The rezoning will increase capacity near I-405, rebalancing growth in other neighborhoods.

Bellevue is nearing approval of a comprehensive update to downtown zoning. It could mean taller buildings up to 600’ in some areas of the downtown core. It’s the culmination of a multiyear process to improve downtown livability, improving the pedestrian realm and fostering a more distinctive skyline. Approval by the City Council is anticipated this Fall.

Despite fairly significant increases in allowed height, the zoning update is not intended as a major increase in developable capacity. Buildings may be much taller, but not much greater in mass. Increases in FAR (floor/area ratio) are limited in most of downtown. The goals are slimmer and more diverse building forms, and more public space and sunlight at ground level. Many in the city leadership view downtown buildings as too uniform, making for a sometimes dull skyline.

The most unambigous upzones are in the OLB zones between 112th Ave and I-405, and around the future Downtown Link station. This area is conspicuously under-zoned today, with height limits of just 75 to 90 feet. Those would increase to 200 feet south of NE 4th, and 350 feet north of there.

Elsewhere, the rezone redistributes growth within downtown, often equalizing what are now different height limits for residential and commercial towers. The net impact is to encourage more residential towers in the corporate-heavy center of downtown, while making office development easier in some areas around the core that have recently seen mostly residential development. That’s something of a policy reversal. Previous zoning had encouraged office development in the tallest part of the “wedding cake” with more residential on the outer areas of downtown.

In the center of downtown, permitted height would increase from the current 450 feet to 600 feet. But, maximum FAR limits would remain unchanged. Other restrictions on building form will encourage slimmer residential buildings, particularly if developers take advantage of the height increase.

In the MU (mixed use) zone, roughly south of NE 4th, residential height limits would increase from 200′ to 300′, and office height limits from 100′ to 200′. Maximum FAR limits for office will be adjusted upwards so they are equalized with residential. That somewhat tilts the economics from residential toward office in this area where most recent development has been residential.

Bellevue will revise its incentive structure for amenities. Bellevue controls building mass via a basic FAR available to all, and bonusable FAR available in exchange for amenities. Some commonly provided amenities will in future be required, and base FAR will be correspondingly adjusted upwards. For instance, weather protection of walking areas currently qualifies for bonus FAR, but will be required in future. The formerly bonus FAR becomes part of the basic FAR. New bonusable amenities will allow greater FAR than before in some areas.

The zoning changes increase maximum allowed heights while amending allowed incentives for amenities.

Bellevue will introduce new tower spacing rules. These won’t apply across streets – Bellevue’s very wide streets make that unnecessary – but developments on the same site are likely to have 60 foot separation requirements above 80 feet, and 20 foot separation from property lines. That puts Bellevue in the middle ground of peer cities, and very close to requirements in many central Seattle districts.

For buildings taller than the existing maximum heights, there are floor plate size reductions. The total floor area must be reduced by at least 10% of the area above the current maximum height. Again, that’s intended to encourage slender buildings or buildings that taper on the upper floors. These buildings will also face new requirements for outdoor plazas, adding public space between towers.

Not included in this rezone is the East Main station area. That is the subject of a separate process where a Citizen Advisory Committee has proposed significant height increases and the Council has not yet taken up the corresponding zoning changes. In Wilburton, just across the freeway from downtown, another CAC has begun work.

How much will this change Bellevue? Will developers take advantage of opportunities for greater height? A ULI Economic analysis found developers were sufficiently made whole for tightened development requirements. The tower spacing rules are challenging for some sites, and some developers have hurried to vest their plans with the current code. Developable projects have been moving ahead apace with few signs that developers prefer to wait for the new zoning. But there are hints that the developer community is now more relaxed about the new requirements.

Downtown Bellevue is 55-60% built out. Arguably, that’s a point where the city should be seeking more capacity increases. Bellevue remains committed, however, to preserving the bright line between downtown and adjacent single family neighborhoods to the north and south. Bellevue’s past choices to pursue concentrated intense development within a compact downtown risk packing too many towers too close together as downtown fills up. Instead, an increased share of future growth will be beyond the freeway.

Bellevue feels car-dominated. Bellevue streets surely are. But the enormous scale of the super-blocks mean that ROW is just 21% of Downtown Bellevue. In central Seattle or Portland, it’s twice that. There is a lot of building (and parking) space away from the ROW. As the remaining strip malls and parking lots are filled in, there’s still a considerable opportunity to reshape building forms and spaces between buildings if the incentives for developers are compelling.

21 Replies to “Downtown Bellevue to be rezoned”

  1. I hope Bellevue will encourage street-facing retail and restaurants.

    Bellevue needs to do more to encourage walking and street activity. Big plazas and internal retail don’t help.

    Also prohibiting long term sidewalk closures, and changing traffic signal priorities to advantage pedestrians so they don’t face long waits and feel like they are second class citizens, especially when traffic has long greens with little traffic

  2. Would welcome anything that makes downtown Bellevue feel less like a contrived soulless generic car sewer. I changed jobs mostly to not have to travel there anymore.

  3. I love the passive-aggressive, self-superior Seattle mob above.

    You guys are not living in Paris or Barcelona, just FYI. You live across the pond in a less well-managed, equally soulless-looking American city that is also btw very car-dominated.

    Coming back to the point, this is a great move by the City again.

    I think before the Great Recession, builders in Bellevue tended to be more ambitious – Bellevue Towers was a great design (by the way that no Seattle condo has surpassed); apartment towers like Elements and Soma are extremely design-centric and non-boxy; Lincoln Square, Washington Square and Bravern won’t win Architecture awards but they are well-thought, airy buildings with good street access and setback, building spacing, etc.

    After the recession, people definitely got more risk-averse and more and more ugly boxes sprung up, like the new 425 Amazon office and the 929 Salesforce office.

    This needs to be fixed asap before the city is ruined… this is a good first step.

    We need to be much more like Vancouver (and much less like Seattle).

    1. Agree 100%. Seattle continues to make many of the same car-oriented development mistakes that Bellevue has made, particularly in the soulless quasi-suburban office park that is South Lake Union. The key difference is that Seattle’s bland development takes place on a network of older, transit-oriented/streetcar-scale neighborhood retail corridors on a grid system, while Bellevue has only wide, car-sewer-type suburban arterials. Judging only by the density and scale of residential/office development, though, the two have developed in similar ways since the 1990’s.

      1. +1 to both Kevin & David Perlmutter

        Back when I lived in Seattle, living without a car would have been very difficult.

        Traffic sewers: 1st Ave S, Rainier Ave, Madison St, Denny Way, Mercer St, Aurora Ave, Mountlake Blvd, N 50th St, NW Market St, Lake City Way. I could go on and on, but those were the worst offenders I could think of off of the top of my head.

      2. Agree – the “car sewers” that make Bellevue’s downtown grid are pretty much the same size as the Seattle grid downtown. The Seattle equivalent of Bellevue’s CBD grid is 1st-7th Ave in the Seattle CBD, not the quaint streets in Ballard.

    2. However, the pedestrian experience in Seattle vs. Bellevue is far superior (downtown vs. downtown). The scale, density, and street interface between the cars, people on foot, and commerce makes strolling in Seattle a relatively Paris like experience (relative to other American cities, that is). There is something wide river + chasm like in Bellevue, and walking down the sidewalk often seems very conspicuous (as you sometimes feel like the only one not in a car). Even South Lake Union has a nice scale and flow if you’re walking, even on a busy street like Westlake. Things could change, no doubt, but currently Seattle is a much more interesting, engaging, urban experience than Bellevue.

      Where Bellevue excels is with general upkeep…things in the public zone seem to be maintained much better than Seattle, in terms of lighting, cleanliness, and vandalism repair. There have been days this summer when walking down Broadway (for example) I’m kinda shocked by the level of grodiness. Quirky is cool, and even purposeful wear and tear can be charming, but unfortunately Seattle has moved into trashy territory – at least in parts.

      1. There are elements of the Bellevue pedestrian experience that work really well – big comfortable sidewalks well-shielded from traffic. Others not so much – weak street-facing retail, the parking in front of sites not recently developed, everything that happens when one goes to cross the street.

        I do wonder about two things in this rezone. First, are they paying too much attention to building form above street level? Kevin mentioned Soma – it’s a very interesting building from a distance. Up close walking by, it doesn’t work at all. I heard council members talk about having an interesting skyline. But even in New York or Chicago, how much does the interestingness of the skyline affect the experience of being downtown? More for tourists than locals, I’m sure.

        Second, I really hope they’ve got the economics of this right. Just about anything new in Bellevue is better than anything old, a handful of buildings on Old Main aside.

      2. I think it’s also important to distinguish between the pedestrian experience of walking by buildings built & designed in the 1990s, and more recent development. The new stuff is quite good, particularly in Old Bellevue (Main St, west of Bellevue Way). As new office & residential towers replace the current 1~2 story suburban retail plazas that make up several of the super blocks, the pedestrian experience should be markedly better.

        SLU is better than Bellevue mostly because it’s 5ish years ahead of Bellevue in terms of being redeveloped in this current boom.

  4. The pedestrian experience in Bellevue is changing but it will not change overnight. The city staff are doing what they can to encourage the right kind of growth, but many Bellevue council members, as well as many Bellevue residents, are still holding on to their car-centric design philosophies.

    I appreciate the supportive comments above. Another factor that doesn’t help Bellevue modernize is the self-righteous sniping from the “lesser Seattle” crowd. We live in a region, not in a city. It’s childish and petty to snark any time something worthwhile happens outside of your city’s border.

    And consider that the majority of Seattle is similar to what you accuse Bellevue of being. There are a LOT of suburban areas in Seattle, and there are a lot of NIMBYs living in those areas. And when it comes to racial diversity, Bellevue has Seattle beaten hands-down. (Open message to the idiot pasting “Suburban White Folk” stickers all over Bellevue downtown: you’re an idiot, and a factually incorrect one at that.)

    In contrast, downtown Bellevue is actually urban. Sure, there’s no nightlife. But there won’t be until people stop dismissing the idea that Bellevue can actually be a destination for nightlife. And despite rumors to the contrary, there are people walking around on the streets these days, even on weekends. And there are homeless people, and shelters, and low-income housing. And there are bikes, and busses, and (not) soon enough, light rail.

    There’s not enough “gritty urban” in Bellevue, I grant you that. But if you won’t give the city a chance, at least shut the f*** up about it. Seattle wouldn’t be where it is today without its suburbs.

  5. FWIW, I’m a member of the aformentioned Wilburton CAC and live very close to the East Main station area.

    I supported the East Main rezone, but also feel that it’s appropriate for Bellevue to protect the neighborhoods close to downtown. Bellevue has a *lot* of open and underused land that can be developed. There’s a Toys R Us and an Office Depot virtually across the street from the East Main station. Neither of these stores–nor their giant parking lots–belong in an urban area. Similarly, most of Wilburton is vastly underutilized.

    Bellevue is trying to be smart about its growth. That doesn’t mean stopping growth. It just means trying to grow in the best way possible for those who live, work, and invest here.

  6. Did Bellevue do something specific in the 70s and 80s to become the region’s second (and only other) impressive “skyline” city? Or, is it just a quirk of being situated where it is? Even as a suburban kid in the 80s-early 90s (who loved going to downtown Seattle) I was surprised by Bellevue’s tall and shiny downtown core.

    1. Bellevue had a boosterish group of city planners and property owners from at least the early 1970s. So it got the zoning and eager support of developers who wanted to build stuff.

      (Don’t hate me, but) Even Bellevue Square surely helped. By today’s standards, it’s very inward-looking. But it’s in downtown, right at the terminus of the pedestrian corridor and not off in some distant green field site with parking on every side.

      There’s a good accounting of that period of Bellevue’s history here.

      1. Thank you! That was a very interesting read. It’s funny how the original vision that was pushed through by those guys in the 1970s was, as recently as a few years ago, fought by one of their own. The article presents details which makes Kemper’s war against rail transit in downtown Bellevue perplexing…at least in regards to that power group’s embrace of pedestrian oriented urbanism, and multi-modal solutions.

        It’s unfortunate that those 600′ superblocks couldn’t have been blown up and subdivided before all of the building started. Even those CBD ‘founders’ recognized the downsides, and until I read this I didn’t get how they are pretty much the original sin (and, I didn’t even recognize them as a thing until the article pointed them out). That is an almost impossible thing to fix, at least if you want the intimate Disneyland Mainstreet charm people want.

      2. I agree Bellevue Square works well – the acres of parking are on the west side of the mall, while the Bellevue Way facing parts are mostly redeveloped to be street facing, or at least amenable to pedestrians.

        As for subdividing the superblocks, I believe all of the major projects (i.e. multiple towers) will all include permanent easements for pedestrians to walk through, in effect turning them into superilles

      3. Every city planning initiative I’ve seen in the past 10 years talks about mid-block connections. Not just walkways for pedestrians, but also alleys where cars can navigate. Again, that kind of thing takes years to develop. “Quirky” little sidestreets aren’t developed–they are redeveloped countless times.

        And Kemper Freeman? There’s a huge list of what’s wrong with the guy. And I agree with almost all of that list. But you can’t deny he’s had an amazing positive effect on Bellevue. Maybe even a net positive effect (though he is doing his damnedest to reverse that!)

        I actually think his opposition of ST2 will bite his organization in the ass one day. (Not him personally–he’s too old.) Ten years ago, Bellevue Square was the center of downtown. Right now, the Bellevue Collection kind of sort of is still the center of Bellevue. But not so much anymore. In seven years, the train will deliver people 10 blocks away from Bellevue Square. And where there are people, there is need for services. And need for services brings commerce. And commerce brings people.

        I don’t expect the Bellevue Collection to suffer anytime soon. But I wouldn’t invest in their company (if I could) today. They’re at their peak. It’s going to start a downhill slide in a decade as Bellevue downtown moves eastward. Thanks, in part, to Kemper Freeman Jr..

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