Last month, Zach explained how a view of Mount Rainier from Bellevue City Hall had become a roadblock to rezoning of several redevelopable sites near the East Main Link station. Last week, the Bellevue City Council voted 5-1 to not retain the view corridor. While the rezoning process is not over, this decision makes it much more likely that the East Main station walk-shed will support much higher development densities.
Bellevue is engaged in several rezoning efforts. The East Main Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) is reviewing the area immediately adjacent to the East Main station. The Downtown Livability CAC has made recommendations for areas which include the Sheraton site northeast of East Main, and most directly within City Hall’s view of Mount Rainier.
The goals around the station are commendably ambitious. Current height limits of 75-90 feet may be increased up to 200 feet at the Sheraton site, and up to 300 feet on lots to the south (including the Red Lion across from the station). The current FAR of 3.0 on the Sheraton site, and just 0.5 further south, would increase up to 5.0.
Bellevue City Council Chambers, and an adjacent balcony and interior concourse, enjoy a view of Mount Rainier over these sites. Current zoning doesn’t allow buildings tall enough to impinge on those views, but preserving the view would require that portions of the Sheraton site in the view corridor be built up to no more than 91 to 117 feet, and portions of the Red Lion site be no taller than 123-148 feet.
Council Members opposed to mandating a view corridor cited the detrimental impact to likely development. Kevin Wallace, in an earlier meeting, described the view corridor as “extremely close to a regulatory taking” because it had not been considered before developers began planning for the site.
Council Member John Chelminiak argued for the view corridor. “The view from that public corridor, that public place, of the most iconic thing we have in the state  far outweighs  a slightly greater FAR, from slightly greater towers, from some more development around there. People speculated on it; that’s why they call it land speculation. They want more. Doing away with this corridor is a travesty. I’m not sure even 200′ is reasonable for that area, we haven’t made those decisions yet”.
Sound Transit ridership studies for East Link assumed the lower current zoning. That was enough for Chelminiak to claim that “essentially, it’s transit oriented development today. This is really a question of how much transit-oriented development is going to be there – the intensity of the transit oriented development”. Jennifer Robertson, on the other hand, described the area as “not TOD today, wide open sea of parking lots”.
Increased density in central Bellevue improves the return on investment in transit, so it’s refreshing to see that Bellevue City Council is prepared to be more aggressive. The Downtown Livability Initiative will reshape central Bellevue. The zoning recommendations which will go to Council later this year increase density throughout Downtown, but also change the form of development to improve public spaces and the pedestrian environment, and encourage more residential uses. (Proposed zoning changes span the Downtown area and are not limited to the OLB zone).
Bellevue’s policies about public views are ambiguous. The comprehensive plan sets a goal of preserving and enhancing “views of water, mountains or other unique landforms from public places”. But there is little precedent for concrete action.
Important public spaces like Downtown Park have lost their views with little attention from the public or the City. The east edge of downtown has less obstructed views, but those views are over a busy freeway. There are more appealing viewpoints in several residential neighborhoods in the city.
Against that, the developers of the Sheraton site were clear that their design, and commercial viability, would have been compromised. At the Red Lion site, the view corridor would have meant either reduced densities or towers pushed up against a low-rise neighborhood. The advocacy community also intervened. Futurewise and Transportation Choices voiced concerns about the impacts to transit-oriented development.
So how are the views from City Hall? I was at Bellevue City Hall twice last week. On Wednesday, the mountain was obscured by haze. On Saturday, the building was closed.