Bellevue’s Downtown Livability Initiative
Nearly five years after the Bellevue City Council commenced the Downtown Livability Initiative, the Council brought the initiative full circle by unanimously adopting a substantially revised, 190-page downtown land use code. During the intervening years, hundreds of stakeholders participated in over fifty meetings and open houses hosted by the Council-appointed Citizen Advisory Committee, Planning Commission and Council. Recognizing that downtown Bellevue is a thriving economic center, the overarching principle driving the process at each step was to “do no harm.” The result: a carefully balanced future-looking framework aimed at making Bellevue’s largest and fastest growing neighborhood more vibrant, safe, dynamic, and memorable. So what’s in it? The short answer is “a lot”; but a more nuanced response is that there are three significant updates that will fundamentally change the face of downtown and its denizens.
The first major change is a significant rezone of the area along I-405 south of NE 8th Street, west of 112th Avenue NE, and north of Main Street. This will allow for significantly taller buildings with a wider variety of uses and an emphasis on residential development to leverage the two light rail stations that will open along this corridor in 2023. The former zoning, Office Limited Business (OLB), constrained development in this corridor to low-rise buildings with large surface parking lots, making the face of Bellevue’s increasingly cosmopolitan downtown look like it was stuck in the early 1980s—the last time the zoning was changed. Under the new zoning, high-rise mixed-use buildings should start to appear over the coming decades. The anticipated redevelopment of this district will sit at the center of Bellevue’s growth corridor, linking downtown to Wilburton and Bel-Red via the city’s ambitiously envisioned Grand Connection.
The second significant update—one that stakeholders from all perspectives viewed as the greatest test of the “do no harm” principle—is the radical recalibration of the downtown amenity incentive system. The basic notion behind the incentive system, originally adopted in 1981 and relatively unchanged since, was to reward developers with increased building heights and density (floor area ratio, or FAR) in exchange for providing certain features in projects. Under the old system, structured parking (i.e., above- or below-ground garages) and residential uses provided the two largest (and most utilized) incentives, with the intended and realized outcome of eliminating surface parking lots and fostering a residential population downtown.
From the outset, the basic question for the livability update was whether the market required such incentives anymore, as downtown land values have so increased as to make surface parking unviable and the downtown residential population increased from under 1,000 to nearly 15,000 in the span of 15 years. The concern was that removing these two incentives would result in a massive downzone and cripple the heart of Bellevue’s economy. Through careful analysis and deliberation, the city replaced these incentives with new ones more focused on public open space, art and culture—livability—but increased building heights and FARs to ensure there would be no downzone or unintended consequences. The city also adopted incentive-based affordable housing provisions aimed at stimulating residential growth as opposed to mandating potentially unfeasible outcomes.
The third notable change is a cumulative change resulting from nuancing multiple sections of the code to ensure that downtown has an enhanced pedestrian environment to accommodate its ever-growing residential population and its increasingly twenty-four-hour food, arts, and entertainment culture. From improved streetscape and landscaping requirements to wider sidewalks and active use requirements, there is no one code change that encapsulates the effort to make downtown Bellevue more livable by making it more walkable. With the addition of a new sky bridge over NE 6th Street, just east of Bellevue Way, Bellevue has a uniquely “all weather” walkability, allowing a pedestrian to travel from the corner of NE 4th Street and Bellevue Way all of the way to NE 10th Street and 106th Avenue through its retail core. Under the new code, newly required and incentivized amenities along the NE 6th Street Pedestrian Corridor from Bellevue Way to the freeway—the downtown segment of the Grand Connection—will improve weather protection as increasing numbers of residents and visitors arrive by transit. There is an old saying that “it’s the little things that matter,” and downtown Bellevue’s new code’s focus on the “little things” will culminate in big changes.
It is an understatement to say that the Downtown Livability Initiative was a significant undertaking. In adopting the final code, the Council spent more time thanking the literally hundreds of stakeholders, volunteers, and city staff members that worked on the project than the Council spent deliberating over the final details. This was a fitting end to the process and beginning of a new era for downtown Bellevue: a unanimous Council that “did no harm” and did much more in making Bellevue’s future brighter than the present and past.