Bellevue is planning a permanent men’s homeless shelter in the city. After a proposed location in the Eastgate area drew controversy, the City considered two alternative locations including one near the planned Sound Transit Link maintenance facility in the Bel-Red area. Sound Transit has opposed this because it is within an area to be marketed for TOD after it is no longer needed for construction staging.
With active construction already underway on East Link, Sound Transit claimed the dispute may imperil the East Link timeline if unresolved.
A nonprofit group, Congregations for the Homeless, has operated a shelter in Bellevue for several years. In recent years, it was in a Sound Transit owned building in Bed-Red that was no longer available once OMF-E construction commenced. More recently, they’ve operated out of a temporary facility on 116th. That building is substandard and cannot be operated year-round, adding to the urgency of a permanent site. For a while, the City appeared to have found a site at the County-owned Eastgate Public Health Center, across the street from the Eastgate park-and-ride. [This paragraph updated for clarity about the history of the CfH shelter in Bel-Red. Comment below]
The reaction of neighbors at Eastgate has been negative. Though not immediately adjacent to homes, Bellevue College is nearby and there are townhomes a few hundred feet away. In April, the Council approved a letter of agreement with the County to consider the Eastgate site, but also asked staff to study two other candidate locations including Bel-Red. This effectively deferred a Bellevue decision on the preferred location, while allowing work with partners to proceed at Eastgate.
At the same time, Sound Transit was refining its OMF-E plans. As part of the design-build for that facility, future surplus property was identified for transit-oriented development after it is no longer needed for construction staging. In June, Sound Transit publicized a site plan that includes a large area of TOD just south of the OMF-E. The conceptual design, prepared for marketing the site to developers, foresees 1.2 million square feet of development with a goal of redevelopment before East Link service commences in 2023.
Bellevue owns a skinny one-acre parcel (a former rail spur) that bisects the proposed TOD area. Because of its shape, the Bellevue parcel cannot be developed independently. But a transfer or exchange of that land is also essential to making the TOD work.
Sound Transit complained about the effect of the homeless shelter on their plans. In a strongly worded letter, Peter Rogoff expressed “no interest in revisiting its planned designs for the OMF East or altering its solicitation for a TOD developer to accommodate this late-breaking concept”.
Rogoff explained Sound Transit’s objection thus:
“A homeless shelter is a specialized use with unique privacy, safety, and liability considerations. For this reason, in new private developments shelters are rarely mixed with residential and commercial uses. It is highly unlikely that developers would respond to an incentive to include a shelter as part of TOD at the OMF East, and highly likely that developers will not respond at all to an offer that requires them to include a shelter on-site.”
At last week’s Bellevue City Council meeting, CM Kevin Wallace suggested an alternative solution. With a boundary change to the Bellevue parcel, Sound Transit and Bellevue could execute a 1:1 land swap. Bellevue would have a compact site on the south of the TOD to build the shelter. The TOD area would be reduced by about an acre, but Wallace illustrated a conceptual design of his own that he argued would maintain the marketability of the site. Whereas building a shelter amidst the TOD would not be possible until after 2020, a land swap could enable earlier construction on Bellevue’s parcel.
Similar to what might be built at Eastgate, the concept suggested by Wallace for Bel-Red is a five-story building, with a 100 bed overnight shelter and 125 person day facility on the first two floors. The upper three floors would have 50-60 units of affordable congregate housing for men transitioning out of homelessness. Complementary medical and counseling services would also be within the building.
The Bel-Red site, while avoiding existing Eastgate homeowners, places the shelter rather closer to a larger number of future residents in Bel-Red. Yet, any argument that the shelter is incompatible with Bel-Red TOD backhandedly validates the objections of Eastgate neighbors. Wallace observed that if the shelter and multifamily housing are designed appropriately, they can be built to accommodate each other in advance. There are obvious advantages to the users of the shelter if it is placed in an active area with services rather than at an isolated location.
After November’s election, retirements will mean at least two new members on the Bellevue Council. The location of the shelter is featuring prominently in the election. The 2018 Council will need to select its preferred location for the men’s shelter and agree the land transfer for OMF-E construction. Whether Sound Transit will be more open to the latest proposal remains to be seen. The Council has not voted on the Wallace proposal, though it appeared favorably received by several at last week’s meeting.