James Vesely / Times editorial page editor
Does the cock still crow on Mercer Island?
The transformation of Mercer Island's commercial center is the blueprint of increased density for the coming decades — more people...
The transformation of Mercer Island's commercial center is the blueprint of increased density for the coming decades — more people, less square-footage per family and longer commute times.
Mercer Island, once the home of mom-and-pop stores and a couple of supermarkets, is transforming itself like Cinderella before the ball, with upscale apartments and condos and a density that carries a significance beyond the island's shores. Despite high home prices, the island is becoming an annex to the twin cities of Bellevue and Seattle, with many more transient and mobile folks living close to Interstate 90 than on the almost pastoral island of 20 years ago. That follows the enormous sucking sound of people migrating to the Western states from everywhere else, and the rumble of more on the horizon. The Associated Press last week reported U.S. Census Bureau numbers that show King County growing by about 27,000 people in 2006, and the total county population now at about 1.8 million. In 2006, reversing a trend, the Census reports more people came to King County to live than left.
The next wave of growth may be upon us. The high-growth 1990s kind of sputtered out but the newest residents — both incoming and our children — are impacting in-close communities such as Mercer Island and the rim communities of North Bend, Maple Valley and Lake Stevens.
The dilemma that comes with growth is as old as the rock that supports Mercer Island. It is the threat of change balanced against the bright lights of new town centers and, in fact, new cities of the Sound.
Mercer Island, much like Renton and West Seattle, is a residential community being transformed into a locus of transportation and street life. Already, some Islanders complain the place just isn't as homey as it used to be, not as easy to get your hair done or your shopping completed. The result of density on ordinary lives grants us fewer freedoms in exchange for a more robust urban setting.
Those who find the changes in Mercer Island's village center chilling should understand it is a duplication of city centers from Snohomish County to Pierce County. And within them, sub-cities.
In Bellevue, the plans for the Crossroads area, for example, are downright citified. The organizing principles for Crossroads are parks, community gathering places, trails and retail surrounded by high-density residential areas. If Crossroads has a counterpart, it is Seattle's Wallingford, a self-contained community inside a city.
In the few years before 2006, King County saw a slight exodus of people — more left than moved in. But the common assumption is that they didn't move very far — to Snohomish County and some to Pierce County, each just over the county line with commutes to the job centers in South and East King County. Optimists can foresee a future of many city centers co-existing with a taller and more densely-packed Seattle. Tiny Mercer Island's adjustment to urban life is simply magnified in much of Seattle where condos and tight townhouses are coming instead of 9,500-square-foot residential lots.
On some mornings on Mercer Island during the early '90s, neighborhoods would wake to a rooster's cry. It was a place on the hinge of change and oddly exempt from the dynamic forces then starting in Bellevue and Seattle, Redmond and Renton. Those forces of urban growth have now altered Mercer Island forever, changing its population, its view of itself and finally, its politics.
One of the starkest examples of the new city is at the corner of Bellevue Way Northeast and Northeast 12th Street at the edge of downtown Bellevue. The row houses, perhaps lifted from a neighborhood in Baltimore or Boston and dropped into Bellevue, are windows to a busy street, and serviced by the alley behind.
The project at first seems so un-Bellevue that it's the rest of the neighborhood that seems out of place. Yet, it is where we are heading as another million or so people head our way.
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
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