Bellevue's City Hall
Bellevue’s City Hall. The protected views would have been from the balcony and a public area inside.

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”.

Development capacity in central Bellevue under current zoning (green) and with rezoning in the OLB zone (purple).
Development capacity in central Bellevue under current zoning (green) and with rezoning considered by the Downtown Livability Citizens Advisory Committee in the OLB zone (purple). The Sheraton site is on bottom left, with the East Main Station and Red Lion site just left of picture.

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.

Inside Bellevue City Hall. On a clear day, Mount Rainier is visible through those windows, and from the adjacent Council chambers.
Inside Bellevue City Hall. On a clear day, Mount Rainier is visible through those windows, and from the adjacent Council chambers.

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.

41 Replies to “Bellevue Chooses Development over View Corridors”

  1. I wish we could stop using the loaded word “livability” as a descriptor for any government program or policy.

    1. Fair enough, but have you walked though downtown bellevue.

      Livability is a serious issue. Most of the blocks are super-blocks not unlike Tyson’s Corner in VA or Mississauga in Ontario. Add onto that what little street environment that is present, is frequently interpreted by parking lots and garages. By adding density and hopefully mandating public pedestrian access through the middle of their oversized 1960’s city blocks walking around will become more pleasant. As it stands now there’s little incentive vs hopping into your car and driving 5 blocks to another parking garage.

  2. I don’t really see what this has to do with development — what drives the amount of development is the FAR – which I thought was still going to be 5.0 even with the reduced heights?

    This is really an aesthetic question – for a given FAR of 5.0, do you want mid-rise blocky buildings or high-rise narrow buildings? Such a determination doesn’t really have an impact on how much TOD you can have by the station.

    I think in general people like more height, but in scenarios like this where you have a view corridor to preserve (and the fact is, for some of the summer months, it actually is quite a nice view), if you can still get the same development just with shorter buildings, I don’t see the harm.

    1. I worked for several years two blocks north of City Hall, and from the 8th floor of our building I did have quite a nice view of Mount Rainier down that same view corridor. When the Bravern complex was built, it took out half of that view (i.e. I could see half of the mountain). If the Bravern had been required to utilize shorter buildings to accommodate the same square footage (i.e. 15-20 stories), I would have had a lovely view of the side of a building. At least the taller, smaller footprints required of the Bravern allowed a partial view to remain.

      Thankfully, though, the office moved into downtown Seattle last year and, while we don’t have a view of the mountain any more, even the eastside residents among us are much happier to be working in Seattle!

    2. Building heights affect the type of development regardless of FAR. A high FAR with low building heights results in bulk where developers cover every single inch of the parcel. This is largely why Seattle ditched its previous height limits it imposed on the Belltown area.

  3. 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.

    Honestly, it’s not a great view of Mt. Rainier from the balcony. It may be better from the Councilmembers’ offices, however. Hopefully, this new construction won’t create a solid wall of glass and steel that completely blocks the views of the Cascades from City Hall.

    1. I have the same view where I work – on a clear day, the view is quiet spectacular, through it is partially blocked. Kneecapping development to preserve an existing view is a bad idea, but it is admittedly a good view.

      It will be interesting what the up-zones are east of 405. There are a good 2~3 block of parking lots and car dealerships which will certainly get midrise development over time, but as much as the eastside is growing there might be some appetite for bigger development, especially if they lid 405 with a park and make that area more desirable as a residential neighborhood. Midrise won’t block city hall views but high rise could.

    2. >>Hopefully, this new construction won’t create a solid wall of glass and steel that completely blocks the views of the Cascades from City Hall.”

      Why. Why should I give a damn about some politicians views.

  4. Seems like Bellevue is being more progressive about allowing development near transit stations than is Seattle with the restrictions at Roosevelt and Beacon Hill.

    1. Yes – but note it helps that Bellevue is upzoning land that is either already their CBD or is mostly light industrial & commercial along the Bel-Red corridor. These CBD upzones are more akin to upzoning SLU and U District in Seattle, whereas Roosevelt & Beacon Hill are mixed residential neighborhoods. The south Bellevue station is getting no upzones & a giant parking garage because it’s hemmed in by single family housing and a park.

      Bellevue and Redmond should be commended for aggressive upzones, but that’s partially a product of smart East Link alignment through neighborhoods that would be amenable to upzones. What will be more difficult in East King is whether or not they will be able to upzone around the proposed ST3 stations in places like South Kirkland and Eastgate, where there is certainly room for TOD around the station but may be opposed by nearby residents.

      1. Upzoning is certainly possible in Eastgate – as well as the Overlake station and Wilburton/Hospital too (I wish ST would include a ped bridge across NE 8th allowing riders to descend on the south side of NE 8th without having to cross the street at a light. Seems like a missed opportunity.)

        S. Kirkland is perhaps more problematic as the trail NIMBYs seem to dominate in Kirkland.

        The areas along Roosevelt and Beacon Hill already have some strip businesses and apartments – really they could opzone along the arterials and within the convenient walkshed without all that great of an impact on the single family neighborhoods further away – as the news last week showed, people will pay a premium to be near light rail. It’s kind of sad that they are so far wasting that opportunity.

  5. If a view of Mt Rainier is a public good, then Bellevue should get one of the developers to incorporate a public balcony on the south side of Bellevue. I’m not sure if they are planning on residential or office towers, but if it’s a commercial tower, just put a coffee shop on one of the top floors that is open to the public during business hours – that would have a much better view that what you get from city hall.

    Seems like a reasonable concession in return for the proposed up-zones.

    1. It sounds like Bellevue should import design review from Seattle and focus on the northwest facade of the 30-story building. It could have something aesthetic to look at there, even a mural of a mountain. And yes, it’s worth identifying where Rainier views exist throughout Bellevue, and which ones could be turned into small public viewpoints if they aren’t already. The 30-story building could even make a viewpoint on the south side to fulfill its open space requirement.

  6. I’ve watched my view of Lake Union turn into a view of office buildings on Dexter in the course of 3 years. So I don’t really have a lot of sympathy for people keeping views using political tools. Unless you specifically paid for the rights (which is rarely the case), what makes your view so much more important than the building that’s going to block it? In my case, all of the employees of the new FB building are going to have a great view which actually benefits a lot more people than my wife and I. I’m glad a majority of the council in Bellevue realized that protecting views is mostly just selfishness.

    I’m actually impressed as well that they are actually attempting to make things more walkable. If you took Kemper Freeman’s opinion on the subject, you would think that future development in Bellevue would be lacking sidewalks and crosswalks.

    1. This is a big difference between Seattle and other cities like SF and London, where I believe property owners do have a view right, and that severely limits building heights in certain view corridors.

  7. Good for Bellevue. Stifling development to make the offices of the city council nicer strikes me as a poor tradeoff. Even if the density of the sites doesn’t go up as a result of this decision it will give the developers an opportunity to design something for the site without arbitrary height restrictions.

  8. The word Bellevue is french for beautiful view.

    – Sam. Fluent (with no accent) in 27 languages.

    1. If you have no accent, that means you are a mute. A general American accent is still an accent. Go to Britain and tell them you have no accent.

  9. Now, if there were just a good way to put something above I-405 in that area, as has been done above I-5 in Seattle….

    1. Excellent, Glenn! But let’s start by lidding the whole freeway the length of Downtown Seattle- as designers originally intended before somebody cheaped out.

      As construction techniques develop, we could create transit stations that re-connected freeway-ravaged neighborhoods, and let passengers wait for trains or buses someplace besides an open road-side drain.

      But once again, uneasy about considering an abstraction like “density” as a blanket unquestioned goal. There have been a times when cities themselves were planned by landscape architects. The Olmsted family designed systems of streets, parks, and boulevards.

      I frankly think that public buildings like city halls, should have some domain to let the owners, meaning the whole public, experience some eminent beauty from property that belongs to us in perpetuity.

      Just so none of the temporary employees, also called City Councilmembers, have the right, or the gall, or the deals with their view and transit-destroying, sprawl spreading, secretly financing contributors to sell it for parking lots when voted out.

      Also: What’s FAR?

  10. Radical urbanist fundamentalists claim to love nature, but:

    – They want to replace rare and endangered urban nature trails with busways.
    – Their idea of a great park is some astroturf remnants covering a curbside parking space.
    – They don’t care if light rail reduces climate change-causing freeway congestion.
    – Demonize workers who want to see nature from their offices.

    – Sam. Real talk. Breakin’ it down. Tellin’ it like it is. 24/7. All day. Every day.

    1. How about if we want to design streetcars into a linear park that includes pedestrians, bikes, walked dogs, and trees? Though you’re right that astroturf is called that because it shouldn’t be allowed closer than the Crab Nebula.

      However, Sam, at present time, all rail transit does for freeway congestion is to give people a choice about getting stuck in it. But secretly we rail and catenary builders were the ones who really built the freeway system.

      Knowing that if we were patient, freeways would eventually solve the pollution problem by finally jamming traffic so tight that all the trapped cars permanently run out of fuel.

      Producing thousands of miles of really rad prize-winning conceptual art, like the Fords shot through with imitation flaming welding sparks in the Seattle Art Museum lobby.

      Reason we’ve been quiet about it this long is we’re trying to set examples for commenters, no matter now many languages they can be wrong in. But US workers know firsthand cause of demon workers is bosses from Hell.

      Though also: We’re still waiting for Metro to take that Route 44 trolleywire out of our view from that big fountain just uphill from the westbound stop for UW Station. A lot of ducks probably fly into it, But those who quack too much about it end up on dinner-plates, or feathers burped up by a fox.

      Mark

    2. Radical anti-urban fundamentalists claim that radical fundamentalist urbanists are really against nature, but:

      – They think that urbanists want to remove trails for busways when usually urbanists prefer to remove parking above anything else
      – They think urbanists want astroturf parks but have no facts to back that claim
      – They think that urbanists prefer LR to induce more sprawl but the induced sprawl is indirect and a result of choices of others, not their choices
      – They think that urbanists are demonizing those who wants views because views are part of nature, but those who want views are sitting in concrete buildings in an urban center. Nature doesn’t disappear because you can’t see it.

      1. Even for those of us who don’t speak either French or German, a heated discussion on above matter in either or both languages would be easier to comprehend. And also sound more natural.

        There’s a really great movie called “The Galapagos Affair: Satan came to Eden!” In the 1930’s- before Hitler took power- many young Germans held the fervent belief that civilization itself was a loathsome disease, and that the only way for a clean free life was to find an uncomfortable place to live by yourself for your whole life.

        Story tells what happened when a fervent (common German trait) young intellectual and his wife move to the Galapagos Islands, being certain that no one else but them would ever want to live there.

        Overseas Germans everywhere have the reputation of not exactly hating ease and comfort, but resent having it break their concentration on work. Dust, heat, hardship and the most of the planet are perfect work environments.

        In these young Germans’ case, true, until another young couple with identical outlook moved in a hundred feet away. Situation got worse when a Belgian cabaret dancer who said she was a Countess or something, moved in a few hundred feet from all of them, with a lot of boy friends, and plans to set up a tourist hotel.

        Somebody got murdered, but don’t remember who. And descendants know but won’t tell. Proving, I guess, that civilization really is corrupt. Or maybe they just think that what happens in the Galapagos stays in the Galapagos.

        Would be great, though, if the German consulate could arrange a conference on which ST subarea is closest to the ideal German working environment. Though mild, rainy climate in all Western Washington is too much like Europe for necessary hardship.

        So we need some other factor. Like assigning yourself to figure out a transit system that can serve cul de sacs. Remember, what happens in Dupont stays in Dupont. Because it’s impossible to find your way out!

        Mark

  11. We need to have a conversation about how when we approve an up-zoning and fund a light rail line, those property owners get a huge windfall on property value without giving back. While increased density helps build ridership, these property owners need to give something back for the tens of millions of dollars we just enabled for them.

    What should the public get in return? Deferred station improvements? Passageway requirements? Public escalators? Exclusive pedestrian and bicycle bridge over 405? We should really be asking for something specific as site plans come forward.

      1. Suggesting that adjacent property owners be forced to pay more just because someone sited a light rail line nearby is punitive. For the most part, it seems like most landowners have limited say in where they are placed. Are you going to go into the Surrey Downs neighborhood and demand some single family home owners build a ped bridge over 405 now?

    1. I think you’d have to change state law to allow a fee on the increased value, especially if the value has not been accrued yet (i.e., some cities bond against the future tax revenue from adjacent properties to finance the public amenities that create that value, but I don’t think you can here). “Linkage fees” aren’t the same thing, they’re a fee to pay for the infrastructure upgrades the development will supposedly require.

      In any case, we have to remember that moderate density is a public good: it provides housing for more of the population, it enhances the city’s commerce (by supporting jobs), and it puts more destinations within walking distance of any point so people don’t have to drive as much. Often people want development fees to be large and punitive, to capture that income that otherwise accrues solely to the owner. But that runs the risk of discouraging development and boomeranging on the city, because then the housing shortage is unaddressed.

      1. We just had a post on the problem of Crystal City. How do you think it was designed badly, without any effort to link it to Arlington? The developer was not incentivized to make it work better.

        Without specifying concessions, Bellevue station areas could end up the same way.

    2. This is a serious issue. Developers fought Sound Transit tooth and nail. And they won, repeatedly. For example, the train is on the west side of 112th to protect the Bellevue Club. And the entire downtown routing is a result of Sound Transit capitulating to moneyed business interests.

      Now the business next to the train get a payoff for all the problems they’ve caused. In contrast, Surrey Downs homeowners continue to be a running joke on STB.

      It seems odd to me, at best.

  12. The cry of the density zealot! More people, less vistas! Less views, More people – less fresh air! The region needs more concrete, more density, more people and less nature. STAT, no matter the zipcode!

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