Downtown’s towering glass-and-steel skyscrapers already give Bellevue a futuristic feel. But light rail and the Spring District could make this Eastside hub a true 22nd-Century city.
Bellevue as entering from I-90. Courtesy City of Bellevue.
Peeking between the forested slope of south Medina and the northern reach of Moorland, and framed against the snow-glazed and serrated tips of the Cascade Mountains, the downtown Bellevue skyline is a mash-up of natural and man-made environments. On a clear day, its towering, tinted-glass-and-sleek-steel high-rises can reflect the setting sun like a klieg light and, at night, cover the surface of Meydenbauer Bay in a flickering sheen.
Downtown Bellevue already feels like a city from the future. But a handful of projects currently in the development pipeline are poised to change nearly everything about Bellevue, from its physical appearance to its population demographics to its employment sectors.
The biggest of those projects is Sound Transit’s $3.7 billion East Link light rail extension. By 2023, 10 stations located along a 14-mile light rail line will carry passengers between Seattle; across Interstate 90 to Mercer Island; then northeast toward downtown Bellevue, the Bel-Red Corridor, and Overlake Village and the Redmond Technology Center. Passengers will be able to board a train in South Bellevue and step off at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in 50 minutes, and board a train at the Bellevue Transit Center and disembark in Redmond in 10 minutes.
“I think light rail already is a game-changer,” said Bellevue Mayor John Stokes. “We’ve already seen quite a bit of interest by developers for transit-oriented development. I think that connectivity is going to make a big difference.”
One example of this transit-oriented development is the Spring District, a 36-acre, $2.3 billion mixed-use urban center under construction in a former warehouse district in the Bel-Red Corridor just east of downtown Bellevue. In November, developers broke ground on the project’s second phase of residential development, which is expected to be completed in November 2018, and includes a three-building, 279-unit apartment complex with 3,700 square feet of ground-floor commercial space. Construction of the project’s first phase, the five-building, 309-unit apartment complex known as the Sparc, began last summer and is expected to open in June. A branch of the Bright Horizons Child Care Center will occupy the 15,000-square-foot ground-floor commercial space. Construction is expected to begin on a third and final phase later this year. It will include approximately 200 units of multifamily housing on roughly 1.5 acres and be completed in early 2019. The Spring District, which is being developed by a team led by Seattle-based Wright Runstad & Company and includes San Francisco-based Shorenstein Properties and Seattle-based Security Properties, also will include two office towers featuring everything from a brew pub and retail shops, to parks and open space. The East Link light rail extension project also includes a station there.
Rendering of office building in The Spring District. Courtesy The Spring District.
“It’s going to be a major new city itself, in a way,” said Stokes.
Developers already have netted several big wins for the Spring District neighborhood.
In March, REI announced it would move its corporate headquarters from Kent to an 8-acre campus in the Spring District that will open to its 1,200 employees by 2020. In September, construction began on a three-story, 86,000-square-foot building in the Spring District that will house the Global Innovation Exchange (GIX), a graduate school focused on technology and innovation. The institution received a $40 million investment from Microsoft, is a partnership between the University of Washington and Tsinghua University in Beijing, and is expected to open to students this fall (approximately 3,000 students are expected to be enrolled at GIX by 2025).
Another factor that will shape Bellevue in 2025 is the residential growth of downtown. In the year 2000, the estimated population downtown was 2,000. Today, more than 7,500 units house an estimated 14,000 residents. As of late last year, at least 15 projects offering more than 2,400 residential units were either under construction or in permitting and review stages.
“When I started working here in 2000, it really was kind of an 8-to-5 downtown,” said City of Bellevue strategic planning manager Emil King. “The level of pedestrian activity just on a daily basis and into the evenings has increased significantly. If you continue with the new apartments and condos to be developed, there’s just going to be more activity focused in our three-quarter-of-a-mile downtown area.”
Outside downtown, Bellevue College will break ground this year on a 137-unit building that will house 350 students when it opens in fall 2018. It will be the first time the college has offered on-campus student housing. And homelessness and affordable housing will continue to impact Bellevue in 2025. For nearly a decade, the city has hosted a temporary, cold-weather shelter for homeless adult men (private nonprofit organization such as The Sophia Way and Friends of Youth have opened their doors to women and children). According to city officials, between 2015 and 2016, more than 1,200 homeless men, women, and children on the Eastside received services, and the total number of homeless people tallied during an annual count rose from 134 in 2015 to 245 in 2016. To that end, the City of Bellevue is considering — and facing much opposition to — the placement of a permanent homeless shelter near the Eastgate neighborhood.
“It’s a complicated thing. It’s a real problem. It’s a challenge,” said Stokes, who anticipates more city resources will be directed toward efforts to reduce homelessness as Bellevue grows. For now, the situation is not a crisis for Bellevue like it is for Seattle. In 2016, the annual count of homeless people living on Seattle’s streets totaled 2,942.
“Is it going to become like Seattle? We think we can do it better,” said Stokes. “We’ve learned from them and others, and we just don’t have the magnitude of the problem. But it is something we have been working on.”
Looking ahead to 2025, Stokes envisions Bellevue will continue to fortify its prominence on this side of Lake Washington. “The other important thing is that Bellevue will be the actual cultural and financial center for the whole Eastside,” he said. “There will be a lot more regional collaboration, and we are talking about ways the cities can work together on issues. It’s not a competition to see how big we can be or how much we can control. But it’s a competition for us in a friendly way to be the best we can be in that sense. It sounds corny, but that’s really what we are trying to do. I think Bellevue (in 2025) will be a very vibrant international city.”