Bellevue is considering an upzone of the Wilburton area east of Downtown across I-405. A draft EIS, currently open for public comment, examines much greater height and more intense urban activity. The Citizens Advisory Committee is also looking broadly at development standards and public investments to improve the livability of the city’s traditional Auto Row.
The area, despite being so close to downtown, is relatively underdeveloped. Apart from a hospital cluster in the northwest, it’s largely a mix of auto dealerships, big box retail, and older strip malls. Existing zoning generally allows development between 35 and 70 feet (excepting the hospital where allowed heights range up to 200 feet). That has not been enough to induce much developer interest and Bellevue anticipates little future growth under the no-action scenario, with the current 3.6 million square feet of development expanding to just 4.2 million by 2035.
Both alternative scenarios in the draft EIS envision much greater development, with more street connections, smaller blocks, and a much greater concentration of activity. They differ mostly in the permitted scale of urban development. The medium development scenario sees 13.1 million square feet of development by 2035. Building heights would vary between 35 and 250 feet, with typical developments between 120 and 160 feet. The higher development scenario has 16.3 million square feet of development and a more urban form across the neighborhood. Building heights of 300-450 feet would be permitted in the core around 6th St. Most buildings elsewhere would be between 200-250 feet or 120-160 feet. Either scenario leaves room for future development beyond 2035, with the higher development Alternative 2 eventually maxing out about 22 million square feet. As a rough perspective on that scale, Amazon currently occupies 10 million square feet of office space in Seattle (Wilburton would, of course, be a mix of office, residential and other uses). A fully built out Wilburton is set to be an important regional activity center.
Several elements have come together to amplify the potential for future development. Downtown Bellevue is booming, but increasingly near capacity and hemmed in by the lake to the west and single-family neighborhoods north and south. To the northeast, the Bel-Red Corridor is also seeing increased development, placing Wilburton “in the path of growth”. Sound Transit rail will serve the area in 2023 and I-405 BRT in 2024. The Eastside Rail Corridor is being built out as a vital walking and biking connection, and interim trails are planned to be largely in place by 2020.
The Eastside Rail Corridor is a rather unique element of the developing neighborhood. Effectively, it will serve as a north to south multimodal spine, connecting Wilburton to Bel-Red and beyond to Kirkland, Renton, and the regional trails system. Complementing the ERC is the “Grand Connection“. This is an east-west pathway from Meydenbauer Bay to the ERC. Most immediately, it could go a long way toward addressing the paucity of safe and comfortable ways for bikes and pedestrians to cross I-405, connecting the center of the Wilburton neighborhood to the transit center and the NE 6th St pedestrian corridor. Perhaps excepting NE 12th St, all crossings of I-405 today in central Bellevue are terrible, with skinny sidewalks meeting high-speed traffic and freeway off-ramps. The crossing of I-405 could be a bridge or a park lidded over I-405.
Sound Transit is building one rail station at the north end of the Wilburton subarea. Depending on the quality of cross-highway pedestrian connections, the stations in Bellevue Downtown and East Main may also be convenient for many in the neighborhood.
Some other significant transportation decisions may be influenced by the DEIS. These include an extension of the NE 6th St overpass, which today reaches halfway across the highway to the HOT lanes, but could continue to either NE 116th or NE 120th. That would improve travel times on RapidRide B to Crossroads. Also in focus are several street crossings of the Eastside Rail Corridor. The crossing of NE 4th is at grade in all scenarios, but consideration is given to both at grade and elevated crossing of NE 8th.
The ‘main street’ of the neighborhood is 116th St, today an intensely auto-oriented arterial. The city foresees modest improvements to the street environment, with five lanes of auto traffic remaining, but added buffered bike lanes and improved sidewalks. The vision for the area sees the trail on the Eastside Rail Corridor as the primary walk and bike route. Excepting the Sound Transit portion between NE 4th and Northup Way, most local improvements to the corridor are likely to be complete by 2020.
All development alternatives in the DEIS envision a much denser street grid. Wilburton’s grid is weak even by Bellevue standards, as the effect of typically long Bellevue super-blocks is compounded by missing streets, particularly east to west. Street crossings are too far apart for a pedestrian neighborhood; on 116th Ave NE, it is 1550 feet from NE 8th St to NE 4th St. Adding many more minor neighborhood streets, and crossing points on arterials, is therefore essential. Interestingly, the DEIS also suggests a series of pedestrian connections to the Eastside Rail Corridor, so the more complete street grid is enhanced by non-motorized east-west pathways.
The challenges to success in Wilburton are not small, and today’s commercial area is far from the urban neighborhood the city wishes to see. But Bellevue is appropriately encouraged by the accelerating pace of urban development in the Bel-Red corridor. Wilburton is within sight of some of the region’s most expensive office space and high-rise luxury housing across the highway. With the right development standards, urban infrastructure, and connections to Downtown, the chances of success in Wilburton are high.
Comments are due by March 19. [mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, subject line “Wilburton Draft Environmental Impact Statement”]