This post is part of an STB series examining how suburban cities are preparing for light rail. Read the intro post here, or about how planning has reshaped Redmond’s urban form to leverage light rail and Kenmore’s push to be included in the ST3 plan.
During Claudia Balducci’s first campaign for Bellevue city council in 2003, she was cautioned against using the words “light rail,” advised instead to say “high capacity transit”. But looking back, Balducci said, city sentiment was already shifting.
“By 2008, people who were running had to be in favor of light rail to be a credible candidate,” said Balducci, who currently represents the sixth district on the King County Council and served on the Bellevue City Council from 2004 and 2015. “So even the people who were less enthusiastic about it would say on the campaign trail, ‘Yes, I support light rail,’ because it had come so far in public support.”
That support was apparent when 56% of Bellevue residents approved the 2008 ST2 package, which will bring light rail and six stations to the city by 2023. Ironically, Bellevue would soon acquire an anti-light rail reputation as a dramatic years-long battle over the downtown alignment unfolded. But even before the measure passed, councilmembers and city staff were already beginning to reimagine large swaths of the city, starting with the Bel-Red area, with light rail in mind.
“We saw light rail not just as the other mode of transportation, but really as an economic engine,” said David Berg, director of Bellevue’s Transportation Department. “It’s an economic development driver.”
“People are excited about living in suburban-urban places, compared to truly suburban places, which the Eastside traditionally was,” added Mac Cummins, Bellevue’s director of planning and community development. “There’s a belief that it’s millennials driving that, but baby boomers are cashing out on their houses all around the country and moving into urban places…and what people want is access to transit systems.”
Once the East Link Extension is completed, some Bellevue residents will be more connected to Seattle’s downtown and central business district than many of Seattle’s outer neighborhoods.
“I don’t think residents really understand how different it is going to be. I think developers have some idea,” said Charles Cooper, who sits on Seattle Subway Foundation’s Board of Directors and works in Bellevue.
Cooper predicts more urban services will come to Bellevue and a walkable community will emerge. “It will be an option for people to live car-free in Bellevue; that was unheard-of 10 years ago,” he added.
As the region was debating light rail expansion, Bellevue was also beginning to re-envision the Bel-Red area and its 900 acres east of downtown. Zoned mostly for light industry at the time, and according to the city, starting in 1995 the area was beginning to fade, as businesses moved out and employment decreased.
“It was unprecedented to be having — at the same time — a conversation about the alignment of light rail and investment of over two billion dollars, and the future of land-use in an area of 900 acres,” said Michael Brennan, director of the development services department. “Being able to redevelop the land as light rail comes in maximizes the value of the investment.”
The councilmembers made two strategic moves in the early 2000s. After visiting and exploring various light rail systems around the country, the Council along with a citizen commission, developed a light rail best practices document to “clearly articulate the City’s standards and expectations for the design.” They also allocated money to study the Bel-Red area.
“We knew the land values in all of Bellevue were high enough that it was unlikely that a big industrial use was going to come and replace it,” Balducci said, who also sits on the Sound Transit Board, referring to the Bel-Red area. “So we knew it was going to change.”
Balducci said that Bel-Red study eventually became the outline for a 2009 rezone of the area and drove the city to push for a light rail alignment that didn’t hug State Route 520.
“Sound Transit would probably have been perfectly happy to put the segment up along SR 520,” Balducci said. “I think we did it right. We didn’t just stick the walksheds up against the freeway.”
“This is one of the best uses of light rail that we’ve made in the region,” she added.
Two stations are planned for the Bel-Red area: one in the Spring District near 120th Ave NE and Spring Boulevard, and the second will be located at 130th Ave NE and Spring Boulevard. The city is concentrating development in two nodes around the future light rail stations, allowing for a range of mixed-use and higher-density development. The city is planning for 10,000 new jobs and 5,000 new housing units in the Bel-Red area by 2030.
To “facilitate compact, transit-oriented” neighborhoods, the city is adding about a dozen new local roads to complete the street grid surrounding the future stations. Many of the major north/south arterials in the Bel-Red area will be extended and/or widened. Once the East Rail Corridor (ERC) is completed, cyclists will be able to connect from the trail to the Spring District Station through a multi-purpose path. The ERC will directly connect to the station planned in the Wilburton neighborhood.
The re-envisioning of the area and the upcoming improvements have already brought two major entities to the Bel-Red area: the University of Washington’s Global Innovation Exchange (GIX) and REI’s new company headquarters, opening in 2020. A handful of residential and office towers are currently under construction near the two stations and more projects are in the pipeline.
“I want to see another part of the Bel-Red area start to redevelop and then I’ll know the plan is really a success,” Balducci said. “I want to see activity on the streets. I want to see people who are living and taking the light rail line. I want to see some new businesses — maybe something cool that we don’t expect even today.”
But Cooper, the Seattle Subway Foundation’s board member, worries that the transformation and elimination of the industrial land in the Bel-Red area might have some future unintended consequences.
“Industrial areas are the unsung lifeblood of the city and it’s often tempting for cities to displace them for residential or office [uses]…but what that does is displaces living-wage jobs,” Cooper said.
With the Bel-Red plan in place and development ramping up, the city has turned its attention to reimagining the Wilburton station area. Again, the city is planning much of the up-zoning around the light rail station with a “respectful” transition into the nearby single-family neighborhoods.
Known for its massive blocks, downtown Bellevue can be unwelcoming to residents not traveling by car. The city says it’s working to change that and improve first/last mile non-motorized connections to stations. For pedestrians, the city is planning to install covered walkways and mid-block crossings. To promote biking, Bellevue is piloting a downtown demonstration bikeway while venturing into the bike-sharing world — launching an e-bike pilot this spring.
“We’re trying to actually design streets that encourage both modes of travel: bikes and cars,” Cummins said. “Whereas a 1980s suburban approach would have been to try to make it all about the car.”
Transit advocates had hoped for an alignment that would have brought light rail further into downtown Bellevue.
“I don’t think it’s very optimal, but unfortunately it’s the best [option] given the politics of the situation,” Cooper said about the downtown alignment. “I have to hand it to the then-ST CEO, Joni Earl, ‘cause she got the Central Line built against all odds, and she got the Bellevue alignment completed with a suddenly-hostile city council and neighborhoods out for blood.”
“It was a combination of listening, as well as being iron-fisted,” he added.
The fight over the downtown alignment began in 2009 after a new majority leading the Bellevue City Council threw support behind the “Vision Line,”: a proposed alignment that ran light rail along Interstate 405, moving the downtown station to the freeway. Balducci said it was nicknamed the “Redmond bypass”.
“The ridership numbers were lower but not tremendously lower,” Balducci said. “But who was riding it changed — it ended up being something that funneled employees to Microsoft very efficiently.”
Eventually, the council flipped again, and the ultimate alignment ran further from the highway, but perhaps not enough for future riders, Balducci says. She predicts riders 50 years from now will question why the alignment didn’t run closer to Bellevue Way with two stops downtown.
“The answer will be ‘we couldn’t afford it,’” Balducci said. “I don’t know that that’s going to be a super compelling answer to future generations. They may wish that we had just figured it out.”