The Bel-Red corridor linking Bellevue and Redmond has long been a kind of no-man's land, mostly a mix of retail, office parks, strip malls, auto dealers, greenery and charmless warehouses. Tucked between two Eastside economic powerhouses, it features utilitarian spillover businesses with romantic names like Discount Tire Outlet.
Bel-Red is slated for huge change, however. A long-in-the-works rezone was able to draw Sound Transit's $2.8 billion East Link light rail expansion through the heart of the corridor — the zoning was designed to emphasize transit-oriented development before the route was even decided. The rail route and Bel-Red plan dovetail nicely. The 14-mile route will start in downtown Seattle, cross the I-90 floating bridge, hook north through downtown Bellevue, then zip along the Bel-Red corridor to Overlake and the main Microsoft campus in Redmond. Trains are scheduled to roll by 2023.
The corridor plan seeks to remake a suburban pattern into an urban one. Matt Terry, the former longtime planning and development director for the city of Bellevue, now retired, describes it as "radically different" from the current layout. It will be denser, walkable, more sustainable. It'll feature mixed-use, offices and much more housing. It'll be taller than traditional sprawl, but with shorter high-rises than downtown, and a new grid will begin to tie it together on a more human scale. This is where Bellevue wants much of its projected growth absorption under the Growth Management Act to go.
The time frame suggests stately progress in an area seeing rapid change, but it's a huge project. Will it be transformative? Quite possibly. Rail and a new arterial running the length of the corridor (along NE 15th) will provide better connections with downtown Bellevue, helping to extend urban-style development eastward. Still, the Bel-Red corridor as it is today is mostly classic sprawl, with a long way to go from 'burb to urb'.
The potential, even without rail, is enormous. A rapidly densifying, diversifying workforce needs more room and more options, especially so close to Microsoft which has many employees at both ends of the Bel-Red. Ultimately, the corridor forecast is for 5,000 more housing units by 2030. "I'm convinced people want to live in that corridor," predicts Terry. "The housing market will be very strong."
One of the biggest, most ambitious projects to watch is the so-called Spring District, a 36-acre site being developed by Seattle's Wright Runstad & Company, in a joint venture with Shorenstein Properties of San Francisco. The city calls it a "Catalyst Project" that will boost the Bel-Red redevelopment. It's a ground-breaking vision that will break actual ground this fall.
The Wright Runstad land is a large patch at the west end of the corridor. (See photo at left.) The city was looking for a major developer to buy the property that Safeway was planning to sell when it moved its distribution center to Auburn. Wright Runstad, which has a long history of development in the city of Bellevue, was the winning bidder at $68 million. They came with a major project in mind that fit the city's goals. The former Safeway site offers as close to a blank slate as you can get these days for developing an entire urban neighborhood from the ground up. Deputy director of the city's planning department, Dan Stroh, says it would be hard to find a more prime spot for such a project. "The locational dynamics are powerful for that site," he says.
The southwestern corner of the proposed Spring District is at NE 12th and 120th Ave. NE, near Lake Bellevue and the intersection of I-405 and SR 520. The site is surrounded by parking lots and restaurants (like the Crab Pot and I Love Sushi) and the shoreline development makes it virtually invisible to the public. As the crow flies — or the urban adventurer walks — its only a quarter mile to the nearest Whole Foods, if you short-cut through parking lots. If the development turns out as planned, a 20-year private investment of some $2-3 billion will create 5.3 million square feet of space, including over 1,000 new multi-family residences, offices for high-tech workers, commercial and street-level retail businesses, a hotel, parks and plazas. The East Link rail line will run through the north end of the property and give the site its own Spring District station.
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