North Water Street redevelopment in Kent progresses toward completion

The multi-year redevelopment of Kent’s North Water Street is nearing its final stages, as the city plans to complete the project by the end of 2022. The street is narrower and crosswalks were added to the road, making it safer for pedestrians to cross, while cars heading southbound on Water Street adjust their speed accordingly.

The city used $1.6 million budgeted in 2020 for improvements to the street,  according to page 225 of the Kent City Council’s December 2020 meeting agenda . These include changes to on-street parking, adding crosswalks and curb bump-outs and the addition of pedestrian-scale lighting, which is lighting positioned lower than roadway lighting, directed at the sidewalk.

Kent Economic Development Director Tom Wilke said with the road being so wide at the north end, cars coming from the Fairchild/Crain Avenue bridge used to travel at dangerously high rates of speed onto North Water Street.

“By narrowing the road down by putting in diagonal parking and putting in those bump-outs, it kind of forces people to slow down, and it’s worked,” he said.

Wilke said the improvements to the area are everything the city hoped for with the changes in parking, crosswalks and lighting.

Tom Wilke, the economic development director for the city of Kent, discusses the redevelopment of North Water Street via Zoom.

“All the businesses up and down North Water Street have been very appreciative of it and feel that it’s really made a big change in North Water Street,” he said.

The new North Water Brewing provides the street with an “anchor,” Wilke said.

“It gives pedestrians a reason to walk from the traditional core of downtown of Main and Water, all the way up to the end of North Water Street, and then everything that’s in between,” he said.

The redevelopment plan gives the North Water Street neighborhood a new identity, said Don Schjeldahl, manager and founder of North Water Brewing.

Don Schjeldahl, the founder of North Water Brewing, poses in front of the bar inside the brewery.

“North Water is sort of an upstart,” he said. “It’s emerging from its old industrial past.”

Schjeldahl credited much of the progress seen from the redevelopment of the streetscape to what’s known as a Better Blocks plan, which helps communities and their leaders reshape neighborhoods. By creating a temporary model of what they wanted, they could see what might happen if they made permanent changes. 

“We made wooden cut outs, with little bump-out parts, we put some plants in, we painted crosswalks, basically narrowed the street down, and then for one day, saw what would happen,” he said. “Traffic slowed down, it was easy to cross the street, all the things that you want to help revitalize a neighborhood.”

The improvements on North Water Street were made to the existing structures and landscape, whereas other areas of improvement in downtown involved the construction of new buildings and the burial of utility lines.

“It’s kept the old industrial look, and that’s a good thing,” Schjeldahl said. “It helps to build an identity that’s different from the other side of the street.”

Coffee shops are part of the identity of North Water Street, as well. Bent Tree Coffee Roasters sits about halfway up the street between Main Street and North Water Brewing, and its owners are seeing the effects of the redevelopment and integration with the rest of downtown.

“For us, anything helps—the street seems to be like it was the last undeveloped part of the downtown area and although we’d like to keep the charm of what has existed there, it’s also nice to kind of put a breath of fresh air into everything,” said Mike Mistur, one of the co-owners of Bent Tree.

Mistur said the redevelopment plan allowed existing businesses like his coffee shop to make improvements to its operation, such as adding an outdoor patio.

“When we were talking to the city, and they were moving forward with the street construction, we thought it would be a good time to invest in that,” he said. “We think it looks nice, we think it’s going to improve the curb appeal of the street itself and our coffee shop.”