Downtown Bellevue – SounderBruce (Flickr)
Downtown Bellevue – SounderBruce (Flickr)

One of the ironies of land use policy around here is, relative to Seattle, suburban jurisdictions have often been willing to upzone more aggressively in advance of light rail’s arrival. Kent and Des Moines, for instance, jointly up zoned the Midway area for up to 200′, while nothing at Capitol Hill Station will exceed 7 stories and we are having intense policy fights about adding backyard cottages.

Though the City of Bellevue is more properly called a “second city” than a suburb, it remains surprising that much of their light rail station planning has been more aggressively urban than Seattle’s, a fact for which Bellevue deserves praise. Its ongoing Downtown Livability Initiative, slated to be adopted later this year by council, sets aggressive targets for the redevelopment of the East Main Station area, currently occupied by large parcels with 1970s-era low-rise hotels such as the Sheraton and Red Lion. From a city memo:

The Downtown Livability CAC recommended further analysis of buildings up to 200 feet in height and 5.0 FAR in the Downtown OLB District between NE 4th Street and Main Street. The current height limits are 90 feet and 3.0 FAR for “residential” and 75 feet and 3.0 FAR for “nonresidential”.

In the East Main Station Area, the CAC is currently considering 200 to 300-foot tall buildings and up to 4.0-5.0 FAR on the Red Lion site and sites south to SE 6th Street. Current zoning provisions generally limit height and density to 75 feet and 0.5 FAR in this area.

But this planned upzone may not happen at all. In a new development, the upzone is at risk because city employees are seeking to preserve a partially obstructed view of Mt Rainier from a City Hall balcony.

Rather than couching opposition to an upzone in coded language of neighborhood character, the March memo is refreshingly straightforward and transparent:

As the Downtown Livability Initiative and East Main Station Area Planning effort have progressed, an issue has arisen with respect to the impact of taller and more dense buildings being considered through potential upzones on an established view corridor from the public space at City Hall to Mount Rainier. The primary areas in question regarding their potential impact on the view corridor lie generally between 112th Avenue and 114th Avenue/I-405, from NE 4th Street south to approximately SE 4th Street.

The specific viewing location…is from the balcony on the east end of the City Hall concourse near the compass art sculpture. This viewing location provides a partially obstructed view of Mount Rainer.

To protect the view corridor, analysis shows portions of the Downtown OLB District, specifically the Sheraton site, would need to be limited to 91 to 117 feet in height if upzoned. The Downtown Livability CAC recommendation for 5.0 FAR can be accommodated at these lower heights but could result in a fairly large building mass. For the view corridor to be preserved and to allow taller buildings than 90 feet, a building massing study could be used to address view blockage and building massing.

In the East Main Light Rail Station area, the Red Lion property is principally impacted by requiring some portions of the site to be no greater than 123 to 148 feet if upzoned. City analysis has shown that transit oriented development (TOD) densities of 4-5 FAR can be achieved at these heights. To retain the view corridor and also allow taller buildings up to 200 feet would require placement of towers along 112th Avenue NE and away from eastern portions of the site.

Is this view worth cutting TOD in half? (Screenshot from Bellevue study session presentation)
Is this view worth cutting TOD in half? (Screenshot from Bellevue study session presentation)

In a subsequent presentation, city staff presented downzoning options that would protect the (partial) view corridor. Rather than 200′ heights with a floor-area ratio (FAR) of 5.0, heights would be lowered most severely on the Sheraton site and step up on each adjacent parcel to the south, including the Red Lion, Hilton, and Bellevue Club sites. The Sheraton site could be limited to as little as 91′, the Red Lion site to 123′, the Hilton to 148′, and the Bellevue Club to 174′ (see below).

Staff have also recommended alternative building massings that could retain the FAR of 5 while protecting the view corridor, but the result is the worst sort of boxy, mid-rise development (see middle image below). The developer of the Sheraton site, PMF Investments, who purchased the parcel in the anticipation of upzones, has planned a 5-building development that includes two 200′ towers, both of which would be prohibited if the upzone does not go through.

In a presentation from PMF, the developer claims that the resulting regulations would make the site largely unmarketable:

Neither conceptually designed projects the city used in their presentation to council are developable…extremely large floor plates (117,000 SF) are not marketable due to inefficiencies in design and usability…natural light will not penetrate, buildings cannot be built in phases, no private or public space amenities can be provided onsite, and floor-to-floor heights are not appropriate for Class A office space and a minimum of residential uses.

City staff’s conceptually designed project would not attract tenants or financing.

Screen Shot 2016-05-20 at 11.30.39 AM

Screen Shot 2016-05-20 at 11.29.30 AM Screen Shot 2016-05-20 at 11.29.39 AM

In a statement to STB, PMF struck a cooperative tone:

The City of Bellevue’s Downtown Livability Initiative will create a more vibrant, walkable transit-oriented city – this work is commendable and reflects the type of smart public planning and investments we should be making near transit.

It’s because of the City’s strong leadership on this topic that we are perplexed by their recent efforts to preserve views of Mt. Rainier from a little-used Bellevue City Hall balcony.  We worry it is misguided to prioritize one view versus the City’s best opportunity for transit-oriented redevelopment, which can help achieve our community’s shared goals for jobs, housing and walkability next to the future East Main Station.  

Forever cutting TOD potential by 30-50% to protect a partially obstructed view of a mountain that is only visible 80-90 days per year seems misguided at best. Furthermore, such a regulation would selectively restrict development rights because of a property’s proximity to a single public building, providing the sort of regulatory relief that no private developer could ever reasonably expect. Let’s hope that Bellevue carries forward the original recommendation of the Downtown Livability Initiative, and that in 2023 East Link trains serve the density that such robust transit investments deserve.

48 Replies to “Will Bellevue Kneecap Development to Preserve Its Employees’ Views?”

  1. There really isn’t anything wrong at all with preserving iconic public views, think UW’s Rainier Vista, or portions of Rainier Avenue, for local examples focused on Mt. Rainier. For Bellevue its a public balcony on a public building. Why not?

    Seems like a rule can be crafted to preserve that view, and still accommodate down view development’s ability to achieve their full development potential.

    This is one to focus on the details, where the solution will be found, rather than big unnecessary moves.

    1. The examples you list are very different situations than the one described in this article. UW is blocking its own ability to develop its own land. It’s not preventing other landowners from developing as is the case here. As for Rainier Avenue, I’m not sure what you’re referring to. It’s not like anyone is proposing to build something in the middle of the street.

    2. Remember that the city hall building itself almost certainly blocks someone else’s view of Rainier. This viewshed restriction is just an abuse of power by city employees.

      1. The relevant question isn’t whether it now blocks anyone’s views, but rather whether anyone’s views were blocked when its height envelope was established. Because it’s built on a hill, and because the building pre-exist most of Bellevue’s development boom, I don’t think the sudden concern for view can be attacked on grounds of hypocrisy. Conflict of interest, perhaps.

      2. Not really. I’m a visitor at Bellevue City Hall fairly often and it’s built on the side of a steep slope. The waiting riders at the Bellevue Transit Center might get a better view of the mountaintop if City Hall hadn’t been built, but nobody lost a fabulous view when City Hall was built.

        I’d like to think that a nice view of Mt. Rainier might provide contemplative moments for City Hall employees and that those moments of relaxation would lead to better and wiser governance, but I’ve also seen Kemper Freeman walking the corridors of City Hall enough times to know how decisions are made in Bellevue.

      3. The current Bellevue City Hall was originally built as Pacific Northwest Bell offices. The previous Bellevue City Hall was off Main across Interstate 405 where the Lexus dealership is now.

    3. Most people think of ‘public views’ as views from a place that is readily accessible by the public. By some contorted definition, a balcony in a public office building might be made to fit the rule, but it’s hardly what most people have in mind.

      A private office building wouldn’t get this protection unless they bought the view rights at market value.

      What is out of whack here is the balance of costs and benefits. Not every conceivable public view is protected, because otherwise we’d never build anything. How many Bellevue residents even know this view corridor exists, or are motivated to go visit this balcony? On the other hand, the foregone development opportunities are very large.

      1. Good point :-)

        I would also add that the new building that will obstruct the view from the balcony will create corresponding views on it’s balconies. So it is not clear we end up with less view. Maybe rent one floor there for a public office, with similar access to the balcony?

        (I have to admit I have never been in the Bellevue townhall).

    4. The city can put up a photograph mural of Mt Rainier.

      Downtown Seattle has view corridors to the Space Needle but they’re like pinholes because downtown is so much larger. You can’t even tell they’re there; it looks like some buildings just happen to be shorter, which gets lost among the random building heights and different eras they were built in. But downtown Belleuve has only three light rail stations (if we assume Wilburton will eventually be part of downtown), and limiting the East Main parcels would have a significant impact on overall station-area density. It’s like if that U-District Station open space goes through: it would prevent the one place that can most accommodate highrises (because they won’t allow them at Roosevelt, Mt Baker, or Beacon Hill).

    5. The question for me is if the view blocked is a public resource – eg, from a popular, accessible location. If you’re blocking the view of Rainier from the Volunteer Park water tower, it’s a legit debate about the value of the density vs. the view. If it’s from a balcony on City Hall, that’s just selfish self-dealing.

    1. DC also has height restrictions. Many European towns do too. It’s not inherently bad… the Texas state capitol is their landmark. Seattle also has view corridors to the Space Needle.

      Preserving a view to a distant mountain isn’t exactly the same thing.

      1. DC’s height limit was set in the 17 or 1800s when the population was a tenth of what it is now and nobody could fathom today’s housing shortage or prices. Since it’s the view of the national capitol and such a longstanding tradition, it’s hard to get that resttriction eased. I don’t know what Washington’s situation was. But Bellevue City Hall can hardly claim to be that important. And yes, it was only built in the 90s or so; the old city hall was ironically near where the to-be-height-limited building is, and you’d think that when the new City Hall was built they might have given some thought to what Main Street and 116th would be like when they were inevitably urbanized someday.

  2. Could the developer satiate this objection by adding an observation deck to the top floor of the taller tower and opening it to the public (possibly as a retail space). Combine with a top story restaurant for a second city space needle experience. If done right, it could be economically viable and deliver a better view to the public.

    1. @JD, while I suspect a bona fide public space (but perhaps not the private space in lieu that you seem to propose) would answer any true concern of the electorate, I don’t think that it would satisfy the real objection here.

  3. While that balcony is de jure public space, I suspect that its actual use (if any) is as an attractive place for city employees to spend their breaks. As such there’s a significant appearance of City employees lobbying for their own interests rather than serving the interests of the City as a whole. I doubt there’s a meaningful public cry for this, unlike the recently discussed and misguided Mercer Island down zone.

    That said, even with the new constraints, this is a hell of a lot more development than Seattle (or pretty much anyone else) has been willing to allow at most stations, so let’s not be to eager to throw stones at Bellevue.

  4. This is absurd.

    Not satisfied with insisting on a pointless tunnel to serve a downtown light rail station half of whose walkshed is dominated by I-405, and locating the South Bellevue station in a parking lot between a single family zone and a protected wetland too precious to cross with an elevated rail line, Bellevue retains a swath of single family zoning literally adjacent to the East Main station (which is also located too close to I-405) and now wants to limit the remaining value of that station just to preserve occasional views, not from a public park, but selfishly for their own employees. All this while engaging in premature self-congratulation over the Spring District. Meanwhile, Mercer Island’s behavior is even worse. Nothing surprises me anymore.

    At least this way Bellevue employees can have a great view of the glaciers disappearing from Mount Rainier. If they really want to see something gargantuan from City Hall, how about installing a mirror that reflects their own egos. Or, alternatively, we could be responsible and make the new development both dense and attractive, so views of it are actually desirable…

    1. +1 about the bad comedy.

      Hopefully this problem will go away when the council considers it.

    2. It’s a little unfair to blame Bellevue alone for the routing of East Link. There were a lot of voices in that argument. Sound Transit should have had the conviction to stand up to Kemper Freeman instead of capitulating to every business interest that wanted to protect the status quo.

      The South Bellevue station is being positioned at a busy park & ride. There’s nowhere else to go there, period. In that area you have Enatai (residential), highways, and swamp. That’s it.

      And the tunnel is necessary. Downtown Bellevue is incredibly busy. NE 8th St. and 116th is one of the busiest intersections in the state (sorry, can’t find the citation.) There’s no way you could expect to run a train at-grade through that area.

      Everyone agrees that East Link is being built in the wrong place. But it’s what we’re getting.

      1. Years ago, someone asked Kemper Freeman Jr. “if light rail comes to Bellevue in spite of your objections, where should it go?” And his answer was “as far away from Bell Square as possible.”

        Kemper Freeman got his way.

  5. Forgoing development to preserve a partial view of a mountain that can only be seen 60 days a year.

    You can’t write this stuff.

  6. A couple years ago the federal “sequester” slashed the budgets for every department in the federal government. One such slashed department was air traffic control, resulting in flight delays. Congress ignored the military, welfare, social security and national parks but passed an emergency measure to bring air traffic control funding back. Or, as Jon Stewart brilliant described it:

    “They only took action on the thing that affects them”

    Sounds like what Bellevue city council is doing now.

  7. Is there some sort of annual award for terrible justifications for planning decisions? This is NIMBY performance art – and from a public agency, no less!

    The dichotomy between urbanization in some of these suburban communities and “urban” Seattle has always perplexed me. I think it deserves its own series of articles, Zach.

    1. Are you saying that Bellevue isn’t “urbanizing”? There’s quite a bit of dense housing in the city.

  8. Between views and aging change aversers, land use planning in this area is depressing.

  9. It is a striking view from that location – but is this really popular public space? The view is not directly reachable from NE 4th Street or 112th Avenue NE. Thus, protecting it for the public is a pretty flimsy argument. The protection appears to mainly benefit City elected officials and workers.

    1. The view is nice (I’ve been on that balcony and it’s more than just a view of the mountaintop). What I think is really driving this is that fact that the City Council members have their offices just above the balcony and they will lose their views too if the development is built. That may be selfish and somewhat deceptive, but as others have pointed out, East Link has been a complete joke of a project. Why object to one more (minor) act of selfishness? It’s Bellevue!

  10. If such a development happens, it also means the market will support taller buildings at the city hall site. So, if such a development happens, build a taller city hall building and lease out the extra office space.

    No sense in making city hall an artificially small building in an otherwise dense area that supports taller ones.

  11. How many 200 ft buildings has Seattle rezoned to allow at the NE 130th site it do desperately craves? What about in Capitol Hill, the U District or West Seattle?

    1. How many people already live in the largest urban village north of Northgate that this station would serve. Lake City is just going to get bigger, and so is Bitter Lake, and that’s on top of the immediate station area, which by the way the city is also considering for an upzone.

    2. Fun question: How does the population of Lake City – Bitter Lake compare to the population of Shoreline, or to the same sized chunk of Mountlake Terrace – Edmonds?

  12. Are you people hearing yourselves? You are saying, “people who want to see nature are evil. People must look into the side of another building in order to be good people.”

    Now take a step back, and be honest, if you even can. Doesn’t your above quote sound insane?

    1. Quick! Demolished everything on Queen Anne Hill that’s over one floor tall as anything else interferes with the view of Mt Rainier! Demolish everything in Outer Magnolia that is over one floor as it might interfere with the view of the Olympics!

    2. No, what people are objecting to is NOT to people seeing nature, but to public employees’ desire for a small benefit overriding the public good (which in this case is allowing this building to be built to promote more sustainable development). It’s like someone objecting to safety nets on a bridge to stop falls and suicide just because it slightly blocks their view from the bridge.

      1. Bob, a new building doesn’t necessarily equal public good. A bunch of new tech buildings in SLU didn’t do any good for a large segment of the public, in the form of pricing the lower middle class out of the area. Quality of life has to be a factor in urban design. That’s why we are fighting against turning the Eastside Nature Corridor into a SODO-style busway and train line. You people blew is by bending over for Paul Allen and voting down the Commons park. We eastsiders will not let radical density fundamentalists turn Bellevue into Kowloon City.

      2. That’s because supply still did not equal demand. We need to both redistribute wealth and make sure that the supply of housing actually meets demand; otherwise, incoming richer people will just buy up the housing supply and there will be no more because, well, it’s gone.

        And have you even seen pictures of similar lanes? It looks like a grassy trail, but with small rails and trams.

        Housing prices would be even higher if not for the extra development. The only other two ways to solve this is to sprawl out (and that’;s bad for the environment and poverty) or crash the local economy so everyone stops moving here (Well, a fourth way would be to get new high-tech industries to stop concentrating themselves in a few places and spread out across may big and small cities, but that’s going to be hard).

        No one is talking about density that high.

      3. Sam, did you refer to the Eastside Rail Corridor as the Eastside Nature Corridor? Is that a thing?

      4. Paul Allen was the biggest booster of the Commons Park, which got two separate votes in special elections where it merely needed a majority vote and lost both of them. No one was bending over for Paul Allen when voting against it. They were voting against a large expenditure of public money to enhance Allen’s other property’s value. And he got that enhancement without the money.

    3. So, how far would a proposed building get if it would block the views of Seattle’s council members? Not very far, I think. At street level, downtown Bellevue is almost completely glass, steel, concrete and planter boxes. Bellevue City Hall is designed, however, to provide views and public spaces that offer art and a relaxing atmosphere. Yes, some of the art is trash, but Bellevue City Hall is designed to take advantage of the views and it’s a way-better-than-average municipal building. Preserving the views from City Hall won’t kneecap development in downtown Bellevue.

      Hard to believe, but I’m siding with Sam on this issue!

      1. There’s a big park six blocks from City Hall.

        I have little patience for kind of suburbanish open space around City Hall and next to the transit center when there’s such a housing shortage that prices are rising rapidly, especially when there’s very few places one can live within walking distance of a light rail station.If they put in more shrubs and habitat-restoration plants or edible plants rather than lawns and flat empty space then I’d feel better about the open space.

      2. And what’s so special about Rainier. I work next to the city hall building – I have spectacular views of the Cascades from where I sit. If I walk around the building I can see Rainier and then Olympics, but the Cascades are my favorite. Frankly, the balcony will continue to have a spectacular view, and this is pure selfishness and shortsightedness. Why is there no consideration of the views of people who have buildings yet to be built?

        And please, this is a public space in name only. I work in Bellevue and used to live in Bellevue, I know Noone who goes to hang out in the city hall.

        This is an example of a concentrated cost (users of the balcony ) losing out to a much greater, more diffuse good (future users of the yet to be built buildings and benefit of more housing stock and TOD)

  13. I used to work on floor 2 of City Center. I had a glorious mountain view every time I went to the toilet, until a building came up in front of it. Did I cross the very wide street to city hall and complain? No.

    This deserves 5/5 grumpy cats.

  14. I don’t know why the city workers want to protect this view. Most of them live in Seattle. They can see Rainier every morning as they drive their single-occupant vehicles across I-90 and 520.

    I wish I was joking. Unfortunately, this is true.

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