Creating Compact and Complete Communities:
Seven Propositions for Success


Proposition 1: Visualize and Value Places Where People Want to Be

To increase population density and jobs for local residents, a community must attract new households and businesses. That is facilitated by becoming a more desirable destination. For a long time, leaders wanted to make Kirkland "a place where people want to be." In fact that became the city's motto in the mid-90s, though the sentiment was there for many years before. In 1971, for example, the city manager told a reporter that the city's primary goal was to be "an enjoyable place to live" (Buckley 1971).

To help clarify their vision, Kirkland's leaders sought out other cities and neighborhoods they could emulate. They talked frequently about places like Sausalito and Carmel in California and Granville Island in Vancouver, B.C. These were places that they viewed as having the human scale, charm, and vitality they wanted for Kirkland. And having real examples to point to made their own vision seem plausible.

There were two principal elements to the Kirkland vision that emerged in the early 60s. The first was to have a successful, accessible, public waterfront. As one former city official said:

I honestly think it started from a vision. ... City councils 30 years ago started acquiring land for parks and public access to the waterfront. That was before Kirkland was popular. That was a vision. ... There were people who saw some things before this was the place to be.

Ideas about the waterfront date back to at least the late 1950s. According to the city's 1963 Comprehensive Plan, a Waterfront Coordinating Committee was formed in 1959 representing all interested groups in the city. It produced the 1960 Waterfront Plan, which included the parks, plazas, boardwalks and boat facilities found there today.

The second element of Kirkland's early vision was to have a human-scaled, pedestrian-oriented downtown shopping district. This strategy was central to what one former planning director, speaking in 1975, called Kirkland's "cautious approach to growth" (Sanger 1975). As the city manager at the time pointed out, the city had "no interest in growing just to be bigger" (Sanger 1975). He recognized the city should get denser, but he wanted to hold on to its small-town charms (Sanger 1975).

Proposition 2: Hire and Support Strong Professional Managers

Once a city has a vision, it takes strong management capacity to make the dream come true. There is wide agreement that the fortunes of Kirkland improved in the 1960s when the city changed from a strong mayor to a city manager form of government. The strong mayor form left the city without the management skill it needed to get things done.

To give an example, the 1963 Comprehensive Plan recommended that a downtown waterfront park be built. But it was not until a few years later, when the city hired its first city manager, someone who knew how to obtain federal grants, that it began to implement its vision. Together with a parks director, who is remembered for his grant-writing abilities, the management team got the city moving toward its objectives. As one interviewee put it:

The [downtown] waterfront park had been talked about. Alan Locke [the new city manager] came from a city in Minnesota that had done a lot of waterfront projects. He saw the need for a comprehensive park plan to get the federal money. So he wrote the plan in one weekend and passed it in one month. Every one of the parks in the plan are the parks in Kirkland today. ... Locke knew there were lots of federal dollars for recreation land and Dave Gray, the parks director, was a master at writing the grants so it impressed the grantors.

By virtue of their talent, vision, and pragmatism, the staff enjoyed the support of the city council, creating a unified government that could move forward on various issues. One study participant put it this way: " The council didn't rubber stamp staff work, but it had a lot respect for what they sent up." Another said that the planning staff had vision that the council immediately saw the logic in it.

Describing the confidence the council had in its city manager, one former council member simply said: "If Al liked it, I liked it."

Proposition 3: Have a Collaborative City Council That Will Defend the Vision

Elected leaders play a critical role by setting the rules for development, making investments in public infrastructure and providing overall direction for a city's future. A council must work as a unit — be able to make compromises and implement its vision of where it wants to go. In addition, a council must represent both development and preservation interests. If it can indeed represent both of these perspectives and work as a team to reach good compromises, a policy balance can be struck that encourages development while maintaining public support for growth.

These were the characteristics that were found in the Kirkland City Council. First, the council knew how to compromise. According to one city official, "E arly on they learned to compromise. They could accept compromise. Our council could have battles, and go have a beer after. ... We had a few council people who did not like compromising. They did not last very long."

Second, it embodied both business and neighborhood interests. " We had a dynamic council created by having both business and neighborhoods represented," a former council member said.

And third, it followed its plans for the city. According to a former city official: "Elected and appointed officials have been very careful and rigorous about applying those policies (from the comprehensive plans) ... in a very intelligent and consistent way."

Proposition 4: Invest in Access and Amenities

Investments in access and amenities serve two purposes. First, they make an area more attractive to development. Second, they enhance residents' satisfaction with their community, which is crucial for maintaining tolerance and support for change.

Kirkland was made more attractive to housing and employment through improvements in its accessibility, which was altered in two major ways. First, the State Route 520 bridge across Lake Washington was opened in 1963, making Kirkland directly accessible to Seattle. As one newspaper commented:

The new bridge was a conduit for growth and mobility. No longer would people ... have to drive around the lake or take the Mercer Island bridge. ... Otto Shneewind, an 80-year-old Kirkland resident, says the bridge has helped bring many changes to the Eastside community. "It was a nice little town, with three drugstores, two real good restaurants, a couple of barbershops and a bowling alley," he said. "Now we have apartments and condominiums by the glory." (Gough 1988)

Second, Kirkland benefited from its close proximity to the employment growth that was occurring in the neighboring cities of Seattle and Bellevue. Its centrality increased in relation to the economic engines of the region, making it a more attractive place for jobs and housing development.

Kirkland also made a number of investments in its amenities. These improvements combined with the access improvements further strengthened its attractiveness. It also increased citizen satisfaction, which helped maintain tolerance and support for change. As the city manager put it in 1971, they were consciously trying to "work the aesthetics":

A new hospital, a progressive school system, and a variety of cultural attractions, including art galleries and theater groups, help attract residents to Kirkland. One thing we consider important are our natural amenities. We are working toward creation of a series of waterfront parks interconnected by trails to other community facilities and schools. ... We have been striving to become a truly "people oriented" city. (Buckley 1971)


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