In June of 2020, the Kirkland City Council voted to create more space for restaurants and other businesses by closing one block of business-lined Park Lane in Downtown to vehicle traffic every night starting at 6pm. This “Evenings on Park Lane” program was initially a response to capacity restrictions implemented by the state in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. As many cities around the country did, the City of Kirkland made it easier for businesses to secure permits to create dining areas where parking stalls normally were, and the result was popular. According to the city, these closures attracted more people to the street than the previous Sunday-only closures of Park Lane that had been implemented prior to the pandemic.
Like similar programs on Main Street in Bothell, or Ballard Avenue in Seattle, the task in front of cities is to figure out what the future of these spaces will look like: go back to the status quo or embrace the more people-centric uses of these public spaces? Kirkland is now in its second year of Evenings on Park Lane street closures between spring and autumn and is at the point of deciding whether they will be extended any further than this October.
This week the City Council was presented with two options by Kirkland city staff: end Evenings on Park Lane after October, or study what the future of Park Lane could look like, with the help of a consultant. All but one councilmember voted for the study, keeping the door open to any number of potential options for Park Lane, which could include a full-time closure to vehicles.
In making comments about what path to choose, most councilmembers deferred heavily to the opinion of business owners on the one block street. A recent survey presented to the City Council found that 20 business owners supported the evening-only closures continuing, with 11 owners wanting all closures to stop and zero owners supporting the idea of 24/7 closures. But a survey of over 1,200 people conducted by the city in 2021 found that two-thirds of respondents supported closing Park Lane to vehicles at all times of day between April and October, fully opening up the street to pedestrians.
When Park Lane is closed to vehicle traffic, drivers lose access to its 17 parking stalls. But Park Lane is located just feet from an off-street, city-owned parking lot that contains approximately four times as many parking stalls as are on Park Lane. That fact was little discussed as councilmembers framed the potential loss of parking as a seismic event for the retailers on the street.
Many of the arguments raised for why a full-time pedestrianization of the street does not make sense echo arguments made around Bothell’s Main Street closure. Kirkland Mayor Penny Sweet raised the issue of the street being underutilized in off-months, a concern that never seems to be raised when it comes to streets where cars are allowed.
“What I can tell you about Park Lane, is it’s important for you to be there in the fall, and the winter, and the spring…because nobody’s there,” she said. “So if we close the street during that time…it just has not been activated, is not ready to be activated.”
But a 24/7 pedestrian street has at least one outright champion on the City Council in the form of Councilmember Amy Falcone. “I see this as part of a larger vision of downtown Kirkland,” Falcone said at this week’s meeting. “I visited Bothell’s Main Street several times, which has been pedestrianized for a couple of years now, and they’ve committed to at least a couple more years…and it’s thriving.” She cited initial concerns among business owners around Evenings on Park Lane that seem to have largely evaporated.
“I see fully pedestrianizing Park Lane is the next step in this. I believe that fully pedestrianizing Park Lane will also be successful,” Falcone said. “It’s natural to be reluctant to change, however we’ve seen that Evenings on Park Lane has been a success, the majority do support that, and I feel confident that the same will happen with fully pedestrianizing it in the future.” But Falcone also supported a study to give businesses a lead time ahead of any proposed changes and to thoughtfully implement them.
Councilmember Toby Nixon, the only member to vote against even studying the future of the street, framed a potential change to vehicle access on Park Lanes as being a systemic threat to the business models of the shops and restaurants on Park Lane. “The city designed Park Lane as a flexible street that could be closed for selected special events…it was not designed or intended to be permanently closed to vehicle traffic, and I think we should simply recommit to that flexible street concept,” he said.
The City of Kirkland is working on several fronts to improve the pedestrian experience throughout downtown. A block down from Park Lane, Kirkland is set to start construction next year on a revamp of one of the busiest pedestrian crossings in the city, at Lake Street and Kirkland Avenue. A pedestrian scramble intersection will be created, with a large tabletop intersection. With a pedestrianized Park Lane, people walking between the Kirkland waterfront and places like Google’s new building downtown would be prioritized in numerous places, creating the makings of a full corridor.
But concerns about loss of parking on the Kirkland City Council could create roadblocks to implementing a truly pedestrian focused downtown, as the Park Lane discussion starkly illustrates. How the planned study is implemented and followed through on could have a big impact on not just Park Lane itself but the future of most of Downtown Kirkland.
Ryan Packer lives in the Summit Slope neighborhood of Capitol Hill and has been writing for the The Urbanist since 2015. They report on multimodal transportation issues, #VisionZero, preservation, and local politics. They believe in using Seattle's history to help attain the vibrant, diverse city that we all wish to inhabit. Ryan's writing has appeared in Capitol Hill Seattle Blog, Bike Portland, and Seattle Bike Blog, where they also did a four-month stint as temporary editor.