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Monday, November 24, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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James Vesely

Kirkland Shows Its Angst And Looks For Solutions

Times Associated Editorial Page Editor

SATURDAY morning, the people who run Kirkland sat down together and tried to figure out what to do next.

In a benchmark series of meetings over the past several months, Kirkland has been sorting out its role for the future, a process that has absorbed several of the Eastside cities recently.

The agenda for Saturday's session of the City Council, planning department and chamber was to ask what Kirkland should do about economic development. The future looks pretty good to everyone outside looking in at Kirkland, where the little city that could has balanced growth and development into a sweet combination of smart waterfront and retail sales receipts.

One measure of Kirkland's success is that it's second only to Seattle in the number of people who live and work inside its limits. In Kirkland, 21 percent of the workforce also lives there, a much higher number than most other Eastside communities.

As with every other city, Kirkland must accept the trajectory of increased population. King County targets Kirkland with between 29,664 and 31,164 jobs by 2012. At last count in 1994, there were 22,455 jobs there. That's steady growth for another 14 or 15 years if the economy holds.

Kirkland also has a nice slice of the retail dollar among Eastside towns: Bothell, Kirkland, Issaquah, Redmond and Woodinville generated sales of $26.1 billion in 1995, more than half in the retail-rich city of Bellevue.

It's almost a fairy-tale story of a community that did many things right over the 75 years of its history, but there are lots of problems looming ahead.

Among them is Totem Lake, the asphalt center of the Eastside that generates high traffic and, to put it bluntly, the kind of image Kirkland finds unattractive. With lots of comparisons to what has been done at Seattle's University Village and Bellevue's Crossroads mall, the hope is that Totem Lake will waken to more pedestrian amenities, parkland and get joined at the hip to mass transit through the new RTA plan. The problem is, University Village and Crossroads have enlightened ownership, which Totem Lake lacks.

Kirkland's angst over Totem Lake is the mirror of every Eastside city trying to upgrade itself while the boom is on. Over coffee and biscotti early Saturday, the question hanging in the air in Kirkland's city hall was stark: Should the city compete for business?

The undercurrent of Eastside planning these days is to go for a balance of software companies, small industry and office space, and that strategy is repeated in town after town. Of all the Eastside economic strategies, only Mercer Island is standing pat with an emphasis on bedroom real estate. The others are all trying to spread growth across retail, office and higher-density developments. Like it or not, they're merging into a seamless whole because of it.

Take the issue of selling gasoline at Costco.

A mile or so from San Jose airport in the sprawling city-state of California's Bay Area, the lines for Costco gas can stretch for half a block on a Sunday afternoon. Costco sells gasoline at the pump the way it sells everything else: conveniently and cheap. Why not offer that in Kirkland for the thousands of drivers already pulling into Costco?

Mayor Debbie Eddy had a response that fits Kirkland's search for what it wants to be. She worried that the local gas stations would be hit hard by Costco gas-pump prices, and she worried about the impact of even more traffic at that end of town. Kirkland looked at the proposal from Costco and said: Try us later.

The Eastside cities all want it both ways. They want highly selected growth without ambiguities. For example, every one of the Eastside local governments favors an increase in the state gas tax. But most would dither about letting Costco put in pumps as a way for consumers to feel the tax bite less. That's because it's not the right kind of growth. In their search for palatable growth, the cities and towns are ironically behaving more and more like each other, each trying to cherry pick the economy.

Similar to Bellevue's search for an identity for its downtown and Redmond's search for a central identity with Town Center, Kirkland's head-scratching is deliberately xenophobic: How can we stop becoming like everyone else? How can Kirkland retain its unique quality of life and pay for it with desirable growth?

Unsaid is that Kirkland's approach to economic development is similar to the patterns of other Eastside towns: Bring the auto dealers and developers into the process, spread the business base and try to keep the neighborhoods intact.

Councilwoman Nona Ganz was tapping the brake pedals a bit when she talked about how Kirkland used to have a few chicken farms spread around town, and that Kirkland's distinct area of Houghton had a pig farm until just 15 years ago. "I'm proud we're not turning into Bellevue," she said (lots of murmurs of agreement around the table), but in fact, it may be too late.

James Vesely's column focusing on Eastside issues appears Mondays on editorial pages of The Times.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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