Short video from City of Kirkland explaining the Urban Center designation to citizens. (source: City of Kirkland)

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.

Land use within the proposed Urban Center in Kirkland (image: City of Kirkland, click to enlarge map)

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.

So successful is Kirkland’s downtown that the plan for the Central Issaquah urban center was illustrated with several pictures of downtown Kirkland to show the urban environment they wished to see.

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.

Most of the proposed urban center is within a half-mile of a major transit center (image: City of Kirkland, click to enlarge map)

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.

43 Replies to “Downtown Kirkland to be an urban center”

    1. Ballard comes up short on the jobs capacity.

      Bellevue does intend to get a center designation for the Spring District. I don’t know they have a precise boundary in mind yet. The current activity isn’t quite there, but presumably will be for the next round with so much construction in progress. After December, PSRC won’t accept new applications for another five years.

  1. So Kirkland is really trying to boost density downtown just as much as it is trying to boost density at totem lake?

    Is that what I’m reading?

    That is what this means right?

    “Because existing policies already plan for enough growth, there are no immediate consequences for local policy.”

    1. I watched the video and this was my takeaway … We applied for the growth center designation so we can get a little bit more money. The urban center designation changes nothing.

    2. Yes, I want to know if this density really happens or if it will be vetoed by south Kirkland homeowners. The picture of a 2-story Trader Joe’s as a model for Issaquah does not inspire confidence.

      And why wasn’t this done five years earlier when it could have influenced ST3? This is a common problem around the region, cities waiting to upzone until years after the regional transit decisions have been made.

    3. This quote on the video says it all: “… think of Downtown with a bigger footprint.” That suggests that increased density in the existing urban blocks is not what they want to do; they appear to just create more “urban” blocks by drawing a bigger land area (“footprint”).

  2. Does this reveal the absurdity of the “Urban Center” designation? It feels like the designation is a low hurdle as many of these are spread across the region like designs on cake frosting — to meet political interests.

    Admittedly, Kirkland has some paid parking. That’s more than other urban centers have.

    1. If it’s a low hurdle why can’t Ballard-Fremont and Lake City reach it?

      The criteria is based heavily on jobs, so an urban center is a jobs center. The counties are scattering them wherever cities are willing to designate them, and cities designate them based on the expected tax revenue they’ll generate. Having more urban centers in Seattle doesn’t help Issaquah and Federal Way, so they designate their own and get Link routed to them. That’s a side effect of local control and suburban municipalities.

      Ballard and Lake City lose because they don’t have enough zoned job capacity. Most urban centers are heavily job-centric, while Ballard and Lake City have a more even balance of jobs and housing. That makes them more self-contained and should be an advantage, but in King County’s criteria it’s a disadvantage.

      1. Of course if they actually included the Ballard industrial areas in the boundaries, they’d probably pass the criteria with flying colors. Wonder why they don’t do that…

    2. So is this why we are rebuilding the freeway interchange at 405 and 85th – I mean, excuse me, building a very large BRT stop away from downtown? So this can qualify for more PSRC money because they have frequent transit? That would be the only reason why they want an urban center to be served so poorly by BRT.

      1. The decision was made before downtown Kirkland was an urban center, probably before it even decided to be so. Stride is on 405 because it’s the fastest way between the cities, and it’s just a fact that downtown Kirkland is too far away from the freeway for a corridor express bus to detour to it without losing its speed. If Kirkland had applied for and gotten urban center status for downtown, then it may be as big as Totem Lake or even bigger, and that would have forced ST to reconsider its plans. But at the time Totem Lake was the only urban center between Bellevue and Lynnwood — by Kirkland’s insistence — so the focus was on serving Totem Lake, and downtown Kirkland would get a freeway station. It’s also cheaper to build a freeway station than to build a new guideway or lanes for a rapid line directly to downtown Kirkland, because WSDOT paid for the HOT lanes. In 2016 when this was decided, Kirkland was trying to keep growth out of downtown and south Kirkland.

  3. The city is almost impossible to navigate now with a car, I can only imagine what’s coming. I have lived here 30 years, can’t say I want to stay

    1. You won’t need a car after Kirkland leverages its urban center status into getting a light rail tunnel, and station, into the heart of ‘downtown’.

      1. Kirkland may be the only urban growth center without any direct service to downtown Seattle after route 255 is truncated. Kirkland doesn’t seem to value transit

      2. Metro does the bus routing and ST pulled out of Kirkland because the CKC was the only LR option considered. The city put in bike lanes and even a bus lane on 100th.

        Certain residents hate transit but I don’t believe that the city does.

      3. On the contrary, next year, downtown Kirkland will have frequent service to Seattle even on evenings and weekends, while Redmond will still be stuck with two routes running 30-minute frequency, each.

        Direct service to downtown is not everything, and is much overrated. A transfer at UW Station gets you to the center of downtown in about the same amount of time, while greatly speeding up trips to the other urban centers in Seattle, north of the ship canal.

      4. Complete joke evenings and husky games and weekends. Literally extra half hour on a trip to or from downtown

  4. Wow! I think Kent must count only because they include the whole industrial valley as the job catchment area… There is definitely a big ol’ nuthin going on in the Downtown Kent “urban center”.

  5. If I had a billion dollars and wanted to double it, I’d just buy some low-zoned real estate and then manipulate local politics to get some growth center designation and have my land upzoned. I wonder how much of these zoning changes and growth proposals are just developers trying to adjust the rules in their favor since so much of land value is based on the zoning.

    1. Isn’t that more or less what Kemper did? Bellevue was strawberry fields when his family built the mall.

      1. Yeah, with the stench of forced sales because the owners are persecuted minorities being shoved into prison camps.

      2. I also bet Kemper’s lobbying is why much of downtown Bellevue zoning doesn’t require apartment buildings to have street-level retail. It’s still allowed, but some buildings just have more apartments on the ground instead and that means a lower supply of premium commercial retail space that could compete with his kingdom.

      3. Those are probably older 1990s- or 2000s-era buildings. The Avalon Meydenbauer building has ground-floor retail, and I think Kemper lives in that building. The suburbs were slower to adopt the ground-floor retail requirement than Seattle was.

        “If I had a billion dollars and wanted to double it, I’d just buy some low-zoned real estate and then manipulate local politics to get some growth center designation and have my land upzoned.”

        Then why are there so few growth centers? Most of them are in downtowns, and they’re because the cities want the tax revenue.

  6. Well, all Kirkland needs to do is hire a bunch of fancy map and graphic artists along with video editors to get an urban center and support from ST. Too bad Renton’s leaders are trying too hard at nothing. Renton is a more strategic location, and is closer to Tacoma and the Airport. Tukwila is even better, but Renton has suburban access and a waterfront plus Tukwila doesn’t have any brains people anyway.

    1. I think the underlying issue here is that cities have to initiate the designation in the first place! Shouldn’t PSRC be looking objectively at land uses and zoning to determine what should be called an “urban center” first — and then asking a city if they want the designation if an area qualifies? This current method seems fundamentally backwards in the logic process and makes initiating the process purely political rather than analytical.

      1. PSRC is a collaboration of the cities and has a tiny staff – whether PSRC staff proposes a growth center or city staff do, seems one half dozen or the other to me.

        And yes – land use is political. That’s the entire point of the PSRC planning process – to make these types of political decisions in an open, formal, and methodical process. And it’s the *region* deciding where growth in, not just individual cities. The region has a certain amount of growth to plan for, and the GMA prescribes the political process by which the cities & counties decide where the growth will go.

      2. Uhhhh…. PSRC lists 66 staff members, with 21 of them in a group called “Data”. That’s not small!

      1. I understand, but my main concern is how Renton is promoting it’s a city for significant projects like its waterfront. The area, still not leased, is world-class and highly strategic that even Amazon considered it for it’s HQ long back. It would bring 9000 tech jobs to Renton.

        Unfortunately, without a good city council… media and other cities still have a worrisome reputation and lack of support from major parties like Sound Transit.

      2. @Tomterrific

        Whatever that means… When I searched it on google… This was the only page to show up.

  7. At 2:08, he talks about a downtown (Kirkland, I’m assuming) where you can pick up your friend at the BRT station in Bellevue and spend the afternoon relaxing at Marina Park.

    Quite telling how he foresees the actual use of the BRT line is someone taking it to Bellevue (from the south I’m guessing) and someone with a car drives you up to the part of downtown Kirkland where you are actually going. As absurd as that situation is for an urban growth center, he is probably right about how it will end up being used.

    1. He says “A downtown where you might pick up your friend from Bellevue at the BRT station…”, not at the BRT station in Bellevue. It sounds like he’s imagining where someone comes up from Bellevue and you meet them at 85th. By car or by foot, I’m not sure, but I’m guessing Adam is envisioning that people will take the BRT from Bellevue to Kirkland

  8. While not meeting the strict definition it seems what PSRC planning is trying to promote is “the Edge City.” Bellevue misses the definition because it was already a place 30 years ago. But by functional criteria it is very much an edge city. The Totem Lake area may become an Edge City. The thing with this model however is it very much relies on the automobile for personal travel. Transit is primarily based around commuting. OTOH, the only place I see local transit becoming a real think is the area between Overlake, Crossroads, the Spring District, Wilburton and of course DT Bellevue. FWIW, Wilburton is being planned with much higher density than the Spring District.

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