Bellevue's Bel-Red Corridor Vision
Bellevue's Bel-Red Corridor Vision

Bellevue needs to take a second look at its station area planning. Stations similar to those in Rainier Valley are what Bellevue currently envisions for the Bel-Red corridor. However, cities like Charlotte, Copenhagen and London are where Bellevue should really be looking for inspiration.

NE 16th St ROW

I like the Rainier Valley stations, and I think that Sound Transit did its best to make a primary arterial pedestrian friendly.  However, median island stations are not conducive to true transit oriented development and the associated public realm that makes them so attractive. Currently, Bellevue envisions a new NE 16th St for the Bel-Red corridor. This street would require significant ROW acquisition, running roughly halfway between Bel-Red and SR-520.

On page 20 of Bellevue’s Ordinance 5858 it says:

Discussion: The expansion of NE 16th Street is a lynchpin project for Bel-Red. The extended corridor will be the key east-west arterial connection, tying together much of the new Bel-Red land use. It is also the City’s desired location for light rail and high capacity transit, and for major new pedestrian and bicycle access across the Bel-Red area. The vision for the corridor is ambitious, incorporating all these transportation modes, and including a “linear park” series of open spaces spanning the corridor…”

While LINK needs ~25ft ROW or ~45ft with station platforms, the envisioned NE 16th St would need a minimum of ~96 ft. At intersections this could increase to ~140 ft, including station platforms and turn lanes. Both of these widths leave no accommodation for bicycles or parking, which would add another 24-34 ft. The “linear park” would I hope add at least another 30 ft. This is isn’t chump change, we are talking about a ROW with roughly the same width as the Alaskan Way Viaduct. This is hardly appropriate for pedestrian scale development and would create an unnecessary desert-like expanse of concrete between buildings. These types of intersections are nothing unusual for Bellevue, but that doesn’t make them acceptable.

While center-running light rail and island stations were the only realistic option for MLK, Bellevue is free to imagine to its heart’s content.  Yet its current vision is uninspired and painfully backwards, an exact copy of what was done downtown years ago. For a city that has done such a good job on the land use side of East LINK, this is extremely disappointing. Bellevue is missing a significant opportunity to create vibrant pedestrian oriented, or even pedestrian only station areas that are good for people, the city and developers alike.

Domestic and International Inspiration

great public tram system by erik jaeger
great public tram system by erik jaeger

Bellevue should take inspiration from cities like Charlotte, Copenhagen and London to name just a few. These cities are examples of how mass transit and major new development zones can be built without arterials slicing through their center. Charlotte’s new light rail line, Lynx, is a good example of how narrow, at grade, rail only ROWs can produce a very attractive urban environment directly adjacent to the station.

Copenhagen’s largest development zone, Nordhavenen (14mb), which is currently a harbor in the north of the city, is designed to have the same bicycle/transit heavy mode split as the central city. The major transportation spine of the new district will be a metro extension with a station in the center of each neighborhood. Stations will be connected to their surroundings with high quality bicycle infrastructure, and station areas will be pedestrian oriented or pedestrian only. Roads are kept away from pedestrians and bicyclists and parking will be strategically placed on the edges. From the design competition:

“An important element in the vision of a city district with sustainable mobility was that, once Nordhavnen was fully developed, cars would be a rare sight for people moving along the waterfront or in one of the central squares. Consequently, another focal point in the jury’s assessment was whether the layout of the road structure and the location of parking facilities were conducive to the objective of areas in which vehicular traffic would be very limited…”

London’s Canary Wharf was the largest commercial development zone in the world and is now the financial center of the UK. Again, this development keeps parking at the edges with only a few roads that enter the central portions of the development. Development is centered around the DLR and Jubilee Line extension and pedestrian connectivity is provided by many pedestrian only bridges and walkways.

What Bellevue Should Do

All of these developments put Bellevue’s plans in stark contrast. They show that streets in the center of TODs are not necessary when high quality mass transit and non-motorized facilities are built. Remember streets are not necessary to move people; they are only necessary to move cars. These examples prioritize people space around stations, moving cars to the fringe.

Bellevue’s plans will cut station areas in half and possibly even quarters (if cross streets such at NE 116th, 120th and 124th are built as 5 line arterials as well). Rather than creating a unified pedestrianized public realm around the station, growth will move away from Link with a outwardly looking, poorly defined center.

Bellevue should re-envision a Bel-Red corridor where the assumed mode of transportation is Link, bicycling or walking. These modes, and their associated infrastructure should define the transportation network that is built, while roads and parking are secondary. Bellevue move that street!

UPDATE 9:16 – Read this article. It articulates the same points I’m making.

29 Replies to “Rainier Valley, Charlotte, Copenhagen and London: Informing East Link Design”

  1. What seems incredibly obvious, now that the train has, so to speak, left the station, is that stations should be designed and built with plumbing and electrical hookups to meet needs of vendors. In the best of all worlds a small farmers market could be supported adjacent to each station.

    This is easy to do if you start doing it in the preliminary design, and very hard to do if you wait until the station has been built and is in service. If in actual practice the spaces were underused, not to worry, there will always be the need eventually to increase canopied pedestrian areas or office space for the stations.

    It’s something we should be asking for from the very beginning.

  2. That picture reminds me of the Skidmore Fountain MAX Station, especially during Portland Saturday Market or waterfront festival days.

    Also, speaking of station planning, Andrew posted some nice links at publicola. I especially liked the “TOD’s Evil Twin: Transit-Adjacent Development” article.

  3. I mostly agree. Bel-Red and NE 20th are already high use vehicular corridors. There doesn’t need to be another through street in this area.

    But if they do have NE 16th paralleling the tracks, it seems like median tracks and a single vehicle lane in each direction is all that’s needed. Rail crossings should be limited to major avenues (those divisible by 4). In fact, I would argue that in station areas, left turns should be disallowed from NE 16th. In other areas, you could put left turn pockets in the area used by train platforms and keep the right of way more constrained.

    There are two stations planned in this area, and it’s likely that the westerly one would be grade separated, at least if the developer in the area gets its way. Let’s hope ST can get a nice TOD station here and lease the air rights. It would be a fine place for the food carts and newsstand everyone wants.

    1. Current plans say that it is possible that an “interim” design would only have one lane in each direction on NE 16th. However know Bellevue I don’t think that is very realistic. Also the simple fact that bellevue is planning this district by planning streets and then everything around those is in my opinion an old school approach. Forward looking cities now plan non-motorized transportation networks and then add the street grid in a way to create the type of pedestrian oriented neighborhood they want.

      1. We are talking about a City that still widens its downtown streets to 8 lanes and calls it an improvement. Unfortunately, the engineers at the City still hold the reins. The Bel-Red neighborhood will never make it out of the planning phase without a 5-lane 16th and expansions to Bel-Red and 20th.

    2. I think the Yellow (Interstate Ave) line in PDX is a good example of a street with light rail in the center, but only a single lane of auto traffic on each side (plus bike lanes). The street is easy to cross for pedestrians. Parking is available on some blocks and I think actually calms what traffic there is. New development is coming to the station areas. It’s the model Bel-Red should be following.

  4. I worry about MLK’s TOD prospects for the reasons you suggest. MLK is loud and difficult to cross. Light rail has made the street better (a fact missed by detractors), but the fact remains that this is not the ideal street for a TOD experiment.

    My crazy dream is to convert MLK it into a two lane road by converting the outer lanes into pedestrian / bike paths. This may seem a bit far out now, but in 10 years? MLK certainly has the transit capacity to pick up the slack.

  5. Well if center rail stations aren’t good for development, if you use right edge rails, are deadly for bicyclists.

    Bellevue should elevate this whole mess. There is no way that LINK is going to replace the need for personal transit, and getting the RAPID into MASS transit, requires a right of way which does not have people walking in front of the train!

    A slow speed street car, ok, maybe. The Waterfront street car worked where as the SLUT ruined the street for bicycles.

    LINK belongs UP.

    1. Less hyperbole please.

      Link is not a streetcar. LINK may or may not belong UP in Bellevue. Using bikes as the reason is not a valid argument.
      Right side stations with LINK are no more or less safe than center stations.

      If you’ve seen the tracks anywhere, you would know that bikes/cars/people are not allowed to move along the tracks – unlike the SLUT.

      With respect to bikes…
      MLK is still terrible for bikes, but that has nothing to do with Link.
      The busway in SODO has a lovely parallel bike path.

      Cascade Bike club let itself be bought off by the hilly Chief Sealth trail – rather than pushing for something useful along flat MLK. I wish there were more bike commuter influence in the various bike groups.

      1. Ok, it’s the nutty picture on the lead to this piece which shows a pedestrian casually strolling across the tracks.

        Elevated tracks fix this suicide attempt.

      2. That picture is not nutty, it’s a pretty common scene outside the US. It’s quite normal in other countries for people and trains to exist in the same environment without having to be protected from them. In a lot of cities with street-running transit there is no distinction made between street, tracks, and sidewalk and it has been shown that this configuration is actually safer. Nothing other than psychological counseling is going to prevent suicide. Besides, East Link won’t be built in the configuration illustrated in that picture.

      3. For a moment I thought you were channeling Sam. That picture depicts a common scene in Europe: a thriving, activated public space for pedestrians and bicycles, integrated with transit. Portland is similar with MAX and the streetcar downtown.

      4. “MLK is still terrible for bikes”

        I’ve always found MLK to be the best way to get around the south end on a bicycle. It’s flatter and wider than the alternatives.

  6. OR, to save US$Billions, bicycles may have to be a bit inconvenienced in a few places by using alternative routes. We cannot do it all for everybody on every street, road, or way.

    1. I’m not sure which billions you’re talking about, but elevated costs were shown to be very similar to at-grade costs through Bellevue on the EIS.

      Personally I think it should be elevated, but not for bikes. At-grade slows down the line and makes the end-to-end trip less competitive with buses or driving.

    2. Link isn’t the streetcar. Sound Transit isn’t going to run Link in mixed traffic. At worst there will be grade crossings like MLK or along busway.

  7. I agree 100%. Bellevue has a golden opportunity that cities around the world only dream about. They are essentially starting a community from scratch, knowing before they start that it will contain centric rail stations. The potential for an awesomely livable area is sky-high and the possibilities are endless. It’s unfortunate that the seemingly knee-jerk first approach is one based on disproven 20th century gridded automobile streets. Thanks, Adam, for bringing this to our attention. We should all do what we can to make sure this initial plan doesn’t become a reality. Where do we start?

  8. This is a disaster. Completely contrary to how forward thinking cities are planning their commuter communities.

    Can we really trust Bellevue to be anything but an autotopia? The “city” wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for cars.

  9. I mostly agree. Bel-Red and NE 20th are already high use vehicular corridors. There doesn’t need to be another through street in this area.

    Dead on. Bellevue needs another major east west road between Bel-Red and NE 20th like a fish needs a bicycle. The City can’t seem to find the funds for the Main Street and NE2nd make over and shouldn’t even be thinking about new roads though muffler city until they fix the mess they have. Bel-Red needs zero stations. Use the 520 ROW and finish the line to Redmond. A station at Marymoor would get thousands of cars off the 520/405 freeways. Downtown Redmond already has more development than Bel-Red will see ever.

    Bellevue City Council saw Bel-Red as the next golden egg for development. That was before Auto Row turned into a ghost town. That area is much better situated for future development. There’s decades worth of redevelopment potential that hasn’t even been touched. The Group Health property in Overlake for starters (Redmond?). How about the old KMart out by Crossroads, how many decades has that been an empty shell? Will the vacant Circuit City follow that lead? There’s a vacant Cadillac dealership downtown. I don’t remember when they moved out but it still says Oldsmobile on the wall which tells you something.

    1. The caddy dealer was meant for mixed use, but now I’m sure it will be there a few more years…thankfully many projects on 10th were finished.

    2. The Kmart property has water problems. Otherwise McLendons was looking at it. It should be bulldozed and given back to the wetland it wants to be.

  10. I think 16th should be ped / bike / train only. THAT would make a livable place I would want to call home.

  11. This is a great article. Please mail it to the Bellevue mayor and every Council member.

    Given the proximity of Bel-Red and Northup, there is no reason for any more than one car lane on NE 16th St (or none) and parking should be accessed from the outskirts.

    One additional thing, which I wish would have been done on MLK, and should be done on the NE 16th Link ROW is to design it so that the ROW is covered with grass. It makes it much more pleasant for pedestrians, it provides natural drainage, it clearly says that cars keep off it, etc.

    1. OK, what they should *actually* do is make a genuine pedestrian/bike ROW.

      The area simply doesn’t need another car through-road. Local delivery access? Build *alleys* accessed from the cross streets. (Bigger buildings could have back-side docks.) Local parking? Consolidated lots/garages every four blocks or more next to the pedestrian way.

      This is the typical layout I would envision on each side:
      rail line (at grade)
      bike path (one direction)
      wide pedestrian way (with vegetation/plazas/etc.)
      building primary frontage
      building backside
      alleyway (for local delivery and access)
      building backside
      building frontside
      next street over (probably with parking provision)

      At cross streets, wide sidewalks should allow crossover between the two pedestrian ways
      and access to the neighboring streets; in addition, traffic lights and probably gates should
      alternate between travel parallel to the rail line (across the street) and travel across the rail line (parallel to the street). Smaller cross streets should dead-end at the alleyways instead.

      In areas where the track is elevated,the bikeway could run under it, but the pedestrian way probably shouldn’t (though it could *connect* under it) because that’s a fairly unpleasant walking location due to the shading. Although for grade reasons the bikeway should actually perhaps ride “with the trains” across bridges. Elevated tracks in the center of a pedestrian way, in areas other than parks, should ideally have retail under them, built into the underspace. This is more aesthetic than parking underneath and more usable.

      Additional, more radical suggestion: use the alleyway concept for the cross streets too; make the cross streets alternate between pedestrian and car/truck/bike, with frontage encouraged on the pedestrian streets and deliveries on the motorized streets.

      Again, access by people coming by car will be to large consolidated garages or parking lots, each with a dense pedestrian connection. Parking for residents can be in similar arrangements, or in low-rises can be accessed from the alleys.

  12. Bellevue has an opportunity here to create a genuine “interurban” style LRT by separating the LRT right of way from the auto street completely. There is mention of a “linear park” atmosphere and the immediate previous post has a similar idea. I would propose something a bit different because I don’t think that the street can be eliminated. It won’t fly in Republican Bellevue.

    So, put the street on the north side with a wider than normal sidewalk on the north side, the bike/pedestrian way on the south and the Link in between.

    Have the buildings on the bike lane side be first level pedestrian retail (bakeries, coffee shops, supermarkets, Radio Shacks, etc) and provide an access street behind them. Have condos and other living arrangements above them, with a maximum height of say six stories. Parking should probably be below grade, but could be at the first level above the retail if below grade is too expensive.

    On the street side the buildings can be significantly higher — office mid-towers with more condos above the sixth floor. That way everyone gets to see Mt. Rainer when it’s out. Well, maybe not the first couple of floors on the south side, depending on the topography and trees.

    That separates the Link ROW from the buildings on both sides allowing LRT speeds at grade; there should of course be a barrier between the bike lane and the Link right of way, and some bushes and grass so that people don’t feel that the train is bearing down on them when they’re walking or biking toward the west.

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