In my interview last month with Bellevue councilmember Conrad Lee, hearing Lee’s emphasis on the unimportance of rail station placement struck a nerve with me because that kind of thinking is exactly why rail alignments are often fouled up. After Kevin Wallace introduced his “Vision Line” proposal, it was evident that the plan was conceived on two main premises (aside from impacts mitigation) of cost and planning. While the argument for reducing East Link’s capital costs is relatively straightforward, the one for planning treads into rather muddy grounds, which pretty much renders the cost-benefit factor questionable. The bulk of this planning argument is often grounded in the belief that the “future downtown” of Bellevue will be much closer to or centered around the east side of I-405. And to be frank, I wasn’t aware that downtown districts could jump 8-lane freeways.
We editorialized last November about the importance of siting rail stations correctly. I want to follow up on the growth of Downtown Bellevue specifically, and why a “Vision Line” station cannot serve the city center as effectively as proponents make it sound, now and in the future. Back in 2008, we had a roundtable discussion on the use of the old BNSF corridor for passenger rail, and Andrew Smith touched upon this counterargument:
The common response is that it goes very close, and that the future of downtown Bellevue will be on that side of 405. I cannot see this happening until after ST2 gets built and a station connecting the BNSF track to Link is put in place.
There are three main points I want to break down that highlight the argument against building a station serving this theoretical “future city center.” More below the jump.
1) If Bellevue’s city center does in fact begin to grow eastward, a station serving its central node cannot be sited next to or above the highway. Dan Bertolet from Hugeasscity made this point very clear in highlighting the importance of maintaining a strong walkshed around the station. I-405’s size and use as a major expressway automatically obliterates a large portion of the walkshed, subsequently depressing ridership and development potential east of the freeway. The only way a station adjacent to 405 would be somewhat ideally located is if the freeway is lidded or capped from NE 2nd Street to at least NE 10th. Considering the large costs involved and arduous undertaking to do so, that is an unrealistic luxury.
City center stations should also always be placed within the densest urban core of the city– the central node to which access should be available from all directions. Planners sometimes refer to this as a ‘wedding cake’ configuration, where the tallest buildings are situated closest to the node, allowing the skyline height to gradually diminish outward as the station distance increases. A 114th/freeway station would render the opposite result of a ‘wedding cake’ node. In fact, Bellevue has adopted a comprehensive plan (PDF) since the 1970s for its downtown subarea highlighting the goals for this kind of urban growth:
POLICY S-DT-4. The highest intensity development shall be located in the core of
Downtown, with diminishing intensities towards the edges of Downtown.
POLICY S-DT-8. Locate major office development in the Downtown core in order
to complement retail activities and facilitate public transportation.
The map of the Downtown Subarea plan delineates a specific “core” in which the densest buildings (termed as “highest intensity development”) belong. For East Link to adhere to the comp plan, downtown’s main transit hub will have to be sited directly within this core. When I interviewed Kevin Wallace in November, he implied support for moving this hub from the current transit center to a “Vision” station above 114th Ave NE. Not only is the station far outside the subarea core, it is right on the perimeter of the downtown area, where development should have “diminishing intensities.”
2) Regardless of how the city center grows, an urban district east of I-405 will never be as important as the downtown district on the west side. “Downtown” Bellevue (coterminous with the central businesss district (CBD) in this context) will likely remain in its current location for the foreseeable future. For a freeway station to be ideal, not only would 405 have to be lidded, but the Wilburton/Auto Row district would have to rival the CBD in the amount of office space, number of major companies (Symetra Financial, Microsoft, Expedia, etc.), and presence of civic institutions (city hall, Meydenbauer Center, etc.).
While Vision Line proponents often cite the rezoning of Auto Row and its future development as a key planning benefit to a highway station, the likelihood of the area becoming some kind of extension of downtown is beyond unrealistic. I submitted an inquiry to the Bellevue planning department to find out the specifics of rezoning the subarea. According to Paul Inghram, Bellevue’s comprehensive planning manger and president of the AICP (American Institute of Certified Planners), the neighborhood will still remain a hotspot for automobile sales (PDF):
The City has an adopted Wilburton Subarea Plan that anticipates long-term transformation of parts of Auto Row (116th Avenue NE). The current GC (General Commercial) zoning allows for auto sales and a range of uses other than auto sales so the properties have flexibility to change today. Some parts of the area will be allowed to change to CB (Community Business) zoning when NE 4th Street is extended to 120th Avenue and increases access and circulation in the area. Why[sic] some transformation of the area is expected, it is also expected that the area will remain as one of the city’s locations for auto sales.
While I’m not one to speculate about the prospects of future land use and growth, it’s likely that the Wilburton-Auto Row area will look similar to a reduced hybrid neighborhood of Belltown and Denny Triangle in Seattle, with a combination of mixed-use midrises and auto dealerships & repair shops, with the addition of limited strip mall-type development.
3) By the time the Wilburton/Auto Row area east of 405 realizes its full development potential, it will then be more prudent to consider a third city center rail station to serve the area outside of the hospital and downtown districts. While there are a number of viewpoints among the pro-transit community regarding this issue, the BNSF tracks between 116th and 120th Ave NE present one of the many options the city can consider for future rail infrastructure. While I am not above making wild speculations about future planning, ST3 or ST4 can bring such a station to the table, assuming there is demand for one. Building a 405-adjacent main station closer to what we think is some kind of “future downtown” district now will be a botched planning move.
Bellevue has one opportunity to do this right. The argument that the downtown district can grow east and creep across one of our region’s most congested freeways is beyond realistic. Even if 116th Ave NE/Auto Row is transformed into a livable pedestrian-oriented neighborhood, building the main station next to an 8-lane asphalt freeway now could be a critical planning mistake that will be regretted for a very long time. Let’s not undermine common-sense planning principles– East Link belongs in the downtown core.