Point/Counterpoint | A Chance to Reconsider Parkplace by Ken Davidson

Editor's note:

In December, 2008 the Kirkland City Council followed the recommendation of the Planning Commission and approved Touchstone’s Private Amendment Request for an eight story mixed-use redevelopment of Kirkland Parkplace. In the months leading up to that decision, Kirkland Views ran a series of Point/Counterpoint opinion pieces.

On September 21, the City Council will consider readopting the ordinances it approved in December 2008. We present two opposing Point/Counterpoint opinion pieces for your consideration: "A Chance to Reconsider Parkplace" by Ken Davidson of Davidson, Czeisler & Kilpatric, P.S. and in rebuttal, "Time to Move Forward on Parkplace" by Douglas Howe, President of Touchstone Corporation.

By Ken Davidson

The City Council now has a unique opportunity to reconsider and modify the zoning regulations for Parkplace to make its redevelopment more compatible with the rest of the downtown Kirkland and surrounding neighborhoods.  The Growth Management Hearings Board ruled unlawful the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) upon which the Parkplace rezone was based and directed the City to reconsider the rezone based on a proper EIS.  That reconsideration is now before the Council.  This time around the Council and the public have the ability to see the actual designs of the buildings the developer intends to build.  When the rezone was first considered, the public and the Council had word pictures and an artist’s image of a lively public space in Parkplace in which the office buildings were like ghosts floating into the sky.  Now the public and the Council can see the designs the developer has submitted to the Design Review Board (DRB) for very large 8- story office buildings and a hotel.  These designs are quite different than the word pictures and artist’s image and unlike anything Kirkland has ever seen.  Furthermore, the Council is on notice from the DRB that the previously adopted design regulations do not give the DRB authority to modify the massing and modulate the heights of proposed buildings for Parkplace.  This disconnect, if not corrected by Council in its reconsideration of design regulations, will lead to a tightly packed office park of four 8-story office buildings, one 7-story office building and a 7-story hotel, all of which will have the look and feel not of Kirkland, but downtown Bellevue.

With the help of Autocad, a computer program widely used by architects, one can view the proposed Parkplace designs from any perspective.  Figure 1 below is an Autocad perspective generated by Freiheit and Ho (not the developer’s architect) which provides the viewpoint of a pedestrian at Central Way and 6th Street who is looking across Central Way at proposed Buildings A, B and C.  Building A is the 7-story building at the corner and one sees its façade down Central Way, which runs a distance of about 300 feet with minimal modulation.  Looking slightly to the left one sees down 6th Street to the 8-story Buildings B and C, which front directly on 6th.  A mere 42 feet separates Building A from Building B on 6th Street.  Buildings B and C also offer minimal relief from their 8-story façades.

Figures 2 and 3 allow us to see the impact of the largest building in the project which fronts on Peter Kirk Park.  Figure 2 is a photograph of the view of a pedestrian on the walkway through the Park where it passes the Teen Union.  The roof of the Teen Union is seen on the right; the QFC is in the foreground and the Emerald Building in the distance.

Figure 3 is an Autocad image showing what this pedestrian’s perspective will be if the proposed buildings are built.  Closest to the Park is the 8-story Building E, which is 325 feet long.  It has a 4-story wing projecting toward the Park, but the main part of the building forms a 115-foot high office building, which is longer than a football field and will essentially wall off the Park from the office and residential buildings to the east.  The floorplate of this massive building is bigger than that of any office building in Bellevue, Kirkland or Redmond.  Beyond Building E one sees the west end of the 8-story Building D, the small retail building and the hotel in the distance.

One can also see the magnitude of this corporate office park from drawings submitted by the developer to the DRB, but in some cases one can be misled by the perspective.  Figure 4 is a view of Building E offered to the DRB.  The perspective would likely be from the top of a ladder in centerfield of the ballpark in the Park and the people in the foreground may make the building seem smaller than it is.  To gain a better perspective, note the people in front of the building.  The building is 20 times taller than the average person.

Figure 5 shows Building A from across Central Way near the 5th Street intersection, but again the perspective appears to be from an elevated position.  (Note: The QFC is not in the first floor of this building, but rather underground)

Figure 6 shows the elevations of the 8-story Buildings B and C as seen from the east and about as they might appear from the road from the post office.  That road will continue between these two buildings and through Parkplace to the north-south road along the Park.

Figure 7 shows the other side of Buildings B and C and the road between them.  To the left is the west side of Building A and the breeze way between Building A and B.

Figure 8 shows the 8-story Building D in the center of the project.  It is also as large as a football field.  To the left are the west facades of Buildings B and C and the street between them which curves in front of Building D.  This view shows the so-called public plaza and the top of the hotel which will form its northern boundary.  The public plaza is in reality a space between the hotel and three very large 8-story office buildings.

Figure 9 shows Building D as it will be seen from Kirkland Way with the Continental Plaza Building on the rights.  When this elevation of Building D was presented to the DRB, Building E to the west of Building D had not been designed.  The white box on the left shows the height and width of Building E in relation to Building D and as seen from Kirkland Way.

By contrast, Figures 10 and 11 show the style of architecture, which has been developed in the rest of downtown Kirkland through the design review process.

Every building constructed in the downtown since 1990 has gone through a design review process in which they have been required to provide step-backs on their upper floors.  Stepping back in upper floors has the effect of maintaining a more human scale on the street.  Step backs can also allow a smoother transition from a zone with lower height limits to one allowing greater heights.  So, why should Parkplace be the only zone in town where step-backs are not required?  What precedent does the architecture allowed at Parkplace set for future projects in the downtown?  Why should Kirkland depart from a style of architecture which has preserved the sense of human scale that has been a major attraction of the city?

After the DRB had given its preliminary approval of Buildings A through E shown above, the chair of the DRB made a statement on the record in which he stated that if the City Council intended that the DRB turn these mastodons (his word to reference the six large buildings) into anything other than mastodons, it had not given the DRB the authority or the tools to do so.  Indeed, after lengthy discussions, the DRB had decided that the City Council had preordained the mass and bulk of the buildings to be built and that the DRB could not significantly change it.  The reaction of the DRB stands in stark contrast to statements of Council members upon approving the rezone that they were confident that the DRB process would result in building designs compatible with downtown Kirkland architecture and the nearby neighborhoods.  DRB members have acknowledged that the designs the developer intends to build are a slice of downtown Bellevue dropped into a property in Kirkland and that they do not relate to neighboring buildings or the rest of Kirkland’s architecture.  Unless the Council changes the zoning and design regulations for Parkplace during its reconsideration, this conclusion for the massing and design of the project will likely stand.

In the last analysis, the developer wants to build a really big corporate office park at Parkplace.  They want to build 1.2 million square feet of office space.  That is about three times the office space in the 24-story Skyline Tower in Bellevue.  It about equals the total amount of office space in the rest of Kirkland.  Neither Kirkland nor the region needs that much more office space.  If the developer had asked to rezone the property from 5 to 8 story height limits simply to accommodate a larger office park, the overwhelming response from the community would have been “no”.  The developer wisely offered to build a destination retail center as part of the project.  However, times have changed and an honest inquiry must be made into whether that offsetting benefit will ever occur.  National retail experts say that the country has too much retail space.  On-line sales are increasing may inhibit the demand for more stores.  Retail brokers tell me that Parkplace is an unlikely candidate for major retailers, because of its demographics and poor access.  Major retailers draw a radius around a potential store site to learn the number of customers and competition in that market area.  A typical market radius around Parkplace includes a lot of lake where there are no customers and a lot of Bellevue and Redmond where customers go to Bellevue Square, the Bavern and Redmond Town Center.  The developer has not produced one letter of interest from a major retailer (other than the QFC) nor a retail study to demonstrate that its dream of a retail center has any validity.  So, will Kirkland get anything other than a very large and out-of-place office park?

Kirkland abounds in dysfunctional retail which was built on the first floor as a loss leader for the larger project the developer really wanted on the upper floors.  There are vacant retail suites in Juanita Village and the Boulevard condos on Kirkland Way, which have never been occupied since they were built 5 years ago.  When the galleries in the first floor of the condo projects known as The Plaza on State and Tiara Logo failed, they were replaced by the offices of financial planner and plastic surgeon, respectively.  Merril Gardens moved a physical therapist into the first floor of its retirement home when it could find no retail tenants.   The major retail space in the first floor of the Marina Heights condo is again vacant.  Will the first floors of the office buildings in a redeveloped Parkplace missing retail tenants and either left vacant or filled with banks, stock brokers, mortgage companies, physical therapists and other non-retail tenants who can take a first floor space?  The problem with giving developers bonuses for building first floor retail is that the city and the public have no remedy when their expectations of great retail are not met.  If the great retail in Parkplace is illusory, then it may be unwise to reward the developer with three extra stories of height on office buildings for this uncertain benefit.

In conclusion, Citizens for Responsible Development has not opposed redevelopment of Parkplace and has sought to find a responsible alternative to doubling the zoning capacity for the site.  Indeed, a continuing defect in the EIS for the Parkplace rezone is the lack of an alternative with less environmental impact.  An alternative with less environmental impact would simply involve exploring a rezone which added less than the extra 954,000 square feet sought by the developer.  Such an alternative would allow the design and zoning regulations to require more variation in building heights and step-backs within the project so that it would be compatible with the rest of Kirkland and have a more human scale.

If you think the City Council should take more time to reconsider this project and involve the public, please contact or write City Council members now.  This matter will be on the Council’s agenda for September 21.  This is the largest project in the 100-year history of Kirkland and will have enormous impact on the City for decades to come.  There is time to reconsider whether these are the buildings we want in the heart of our city and, if not, how to look for alternatives.