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Bellevue is on the verge of giving the go-ahead for the region's first big development designed from scratch around light-rail stations.
Seattle Times staff reporter
For years, semi trucks have growled up and down Bellevue's 124th Avenue Northeast, a gritty segment of an Eastside industrial section known as the Bel-Red corridor.
Although a short hop across the freeway from Bellevue's glassy downtown towers, Bel-Red has almost no housing, only sprawling warehouses, steady truck traffic and a working-class, industrial flavor.
City planners have long imagined a different future for this centrally located, 900-acre swath of land, twice the size of downtown Bellevue. For a time, it was even proposed as a place for a new Seattle Sonics arena.
The city now is laying the groundwork for the region's first big development designed from scratch around light-rail stations.
Under the plan, a Sound Transit light-rail line would whoosh through urban centers of 12- to 15-story office buildings and apartments. The area would be filled with parks, connected by trails and inspired by salmon-spawning streams that now flow through ditches and culverts on the way to Kelsey Creek.
It's a little like the way Seattle's South Lake Union is developing. But it's also a bit different, because the focus is on clustering development within walking distance of a major regional light-rail line. In exchange for being allowed to build more densely, developers would be tapped to help restore creeks and build parks and trails.
"This is a smart, well-thought-out, responsible way to grow," said Jeff Pavey, a program director for the Cascade Land Conservancy, a land conservation and stewardship organization that has been monitoring the rezoning plans for Bel-Red.
Construction is years away, long enough for developers to put their plans in order while the current economic storm passes.
"It's really an opportunity to put into practice all of the smart-growth strategies that have been talked about for some time," Bellevue Mayor Grant Degginger said.
The Bel-Red corridor is named after the major road that connects Bellevue to Redmond. Set aside in the 1960s for light industry, the area has not aged gracefully.
It is book-ended by Bellevue's dense downtown to the west, and by Redmond's high-tech Overlake employment center to the east.
Bel-Red is a rare Bellevue commercial area that's actually lost employment. From 1995 to 2004, the number of people who work in the corridor dropped 5 percent, while employment climbed by 20 percent elsewhere in Bellevue. The drop was largely caused by Safeway moving a large portion of its food-distribution warehouse to Auburn.
The City Council is expected to ask Sound Transit to route its light-rail line from Bellevue to Redmond through the Bel-Red corridor, paving the way for the underused land to be redeveloped in a new way, city planner Dan Stroh said.
A second route that would skirt the north side of Bel-Red has been proposed, but city officials say they're confident that Sound Transit will approve the route that slices through the center of Bel-Red. The line would end in Redmond's Overlake neighborhood, and would be built by 2021.
On Tuesday, the City Council is expected to amend its comprehensive plan, a major step toward final approval of the area's rezone that is expected to happen in March.
The Bel-Red plan also is part of an effort to provide more affordable housing, and address climate change by locating dense development next to light-rail stations. "I think there will be more and more talk of this," Stroh said.
The city would allow the densest development to happen around four light-rail stations, which are the city's preferred options:
• A station at 116th Avenue Northeast, which will serve Group Health and Overlake hospitals and a major expansion of Children's Hospital & Medical Center;
• A station at 122nd Avenue Northeast, where developer Wright Runstad & Co. owns 36 acres it purchased from Safeway, and which is being planned for an office-and-residential development with office towers up to 12 stories;
• A station at 130th/132nd Avenue Northeast, where the stop would be primarily residential, with apartments or condominiums up to 15 stories tall;
• A station at 152nd Avenue Northeast in Redmond, which borders Bellevue.
The Wright Runstad development is expected to be built first, and Stroh calls it a "catalyst" for the area.
The Spring District, as Wright Runstad calls its development, would include 3 million square feet of office space and 800 multifamily housing units, said Wright Runstad President Greg Johnson.
Wright Runstad needs a few years to create and gain approval for a master plan. But even accounting for economic conditions, the first residents might be able to move in by 2013, if all goes as planned, Johnson said.
Stroh said developers such as Wright Runstad will be allowed to build dense, tall buildings in exchange for helping to build parks, plazas and trails, and contributing to stream restoration.
Bel-Red is interlaced with a network of streams, all flowing into Kelsey Creek, which eventually empties into Lake Washington. Some flow through ditches; others run through culverts. But there's enough "wild" in these streams that salmon return to the upper reaches in the fall to spawn. "Part of the whole strategy here is to bring these fish passages back to life," Stroh said.
By 2030, the Bel-Red plan could usher in 4.5 million square feet of office and retail use, which would more than double the amount of office space there now and produce 10,000 jobs. And the plan would pave the way for 5,000 housing units and 9,500 new residents.
Although the Cascade Land Conservancy likes the way Bel-Red is being planned, the organization also would like to see Bel-Red become a "receiver" of transfer development rights. In other words, the developers would have the incentive to build taller, denser buildings in exchange for protecting land in rural areas of King County. The city is listening, but no agreement has been reached, said Pavey, of the Land Institute.
Pavey also said the development's success — from an environmental group's standpoint — depends on how much developers are going to be asked to contribute toward amenities such as parks. "A lot of this is going to pan out in the details, which have yet to be decided."
Katherine Long: 206-464-2219; email@example.com
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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