Kirkland Proposal Could Bring 300-foot Towers to 85th Street Station Area

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A rendering of the NE 85th Street interchange with lots of lanes and concrete.
NE 85th Street approaches the convoluted, twisting I-405 interchange (WSDOT)

The high-growth alternative, though focused on office towers, could also bring 9,000 homes to Kirkland’s NE 85th Street station area.

It’s almost hard to grasp that Sound Transit 3 (ST3) was passed over four years ago. Time flies ever faster, and with Covid still raging it seems our days are drifting away. Something else that seems to have been drifting off is the Stride bus rapid transit (BRT)–opening dates for several lines (there’s three) have been delayed a year to 2025 and only a few bits and pieces of the system have been built.

But once Stride is complete–whenever that may be–it’ll almost certainly shape how we travel and how our cities grow. BRT is fast, frequent, and creates important opportunities for transit-oriented development (TOD) not unlike that of light rail. In fact, with strong investments and smart policies, cities can often get more TOD per dollar from BRT than light rail since the former is much cheaper to build.

While we haven’t seen a wave of dramatic TOD projects centered around BRT yet in our region, Kirkland is wasting no time in its bid to become the first. Plans are calling for the complete redevelopment of about 700 acres of land near the NE 85th Street Stride station into mixed-use residential, commercial, and office space. It’s a far cry from the strip malls and auto row that dominate the station’s landscape.

The station

The NE 85th Street Stride BRT station, looking north. (Sound Transit)
The NE 85th Street Stride BRT station, looking north. (Sound Transit)

Spoiler alert: the station itself is underwhelming–smack dab in the middle of a major car sewer junction. The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) and Sound Transit’s preferred design has three levels of traffic, with NE 85th Street through traffic on the bottom and the Lexus lane ramps and BRT stops in the middle. It seems like the traffic engineers forgot that the BRT existed until after they were halfway done because its position smacked between 18 lanes of traffic is a terrible afterthought. Also strangely, the I-405 mainline runs atop the highest level of the interchange–the place where it can spew the absolute most noise and pollution possible. Adding tree cover would shield some of the freeway from its surroundings, but it would still be a massive eyesore and unpleasant place to wait for a bus–and one that steals a lot of valuable land.

Regardless, the station isn’t expected to get too much ridership in its current state. Estimates from the City of Kirkland puts ridership at just 250 to 300 daily once BRT service begins in 2025 (for perspective, Rainier Beach got around 2,200 each day in 2019). As Seattle Transit Blog touched on before, it’s rather ironic that a station with such low ridership would account for almost 30% of the I-405 BRT program cost. Currently, there isn’t a good transit market that the station would serve; most potential users live too far away and the immediate vicinity is too car-centric to be a transit destination.

The view, looking east, of NE 85th Street from the future station. (Kirkland Reporter)
The view, looking east, of NE 85th Street from the future station. (Kirkland Reporter)

The expensive station and interchange seem to be begging for redevelopment that will unlock its full potential, and the City of Kirkland seems to be ready to get a return on its investment.

A complete overhaul

The land use map shows residential mixed use in orange (mostly low-rise in the plans). The office mixed use is where most of the height and density is envisioned. Multimodal facilities are also shown for circulation within the station area, in particular 122nd Avenue NE. (City of Kirkland)
The land use map shows residential mixed use in orange (mostly low-rise in the plans). The office mixed use is where most of the height and density is envisioned. (City of Kirkland)

The City’s action plan for the NE 85th Street station area calls to rip up nearly all existing development within the station’s half-mile radius. Big box stores and their massive parking lots (which take up 45% of the total area!) are rebuilt into midrise offices and strip malls are turned into mixed-use apartment complexes. These denser buildings will be the heart of the new neighborhood, forming a sort of 15-minute city where everything’s right at your doorstep–including a giant spaghetti highway interchange.

The Blue Street/120th palette includes active frontages, integrated infrastructure, stormwater streetscape, and pedestrian-focused streets. (City of Kirkland)
The Blue Street/120th palette includes active frontages, integrated infrastructure, stormwater streetscape, and pedestrian-focused streets. (City of Kirkland)

Streets are redone too, with most becoming narrower and more accommodating to pedestrians and bicyclists. Combined with the active frontages of the new buildings, the concept of the street as a whole will change from simply being a thoroughfare to becoming a gathering place. 120th Avenue NE in particular (the blue line on the map east of I-405) will showcase clever stormwater features, landscaping, and water infrastructure improvements to better integrate the natural environment into the urban surroundings. Pedestrian “green” streets are also added between buildings to create smaller block sizes that are more manageable for walking and to maximize storefront space.

The report cites some green street examples from around the world. (City of Kirkland)
The report cites some green street examples from around the world. (City of Kirkland)

The whole plan is quite reflective of Kirkland’s “downtown” area just to the west, which has quickly grown from a small-ish town center to an urban center, benefiting from strong transit connections to Seattle, Bellevue, and destinations north. The NE 85th Street area will need that strong access to transit too–BRT likely won’t be enough to turn it into a transit haven. There’s only two routes that serve the neighborhood right now–the 239 and 250–and while both come pretty frequently, it would be nice if there was a bit more service, considering that the BRT station isn’t particularly pleasant to walk to and that the hills are pretty steep along NE 85th Street and 120th Avenue NE. E-bikes could also play a crucial role in navigating the smaller “green streets” and a bus directly to Seattle could also be nice–perhaps a branch of the 255 cutting east along 85th after Kirkland Transit Center?

A row 300-foot office tower could line I-405 in Alternative 3 with 150 mixed use towers just beyond that. There's also lots of 25-foot zoning. (Credit: Mithun)
A row 300-foot office towers could line I-405 in Alternative 3 with 150-foot mixed-use towers just beyond that. There’s also lots of 25-foot zoning. (Credit: Mithun)

Another key pillar in the project is equity, particularly affordable housing. With regional rents skyrocketing in recent years and increasing financial instability due to Covid, ensuring everyone has a safe place to live is becoming ever more important. Historically King County suburbs have left Seattle alone in building affordable housing, but the NE 85th Street Station project could be an opportunity for more equity to take hold, especially since it’s publicly led.

The three action alternatives in Kirkland's plan. No Action Alternative on, Action Alternative Two with medium capacity, Action Alterative 3 with high capacity.
The three action alternatives in Kirkland’s plan.

The three alternatives range from the low growth Alternative 1 to the highest-capacity Alternative 3. “Alternative 3 allows for the most housing and job growth,” the report states. “Alternative 3 would add capacity for 9,000 new housing units and 30,000 jobs, a substantial addition to the city’s capacity. For the year 2044, the anticipated total growth levels would be up to 10,909 households and 34,988 jobs.” The impact of each alternative is carefully projected, with Alternative 3 generating the most emissions (within Kirkland’s borders anyway), but the lowest emissions per capita, nearly halving them.

The three alternatives with housing and job capacity. The middle ground Alternative 2 allows for 6,600 new homes and 23,700 offices. (Credit: Mithun, BERK 2020)
The three alternatives with housing and job capacity. The middle ground Alternative 2 allows for 6,600 new homes and 23,700 offices. (Credit: Mithun, BERK 2020)

Kirkland is all in on office space, but less so for housing. In all alternatives, office capacity would at least triple housing capacity. On the plus side, the office towers, if they materialize, could theoretically screen the housing from the noise and pollution of I-405. For each city like Kirkland that plans for three times as much office growth as housing growth, at least one city planning the inverse will need to exist or all these office workers will have no place to live.

Alternative 3's massing is focused around the I-405 interchange, but fairly dense throughout the station area. (Credit: Mithun / BERK)
Alternative 3’s massing is focused around the I-405 interchange, but fairly dense throughout the station area. (Credit: Mithun / BERK)

The City is looking for input to finalize their plans for the project and you are encouraged to attend a Virtual Community Open House a 6pm January 7th (Zoom link here) to voice your thoughts or submit comments by the Draft SEIS comment deadline on February 5th. Details can be found on the project website. A Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (Draft SEIS) will be available on the project website in early January 2021.

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Brandon Zuo is a high schooler and enjoys reading about urban planning and transportation. They enjoy exploring the city on the bus and on their bike. They believe that income and racial equality should be at the forefront of urban development. Brandon Zuo formerly wrote under the pseudonym Hyra Zhang.

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Anonymous

Ive lived in south rose hill since 1982 and Kirkland and Redmond are nothing like they used to be so bring it on, Who wants the land, Google, Microsoft, Amazon? My 1965 4 bedroom split level is already worth a fortune and it will be worth even more when this happens. It will be just in time for my retirment in the next 3 to 5 years and ill take the money and run the hell out of this nightmare which is King County.

RossB

Office towers are probably the best they can do. It is one thing to work next to the freeway, it is another thing to live next to it.

As AJ said, stations like this — whether served by bus or rail — will always be problematic. The freeway itself takes up a huge amount of potential development (and ultimately, riders). No matter what you do — even with towers — you aren’t going to get a huge number of walk-up riders.

But freeway stations can get riders other ways — usually through a transfer. There are several different types of transfers:

1) Crossing transfers. The station at NE 130th in Seattle is a great example. It will get riders from Lake City and Bitter Lake (as well as places like Pinehurst on the way). The train and the bus line form a grid, enabling lots of trips in several directions.

2) Same direction freeway transfers. This works best when you have a bunch of overlapping freeway buses coming and going to different locations. We don’t have a lot of that, but on SR 520, for example, there is the 255 from Kirkland to the UW, and the 544, from Redmond to South Lake Union. So a rider could easily transfer to get from Kirkland to SLU, or Redmond to the UW.

3) Reverse direction freeway transfers. Same idea, but a lot more common, as there tends to be a trunk and branch pattern with freeway based transit. In that previous example, someone could go from Redmond to Kirkland via a freeway station.

4) Freeway entrance transfer. For example, the 257 goes along Juanita–Woodinville Way, then past the Totem Lake Freeway station, and on to downtown. A rider can get off at Totem Lake, and easily catch an express to downtown Bellevue (or reverse directions and go to Lynnwood).

In this way, you can have lots of overlapping and crossing routes, which enable direct trips to the most popular destinations (in this case Bellevue) and transfers from neighborhood to neighborhood. The more freeway stations you have, the less overlap there is. In my opinion, though, 80th is overkill, especially given the price tag. It should get more riders than ST predicts, just not nearly enough to justify the cost.

More than anything, it adds very little. The stops at downtown Bellevue and Totem Lake take care of the freeway transfers. You have crossing transfers (from people using the 250) but likely few from Redmond, since Link will serve those riders. That basically leaves people from Kirkland, who will transfer to get to Bellevue. That could be much better served by taking a small fraction of the cost of this major project, and just run an express from Kirkland TC to downtown Bellevue. There would be more than enough left over to pay for oodles of service in an area that clearly needs it. It seems crazy to me that Lake Washington Institute of Technology has over 6,000 students, and is served by a bus that runs every half hour. A little bit of money spent running that bus more often would get more riders than this bus stop every will.

AJ

There should be a strong crossing transfer; the K will have other transfers at South Kirkland and Totem Lake, but 85th should pull most transfers from the downtown and Rose Hill neighborhoods, whether the K interfaces with Stride directly at 85th or through a different frequent route (if the K services Juanita rather than Rose Hill). With Kirkland’s downtown a growing jobs destination and Redmond’s downtown having plenty of zoned capacity for growth through the rest of the decade, the 85th/Redmond Way should emerge as an important east-west bus corridor, in turn making the Stride station an good transfer node.

Totem Lake may have more walk-up ridership, but 85th should be a much stronger bus corridor than 124th. In many ways, 130th is a good comp for 85. Could you just send buses to 148th and Northgate (i.e. Totem Lake and Bellevue)? Sure, you could. But 130th and 85th unlock a linear east-west service pattern that makes for a better grid.

In addition to the Rapid Ride, the station is designed to work well as a terminus, as a bus to use the roundabout as a turnback. While Totem Lake station is closer for NW Kirkland, I could see KCM run some local routes to 85th instead because downtown Kirkland is a more important destination for short trips within Kirkland, particularly for an all-day local. Ridership will be small either way, but the Stride station should make for better local routings, particularly a route that would otherwise terminate at Kirkland TC (not sure if any do now?)

And for reverse direction freeway transfers (#3), for all 520/405 routes, the 85th station will be the primary reverse direction transfer.

George R Townsend

If the city council goes through with this proposal, we will all likely be ex-residents of a city filled with pollution, trash, and unable to afford to fix it. Tax revenue will be gone, our (relatively) decent place to live gone, and with only memories of the town we loved in the late 90’s and wish we had back. Call me anti-growth if you want, but must we sacrifice all livability for this “development” nightmare. I personally believe that property values will be utterly destroyed for those living within a half mile of the freeway, but that won’t matter all that much because the pollution will have us all dragging O2 tanks around because we’ll be unable to breathe the air.

asdf2

Sorry, I do not follow the argument for how having a car dealer down the street somehow makes your neighborhood more livable than having an office tower down the street.

Nicholas Hansen

You sound like an ignorant white supremacist.

shinjuki

Don’t worry, none of this will happen.

Robert Sherrell

Hi,

Due to the pandemic, office space is not being occupied like it was before. If anything, we are flooded with available office space as of this moment and businesses have and continue to change their working model to maximize working from home and minimizing the office. This is not going to change in the next few years and most likely we will never see the old models used as they were up until 2020. So we sure as heck do not need to pave over current business revenue producing companies to build more empty office space. 300 foot towers? For whom? The fact that you are spending this much money without providing decent access to the station, no park and ride areas, open sidewalks to get rained on and blown away by our storms, building a multi-level facility that is going to be noisy, full of polluted air from all the cars crisscrossing it above and below, and not even taking into consideration the cost of maintaining such a monstrous land-gobbling structure indicates to me that this is yet another boondoggle like the express lanes on 405. Kirkland is infamous for pedestrians and vehicles coming to blows. So now you want to make it even more difficult to even use the project that cost $200,000,000.00 just to start?

On this same page there are three articles titled:

“Sound Transit Reveals Big Jump in Cost Estimates for Ballard and West Seattle Link”

“Metro’s Battery Bus Plan Hinges on Need to Grow Service and Revenue”

“Metro Shelves Rainier RapidRide, and Some Route 7 Riders Like It That Way”

Mass transit has never served Puget Sound well. It was always an expensive compromise with blocking roads while carrying passenger loads that do not pay for the service and continuing to tie everyone to mass transit based on a sprawling plan of buses and not-light rail service that tie up the roads and intersections for minimal return to our needs of transportation. All of the existing and all of the future transit stations with trains being built at huge overruns in costs keep following the freeways and big arterials while ignoring everyone that does not live on a freeway or arterial. How do they get to a bus now? They get in their car and drive to a park and ride the vast amount of time, then get out and walk in the rain to the bus stop and wait in the wind and cold for a noisy bus that will take them normally 45 minutes to an hour to get them to a spot hopefully close to where they want to go. It doesn’t match our Puget Sound world of work and is why new buildings in Seattle and Bellevue contain apartments, condos, for rent or sale. They work from home and walk to entertainment, parks and restaurants. This works now and is the future.

Have any of the developers been to Japan? Their train and subway systems are stacked on top of each other and junction stations have towering complexes built on them so the people can live there, take elevators to malls, grocery stores, entertainment and the trains which will take them literally the entire length of the Japanese islands with few changes plus even high-speed trains in comfort. If you want to build 300 foot buildings, take a trip to Japan and look at the ideas they have made work so well. Sure the commuter trains are packed to some legendary amounts at times, but no worse than sitting in a car listening to traffic reports about stalled traffic and on-off ramps backed up into side streets. Taking an hour to go even a short distance so much during the day points to the utter failure of our road and traffic systems. Billion’s spent so we can have even wider parking lots on 405 and I-5.

Affordable housing is needed where the jobs are. Why have “thousands of new jobs” if people cannot afford to live in Kirkland? They have to live far enough away to even afford a decent apartment in most cases. Affordable housing is difficult, takes a lot of planning and requires industry and government to plan well into the future. I do not see this anywhere in this project. You have an opportunity, not having spent much money on this yet (I hope), to stop and think about what occurred in 2020. Does this project meet the new pressures on our ages-old models of business in Puget Sound? No, it does not. Not at all. 30,000 new jobs? But only 9,000 living spaces? What kind of jobs? 6 figure jobs? Service jobs? I see a shallow veneer of pretty pictures that are being used to sell yet another hugely expensive project that has to be paid with taxes and more taxes, etc.

Step back, take a deep breath and start using future proofing of this projects goals with all the new information you have from 2020 but please do not feel rushed. Better to walk into the future briskly rather than run and crash. Try to be better than Sound Transit rather than emulating them with poor planning and wasting money?

Randy

No more development until we build more freeways, period.

dd

Huh

shinjuki

You want to spend MORE of your finite lifespan in traffic? Amazing.

Sarah

Big Business at its Best… or WORST ?
#YouDecide

Art Valla

Note that Costco is deleted from the map. Ever wonder why Costco’s home brand is “Kirkland”? I will let you think on that.

Costco is the number one source of revenue for Kirkland, by far. And the city council is going to let it be torn down to be replaced with … high rise housing? Note that housing is a normally a negative in city finances. With housing, you have to provide hospitals, schools, utilities (water, sewer, electrical, telecommunications, fire and police protection far in excess of their tax contributions. Big box retailers, like Costco are huge city revenue sources.

How do you think Costco will react to being booted out of Kirkland?

Costco introduced Kirkland Signature as its private label in 1992, deriving the name from the location of Costco’s then corporate headquarters, Kirkland, Washington.

Now consider even under this plan, max ridership is projected at 300 riders per day. That is 150 people going to/from work. The projected station cost is about $200,000,000. As usual you can assume ridership projections are exaggerated and projected costs are … substantially below the actual final cost.

And there is no park and ride lot for the station. All transit users will walk to the station up that great big hill. Also note that this interchange has no accommodation for future light rail along the former BNSF Eastside Rail Corridor. This action will forever prevent light rail along the Eastside of the lake. Sound Transit will have this huge gap in their existing Right-of-Way.

Why is this thing even under consideration? There is a perfectly good transit station at Totem Lake – complete with Park & Ride. Use the existing downtown Kirkland Transit station and, if need be, put a BRT connection along the railroad right-of-way that will connect Totem Lake directly to Park Place.

Somebody has their head up their rear end so far they can see daylight.

Anonymous

I look forward to buying Issaquah brand toilet paper.

KMA

This plan is not going to make current businesses and landowners close up and sell to developers. Costco will only go somewhere else if Costco wants to go somewhere else. I’d guess it is not on the map as to demonstrate what the building elevations would look like if built to the maximum height allowed.

asdf2

Using the existing Kirkland Transit Center, Sound Transit would have to either:
A) Delay everybody on the bus by at least 10 minutes, while the bus waits at all the stoplights between Kirkland Transit Center and the freeway, twice.
B) Run two separate routes, one that serves downtown Kirkland, one that bypasses it. This means spreading service thin so that everyone gets a bus that runs every 30 minutes, rather than every 15 minutes.

The only way to keep delays to thru-riders to a minimum without abandoning the downtown Kirkland area entire or making the bus run half as often is what ST is proposing.

RossB

” the city council is going to let [a Costco building] be torn down to be replaced with … high rise housing”

The city has no role in decisions like that. It is up to Costco. If they want to sell their building, they will sell it. If they don’t, it will stay a Costco building for as long as they want.

The only role the city has is what *can* be built, not what *is* built. What can be build is determined by the zoning. That goes for Costco as well as anyone else.

Jay Arnold

Keeping Costco in place is important to Kirkland–providng services to local residents/businesses, providing revenue to the city, and of course, making sure Costco’s “Kirkland” brand always retains that connection. I want to make sure that any zoning changes for office and housing in the station area will support and integrate with Costco’s current and future palns. (There is even an example where Vancouver’s Costco is in a mixed use building.)

We also want to connect the Bus Rapid Transit station with transit center in downtown Kirkland and Google campus. While a gondola (mentioned above) was vetoed by Sound Transit, current discussions of station design would build a pedestrain connection to Kirkland Urban and a drop off area that the city could use for a circulator shuttle.

Jay Arnold
Kirkland Deputy Mayor
Disclaimer: https://www.kirklandwa.gov/Government/City-Council/City-Council-Social-Media-Disclaimer

shinjuki

I’m fairly certain this entire project will be cancelled in the next 5 years.

Martin Pagel

What happened to the gondola idea of connecting the station with downtown Kirkland and possibly stopping at Eastrail? That way this new development could not only connect pedestrians and bikers with Bellevue and Seattle, but downtown Kirkland, too. https://www.kiro7.com/news/eastside-news/kirkland-eyes-aerial-tram-to-connect-to-new-freeway-bus-station/761193595/

AJ

Great point on office space vs housing. Is that being driven by what the zoning allows, or is that just what Kirkland is expecting those 300’ towers to be used for? Given much of the property is owned by Google, changing the 300’ zoned to mixed use probably won’t change the delivered housing much, though I suppose Costco could redevelop as mixed use rather than office.

I’m not sure it’s fair to characterize the station as ‘underwhelming.’ This is what we get when we don’t spend the money to create dedicated ROW that launches the transit line out of the freeway envelope (e.g. KCM or FW Link stations); ST looked at doing exactly that with Stride and decided it wasn’t worth the additional investment – keeping most Stride stations inline reduced station access but more than offset with better speed & reliability, with Renton still the lone exception and therefore probably the weakest Stride station from a design standpoint.
Aside from the elevation change, station access isn’t much different than a Judkins Park or Mercer Island station; as long as the pedestrian access is safe & comfortable, I think it could be a great design given the entire technology here is predicated on center running HOT lanes. I’m glad the mainlines are the top level – that reduces the elevation change for people walking & biking to the bus stations on the middle level – and 85th itself will be much, much better for pedestrians. The rebuild will also shrink the footprint of the interchange. I’m not sure what you are suggesting as a better alternative unless you want to just remove the interchange?

AJ

*KDM station. I was contrasting Kirkland’s Stride stations with the Kent and Federal Way Link stations, which do drag the station out of the freeway envelope while still leveraging a freeway alignment. This approach is great, but not sure how it would have been done here in Kirkland? The alterative, of course, would be to not follow the freeway envelope (i.e use Eastrail between Totem Lake and Bellevue), but that would be an entirely different alignment, not a different station design, and would have prioritized downtown Kirkland (which is awesome but not going to grow much post-2025) over Rose Hill, which as you write is getting a great upzone specifically in response to the Stride investment.

I don’t think we would be getting 300′ office towers without this rebuilt interchange.