Central Way construction - a necessary evil? Some businesses bruised; DAT optimistic

The Central Way project is killing four - maybe five - birds with one stone, but the construction hassle is also leaving deep bruises on some downtown businesses along the Kirkland corridor.

The primary reason for tearing up Central between Sixth and Market streets is to replace the water and sewer system, project engineer Rod Steitzer said. "It's really old." Replacing the pre-1950 system was one issue identified in the utility department's Comprehensive Plan, and the system will also be replaced on Market Street from Central to Fourth Avenue, he said.

Old pipes put to use

The old pipes won't go to waste, though. They'll be used to string fiber-optic cable between a series of utility vaults along the street, Steitzer said. In addition, phone and power lines between Sixth and Third streets will be buried as part of the project, he said.

But the $3.75 million project also presented other possibilities that piqued the interest of the Downtown Action Team, said planning supervisor Jeremy McMahan. The issue was "once they've ripped it up, how do they put it back?" he said. One of the goals identified in the Downtown Strategic Plan DAT developed was to eliminate the imaginary barrier between the south side of the street, which is perceived to be downtown, and the north side, which is not, McMahan added.

There was more. Also identified in the strategic plan was the goal of calming traffic and making Central more pedestrian-friendly, said DAT chair George Lawson. "The idea is to maintain the small-town feel."

It's not so much the volume of traffic that's a problem, it's the speed, he explained. Hopefully, by slowing traffic more shoppers will stop at the Central Way businesses, Lawson added.

To do that, part of the street is being narrowed to two lanes and converting one existing lane into parking, he said. "Most of us feel it will have a positive effect." Others didn't see it that way. "There were a lot of concerns with the narrowing ... and traffic backups," Lawson added.

Carolyn Hayek agreed. She was chair of the Central Way Working Group, which drew up a list of recommended changes for the Kirkland City Council last year, and they got an earful of objections. "There were a number of business people who were just sure making streets narrower would take away customers," she remembered. "There are a lot of reasons that may not be true."

For example, Hayek said, a consultant's report showed that outer lanes on Central weren't being used anyway. "It appeared that as long as we accommodated a left turn lane (onto Lake Street), one lane could be eliminated."

More on-street parking

Providing on-street parking is also a draw for potential customers, even if the parking is all taken, she said. The existence of parking in front of businesses makes people more comfortable about shopping in them, Hayek explained. But the success of the parking is subject to review and could be removed in the future, she added.

Giving the street a more pedestrian-friendly feel will involve adding landscaped medians and the construction of "bump outs" at several intersections, Steitzer said. Also called curb bulbs, the new bump outs will be similar to those at Kirkland Avenue and Main Street. The bump outs also will serve to slow traffic and discourage motorists from leaving Central to cut through other neighborhoods, he said.

Cut-through traffic was a major issue for the Norkirk neighborhood, and preventing that was one of the goals the working group identified, Hayek said. It's a touchy subject with some. The city already spent around $100,000 putting in a series of traffic circles to slow motorists in the neighborhood, "and they're still complaining," she said. "Some of us were not very sympathetic."

Commuter traffic is the problem, according to Hayek. "During most of the day, traffic downtown is not that bad." She suggested Northeast 124th Street off I-405 would make a good alternative for commuters.

Lawson suggested Northeast 166th Street would work as well, "so traffic can get back to Juanita without cutting through Norkirk." He thinks that once motorists start using those other routes, it will become a habit with them.

That may well be, but it's going to take awhile to find out for sure. The nearly year-long project - which is being tackled in six stages - won't be completed until next May, according to the city's schedule. With the exception of the final asphalt paving, each stage will be "substantially complete" before work on the next one begins.

Work on the first stage between Third and Main streets has already been substantially completed, and work has begun on the second stage between Main Street and just west of Lake Street.

It's a mess, though, and local businesses on Central are feeling the pain. Ashley Smith, manager of the Head 'n Tails dog-grooming outfit, said her business has slowed down a little bit. "We haven't been completely affected like some of the businesses here," Smith added.

Count among that group the Spirit of Christmas store just down the block. "We're down 70 percent (in sales) from a year ago since this started ... in September," said owner Ruth Ann Young. September is when her business starts to pick up, too, she said.

There's a parking lot next to her store, but it hasn't helped much, according to Young. "People just don't want to deal with equipment," she grimaced while looking outside at the construction machines in the street.

Still, Young is trying to be optimistic. "We're off 70 percent, but hopefully we'll make up for it in November," she said of the scheduled completion date for the section in front of her store.

Not everyone thinks the project is such a bad deal, according to Steitzer. "We had a couple positive phone messages," he said.

And Hayek is cautiously upbeat about satisfying those who object to the streetscape makeover. "Hopefully, it will be so beautiful they'll love it."

Staff reporter Russ Zabel can be reached at rzabel@nwlink.com or (206)461-1309.

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