan for enough growth, there are no immediate consequences for local policy. The urban center designation does make it more likely downtown would share in the $260 million of federal highway and transit funding disbursed through the PSRC each year. This may assist in developing new pedestrian, bike, and transit connections between downtown and the BRT station.
The urban center designation must be approved by King County and by the PSRC. The King County Growth Management Planning Council (GMPC), which manages countywide planning policy, was briefed on the proposal in July. The King County Council is expected to ratify the urban center this Fall, and the PSRC to approve in early 2020.