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.
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.