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Can small retailers survive in Kirkland? You decide...

Historical_image3 There is a lot of debate in Kirkland lately.  On one hand we have developers willing to put millions of dollars into downtown Kirkland to create more office space, retail, residential, and restaurants.    Here is a recent story about the Kirkland Parkplace proposal for reference in case you haven't been following along:

On other hand there is always an argument to keep Kirkland's existing small town feel. It's such a hot topic lately that we even have a group in Kirkland called  Kirkland Citizens for Responsible Development. I keep reading about this group in the Kirkland Courier opposing everything that is being proposed.   Since the stories never elaborate much on what this group would like to see in Kirkland I went to their website (click the link above).   No list of members.   No mission statement.  No vision for Kirkland. No alternative solutions.  Just a lot of content on why everything is bad and that we need to fight it all.   But this story isn't about the big development projects and who is for or against. 

Janis and I have been thinking about the challenges facing existing businesses in downtown Kirkland. I am not talking about QFC, or TGI Fridays, or Subway. I am talking about independent small business owners who are putting their heart and soul (and their money) into running a retail store in downtown Kirkland.

We polled 4 local business owners and although we got almost everyone we asked to provide us with answers, they all opted to stay anonymous .  All but one are located in the downtown core (spread on different streets/amongst different landlords) and none are businesses similar to each other.  First we wanted to get an idea of their monthly rent, square footage, and monthly operating costs.  Then we asked how long they have run their business in Kirkland, why they chose Kirkland, what their biggest challenges are, and finally what the city is doing to support them and enable their success.   

Lets look at the numbers first.   Our business owners represented stores from just under 1000 square feet to over 2000 square feet--none of them have been operating in Kirkland for more than four years. The rent per square foot varies widely.   Everything from about $1.75 per square foot per month up to almost $3.25 per square foot per month (BTW, I know this isn't how commercial real estate breaks out the fees, but it makes more sense to me so let's go with it).  In addition to the monthly rent being in the thousands, all these owners have operating costs (employees, utilities, licenses, taxes, insurance, equipment, signs, advertising, web site, improvements, infrastructure, etc.) well in excess of the rent figures.   Here our business owners have to pay anywhere from three to ten grand in addition to their rent--then there are inventory costs!

So what do all the numbers mean?  Basically these business owners start each month no less than $10,000 in the hole in expenses.  Some over $20,000 a month.   None of our business owners had an average sale size over $200 so they have to get good volume to just break even each month, let alone reap a nice profit.   For example, if their total operating costs are $15,000 per month and their average deal size is $100 they need to get 150 paying customers in a month just to break even.   

So why did they choose Kirkland?  Most of the responses indicated a connection to Kirkland.  Either the owners lived here, loved the feel of downtown, or have worked in Kirkland previously.   Basically they have some affinity towards Kirkland!

So what did they say where the biggest challenges running a business in Kirkland?  All the responses were pretty consistent: "dealing with parking for sure"; "unpredictable people traffic...and PARKING/tickets from parking officers!!! Our customers complain about parking every day."; and "traffic jams into/out of town in the nice weather, lack of any reasonable parking, lack of any customer traffic in the winter months".  Parkingpic

What did they say the city was doing to support them and enable their success?   Again, the responses were very consistent: "not a whole lot"; "nothing"; "the city allows us to operate, that's about it"; "nothing with any substance.  Downtown needs more development would help create captive customers during the day and more upscale restaurants/bars would help in the evening". 

So what do we take from all this?  Business owners love Kirkland and would like to see it successful.  What they need is more customers who can get to them easily without having to think about parking, let alone bumper to bumper traffic and/or getting a ticket.  Until we figure this all out between the city, the developers, and naysayers--let's support our local businesses whenever possible! 

My two cents worth.  Give us yours by commenting...Steve   


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FWIW, regarding Kirkland CRD, the domain seems to be registered to a "Hank Palczewski" and the address and phone number correspond with "Essential Systems Consulting" in Woodinville. I don't know anything about it beyond that, I just grabbed that from the Whois info...

Registrant Name:H Palczewski
Registrant Organization:None
Registrant Street1:17712 185th Ave NE
Registrant Street2:
Registrant Street3:
Registrant City:Woodinville
Registrant State/Province:WA
Registrant Postal Code:98072
Registrant Country:US
Registrant Phone:+00.2063993707
Registrant Phone Ext.:
Registrant FAX:
Registrant FAX Ext.:

Downtown Condo Dweller

You make some excellent points regarding the operating costs faced by businesses and the difficulty faced by all of downtown from the parking and traffic issues. However, it is not completely fair to say that the City is not doing anything. Like everything else parking facilities cost money – and they cost more money when land is limited. The City is working on plans for a parking garage, but finding the money to pay for the new facility is challenging. Should all Kirkland residents pay for it via taxes, should business pay for it via licensing fees, can the City partner with a developer to help offset the costs? And once it is build should it be free or are people willing to pay for the ability to park? All of the supposedly free parking in Bellevue and Redmond is paid for in the rents of the retailers associated with the spaces. Are businesses in Kirkland willing to help the City fund a garage so their patrons can have free parking and no tickets or are people willing to pay for the ability to drive their cars into downtown?

As far as traffic goes that is tough - since there are only a few roads in and out of downtown it would be best if people tried to stop driving into the heart of downtown - if the parking garage was put on the outskirts of downtown and better walkways and pedicabs were available people could park and then walk around the downtown and marina. More offices, wider retail choices, and stores and restaurants that stayed open later would help maintain Kirkland's downtown. Making it more of a pedestrian downtown could help retain the charm people like - even with the new developments. It will just take strong leadership and people willing to take a chance and be willing to pay to leave their cars a little further away and walk in the downtown.

Downtown Dweller

Thank you for this article. It has been a long time coming in terms of putting some light on this subject. One more observation. I wish the owners would check out when the biggest crowds are downtown and stay open at those times. In particular, the dinner crowd and after dinner crowd is a lost opportunity because many downtown shops close in the early evening. My family lives within one block of downtown, like many home owners and downtown condo dwellers, so we have no parking problem. Our challenge is we work/commute 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. outside of downtown Kirkland. When we can shop at home, on week nights, many shops close shortly after we arrive or a few minutes before we get there. It's not the most relaxing or welcoming experience and it really does cut down our spending. I know, I know, we should shop on Saturday -- but Saturday is when everything is competing for our time: Friends, family, housework, group activities, sports, volunteer work, parties, etc. One success: We have come to know, rely on and enjoy downtown Kirkland as our relaxing dinner hot spot. When my family or friends want a great night out for food, drinks and/or walking along the lake, this is our place. This article is a great reminder and informative argument that every dollar counts. So we will keep looking for the lit shop windows and dash towards them, money in hand.

Love to be Kirkland

I work with the Kirkland Citizens for Responsible Development group you have referred to and I feel I need to set absolutely the record straight here. We are not opposed to the redevelopment of Parkplace. We are opposed to the size and scale of what is being proposed. And, we do offer a solution--it's very clearly marked under the tab "Solution". We worked with a local architect firm to draw up a mixed use plan that stays completely in the existing zoning. That provides 300,000 square feet of retail and 500,000 sqare feet of office. Something more reasonable. We are not as you say "opposed to everything that is proposed."

We are not even opposed to reaching a compromise on height and set-backs to allow for even more office space, but we are very concerned at the scale being proposed with 3 11-story buildings or 5 eight story buildings. And the size at 2.25 times larger than Lincoln Square in Bellevue. Why do we need something of such a massive scale? Is there really not a feasible way to work out a mixed use space? Perhaps less profitable, but we can learn from past mistakes, like Juanita Village, that trading height and parking for retail don't always work out as planned. At JV, there are many store fronts that have NEVER been occupied and there is not enough parking to support the retail there.

I caution the thinking that opposing a large scale development like this or others will harm our local downtown businesses. If Parkplace were successfully developed as Touchstone promises (which I truly doubt can happen on that large of a scale), might it actually pull people out of downtown? How many people do you know who walk from Belleveue Square through the downtown park to Main street? This has the real potential to do more harm than good to the downtown core. In fact, if we are only concerned about businesses downtown, the all office option may be the better choice. Then the workers would have to come downtown to eat and shop.

And while I am responding, note that the biggest concern for businesses was parking. Yet, the developer is proposing almost 1,600 fewer parking stalls than required by city law and almost 2,000 fewer per square feet than Parkplace has now (2.6 per 1,000 vs. the 3.11 there is now). They have justified this by saying that more drivers will carpool/walk/bike/bus to work at Parkplace than do to other building in Kirkland. In fact, they say 10% more will use alternative means of transportation but offer nothing to back up why they get to that number. If they are even a little wrong, where will everyone park. Might this exacerbate a problem that is already clearly identified?

If groups like Kirkland Citizens for Responsible Development don't form and bring these issues to light, real problems can and will develop. Our democracy allows for us to do so. And organizaing, pooling resources, talents and minds, is the most efficient means to do so. Not to mention, people with like concerns will group together.

We don't list members. It didn't occur to us that a group of citizens working together needed to have all their names listed on a web site. But we are quite visible at meetings. And our web site was developed by an aquaintance of one of our members. His name is Hank and he lives in Woodinville. Nothing sinister here either.

If you spend the time to read the web site, you will see we have very specific concerns about parking, traffic, the costs the city might have to bear, and the change of the open feel at Peter Kirk Park. And, you will find a solution clearly marked. We can develop Parkplace as mixed use and we don't need 8 or 11 stories to make it work. That's our stand.

John Gilday

Well Downtown Dweller, here's a fact you left out.

Mr. Ken Davidson of your group owns an office building on the Southeast corner of the area surrounded by Parkplace. When Parkplace is redeveloped (something that is 10 years overdue) his building may have shadows and views it didn't have before - that's called 'having neighbors'.

Just some info to shed a little Sun on your real agenda.

When I write something I sign my name.

John Gilday

Love to Be Kirkland

In response to John, there are many involved in Kirkland CRD who stand to be adversely affected by the heights of the building being proposed. Most also share the concerns of the others who have joined to express concern because they are just plain worried about the impact on the City and the Park. Is it wrong to fight for something you belive in if it directly impacts you? I don't stand to be directly impacted, but I expect to be indirectly impacted by the results of a 1.8 million square ft. development (for comparison the Columbia Tower has 1.53 million sq. feet) incluing changes to the character of the City, the traffic, parking and economic impacts. Mr. Davidson has not hid his involvement at all. Furthermore, again I will say, Kirkland CRD is not against the needed redevelopment of Parkplace. We are for redevelopment and believe it can be done without 5 8-story buildings or 3 11-story buildings. We can keep height centered at the back and step it down as it nears the streets and park to preserve the openess and light. And we want to see adequate parking and traffic mitigation.


In response to Downtown Dweller, many downtown shops are open until 8pm Thursday & Friday evenings through Labor Day weekend, such as The Bath Bar, Simplicity Decor, and Liberty 123. Shopping in the evening before/after dinner definitely lends itself to a more relaxed and enjoyable experience, so we can keep those precious weekends free :)

L. Erikson

What about researching a parking garage structure under the park and ballfield? It would raise the the park and ballfield up one level but hey, look at all that available parking!

Downtown Condo Dweller

A parking garage under the park has been explored in the past and could be considered again as the City looks at sites for a new garage. However, there is some thinking among some people on the Council that it would not be worth the expense and disruption of the park for the time needed to build the garage. However, if you think it is a good idea let the Parking Advisory Board know your thoughts as they are currently exploring building a new garage and looking at where to put it and how to pay for the facility.

Bridgette Tuttle

Thanks for the informative article, Steve. As a business owner in Kirkland I have to say that my husband and I enjoy the people and the environment.

I appreciate the comment by one reader that noted business hours being an issue. That helps us consider steps we can take to make shopping easier for people who live here and work elsewhere.

Foot traffic in the winter is definitely an issue. But I think we can admit that it's our long rainy season that is to blame... Having to park somewhere and walk in the rain and cold discourages shoppers who probably head to warm and dry Bellevue Square for their needs. An indoor mall in downtown Kirkland is probably not likely. A parking garage under or above ground might be a good solution, though.

Ironically enough, our business is actually located IN a parking garage which is a lot of our struggle. We are hidden... BUT we can assure plenty of parking and validation :). Carillon Point has a nice Starbucks, a gift shop, spa, restaurants, and of course, a great auto detailing shop :).

Kevin Gjerstad

I think we have decide what we want kind of community we want to have, what we want downtown Kirkland to be. If we want to create an environment that makes running profitable businesses the highest priority, then we're going to have development that looks more like a large retail center - lots of parking, wide streets for cars, retail chains, expensive "destination" restaurants, car-friendly development, gleaming and dense retail space, loads of low-end service jobs, etc.

I personally have real concerns about turning downtown kirkland into a major retail hub. I do not believe the trade-off in livability will be worth the added tax revenue or the shopping convenience.

Can the local community alone support these? I think not. The entire model of this type of retail seems outdated and based on the "cheap oil" paradigm. How many malls do we need really (especially given Totem Lake, Bell Square and Factoria)?

If instead we want to make a family-friendly community the priority, then I expect we'll forgo some business and tax reveune opportunities in favor of smaller buildings, bigger sidewalks and bike paths, locally owned small businesses, less parking / less car-friendly features, library, local sports fields, local transportation, open public space, etc.

Kirkland is unique and more livable precisely because it has opted out of bigger retail to some degree until now. But maybe that's about to change.

Hank Palczewski

FYI, I setup the Kirkland CRD site as a favor for a friend. I didn't do any of the content there, just registered the domain, set up the basic framework and helped teach the KCRD folks how to update and maintain it. I do computer consulting and have clients in Kirkland, but no financial interests in downtown Kirkland beyond that. However, I am sympathetic to people who understand that unmanaged development does not lead to a liveable or pleasant neighborhood.


Greeting. You never know till you try to reach them how accessible men are; but you must approach each man by the right door.
I am from Tanzania and too bad know English, give true I wrote the following sentence: "Razor scooter repair, suspension is before about having manufacturer."

:D Thanks in advance. Brites.

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