Downtown Kirkland’s main thoroughfare thrives
The city of Kirkland houses many large companies, including Google, Inrix, and heavy-duty truck manufacturer Kenworth. Costco also was based there before moving to Issaquah, hence the Kirkland in-house brand.
Major companies have offices in the Eastside city of 85,000, but Kirkland’s most notable attributes still are its miles of pavement dotted with small businesses, particularly along Lake Street in downtown.
Running parallel to Lake Washington, Lake Street features typical Main Street fare like dry cleaners and nail salons, but trendy shops also call it home. Dog-treat bakery BooBoo Barkery & Boutique, lingerie boutique Seduce, and Mermaid Hair Extensions are among the eclectic shops in downtown.
Lake Street once had a very different look. “It is important to remember that … prior to 1916 (when the Lake Washington ship canal was dug), Lake Washington was 9 feet deeper than it is today. Central Avenue and what is now Lake Street were on the water in those days,” said Kirkland Historical Foundation Executive Director Matthew McCauley.
The ship canal and the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, or Ballard Locks as they are more widely known, dried up more than 1,000 acres of wetlands. Today, Lake Street may be a block removed from the lake itself, but when it was first named, the street was located along the waterfront.
The first buildings along the street were small, crudely built wood shelters constructed on pilings. “The first one I know of was a little tiny real estate office run by a guy named Reginald Heber Collins. He also happened to be Kirkland’s first serving mayor,” McCauley said.
In 1905, King County created a ferry terminal that established Kirkland as the main Eastside portal for visitors from Seattle. Prior to the installation of the ferry, Seattleites had to drive around the lake to the north or south to reach the central Eastside cities.
“I think the fact that the ferry came in pretty much established (Kirkland) as a little town down there, and solidified it,” McCauley said. “You could take a street car from Seattle to Madison Park, ride the ferry to Kirkland, get coffee or dessert or something, stroll around a bit, and take the ferry back if you wanted.”
Another economic boom came during World War II, when a shipyard at Carillon Point began supplying ships to support the war. The subsequent job surge caused Kirkland’s population to swell.
The market for combat ships ended with the war, and the Kirkland economy took a hit. Things further soured in 1950, when the county ceased ferry service to Kirkland.
“When I was a kid (in the 1960s), it was not clear that Kirkland downtown was going to survive,” McCauley said. “There was a real effort by the merchants down there in those days to try to do things to make it work for people. They made some changes that some people forget about now. They acquired a lot of waterfront park land and put in things like Marina Park to draw people down there. We are sort of reaping the benefits now of decisions that were made decades ago.”
That foresight has made downtown Kirkland, and Lake Street in particular, a regional destination. “I think the main draw (for customers) is the combination of restaurants, waterfront, and the overall beauty of that section of Kirkland,” said Bruce Wynn, director of the Greater Kirkland Chamber of Commerce.
The lake provides more than beaches for downtown visitors; for some, it’s a transportation route. Consumers from all around the lake travel to Kirkland via boat, moor at a public marina, and enjoy an afternoon of shopping and dining in the city.
The city and the Chamber have gone to great lengths to ensure visitors and residents find only local small businesses downtown for the foreseeable future. “If there are any big-box stores or anything like that … it is going to be set back (from the downtown area),” Wynn said. “The landlords of those buildings have no intention of scaling out, and for that matter, I don’t think the city would allow it, anyway. So keeping that scale small and intimate is part of the general plan of the City of Kirkland.”
Another catalyst for Lake Street’s success has been the people of Kirkland themselves, including but not limited to neighboring business owners.
“The Kirkland community that we have here is vested in the success of these small businesses because it is what creates Kirkland’s charm,” said Barbie Young, director of Kirkland Downtown Association. “They do make it a point to park and shop and eat and really put their money into their town.”
The community hosts many popular events throughout the year to increase foot traffic downtown. These events include Kirkland’s Wednesday Market, an annual wine walk, and the occasional “cash mob” — an event similar to a flash mob, except the organized crowd is there to patronize a certain business rather than dance or make a political statement.
And it’s all being done down on Lake Street.
Touch of Class Barbers
111 Lake St. S.
“Initially I chose (this business) because it is right on the main street and it is very busy down here. After I got here it became more about the people in the neighborhood — it is kind of like the quintessential small town — you can’t really walk down the street without seeing somebody you’ve met before. Everyone seems to be pretty friendly, all the business owners talk to each other, and the downtown association takes care of keeping things clean.” —Paul Johnson, owner
3 Lake St.
“Kirkland is an Eastside gem. It is just a phenomenal, beautiful little town. We love the main-street shopping concept. There are very few (places) in the Northwest where you can get a downtown shopping experience — it is mostly strip malls and (larger) malls — this is really charming, interesting, and very much a boutique environment. If you want something unique, you go to a place like this. If you want something generic, you go to the mall.” —Neal Hughes, co-owner
15 Lake St.
“It is a small community down here. You get to know other small business owners, other people who work down here, and all the customers … There’s just a keep-it-local vibe, helping small businesses like our own.” —Andy Largent, owner
Lake Street Diamond Company
106 Lake St.
“I enjoy the ambiance. Kirkland itself — the downtown area — is very beautiful, homey, comfortable. It is just a nice place to be. You can walk down to the lake if you want to, you can walk to the shops if you want to, walk to coffee if you want to, sit on a bench if you want to. There are lots of things to do down here … There are lots of ways to satisfy a want.” —Vince Isaacson, owner
This article originally appeared in the July 2016 issue of “425 Business.”