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.
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 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 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.
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 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?
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 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.
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.
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.
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.