The tech industry continues to drive a large portion of the office growth in downtown Bellevue, where about 11.5 million square feet of projects are either underway, approved, or proposed, according to figures shared at a webinar Wednesday featuring officials from the City and Bellevue Chamber.
“We’re essentially looking at roughly 9 million square feet of additional growth, almost all in jobs in the downtown,” said Mac Cummins, director of community development, who fielded questions from Joe Fain, the chamber’s CEO.
More than 2 million square feet of office space has already been preleased by incoming tech tenants, according to an announcement for the webinar, titled Insights into the Eastside Migration. The webinar was presented by commercial furniture provider Catalyst Workplace Activation as part of its virtual Catalyst Thought Leadership workplace webinar series.
Amazon made a big splash this year with two different announcements that will result in about 25,000 employees in Bellevue by about 2025.
That’s up from about 3,000 today, as reported by The Seattle Times. Amazon has plans to occupy several downtown office towers.
Bellevue’s vision to be a major employment center dates to the early 1980s and is coming to fruition faster than planned. Downtown job and housing unit projections in the city also will hit years ahead of forecast, Cummins said. That is stressing systems in and around downtown, but the city has invested and continues to invest in projects that include parks, light rail, bus system improvements, walking and bike paths, and other features to enhance livability, he said.
Highlights include the Bellevue Downtown Park, Meydenbauer Bay Park, and the proposed Grand Connection, a 1.5-mile pedestrian-bikeway from Meydenbauer Bay Park, through downtown, over Interstate 405 to Wilburton and the Eastrail bike-pedestrian path. The Grand Connection could include a lid over I-405 for a park or some other key feature.
“We are gearing up for the growth that we know is coming,” Cummins said, citing plans to invest in “place-making” features downtown. “We want there to be a reason to be in downtown and hang out here, not just get in your car and come to work, and then go home.”
The City believes in leveraging its public investments to help spur business growth, he said, noting that for every $1 in public money invested in projects like quality open space and transportation systems generally results in between $7 and $11 of private investment in and around those projects.
All the job growth doesn’t come without strains, though. Cummins acknowledged that there is in particular an increasing imbalance between the number of jobs and available housing, especially affordable housing.
There’s significant concern among major employers about where employees are going to live and where they can find affordable housing, he said. He noted that the City has a separate effort underway to combat that problem. The City is exploring financial and regulatory paths to incentivize more housing, including affordable housing.
The City’s also concerned about small and midsize companies being squeezed out of the downtown core as big companies expand there, often consuming entire office towers. That has resulted in more of those businesses moving into the Bel-Red corridor area, he said.
“We’re trying to be significantly more deliberate about small business and incubating small business — or, in our field, what we call economic gardening — growing small business into medium business, instead of simply trying to recruit big business only to the city,” Cummins said.
The City’s strategy is to grow around multimodal transportation areas, like light rail. But growth demand is arriving faster than all transit can be completed, including Sound Transit’s East Link, which is scheduled for completion in 2023.
“We are now seeing property acquisition throughout the entire Bel-Red corridor, and there are a number of folks that would like to revisit that, to see if more density makes sense, particularly around the station areas themselves,” Cummins said.
The idea is “to stitch” the downtown, Bel-Red, and Wilburton planning areas together, so “the two areas not downtown will be compatible with downtown, but not just a complete extension of downtown,” Cummins said, with buildings maybe half the height of those in the central business district.
Fain asked Cummins what keeps him up at night being at the tip of City’s spear on growth strategy.
“There’s a lot happening all at once and there’s no question: it’s a good problem to have — it’s a good problem when so many people want to invest in your community this fast,” Cummins said. But the City has long-term plans in place to address the growth.
“One of the things that keeps me up at night is just how excited I am and what I want to try to get done here” working with elected officials, business partners, and others, he said. “So I don’t know if I’m keeping up at night afraid of anything; I’m just more excited more than anything.”