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NW Urban: Will the Eastside get a Pearl District?

A rendering of Bellevue's Spring District Credit: NBBJ/Studio 216

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.

The Spring District is a planned community that eschews the usual culs de sac and suburban chateaus in favor of density, walkability and every other sustainable buzzword you can think of. Wright Runstad president Greg Johnson explains that he wants the Spring District to be "an authentic neighborhood in Bellevue." In short, if the Bel-Red is an Eastside oyster, the new development will be its Pearl District.

But it will have to be a cultivated Pearl.

The issue of "authenticity" is intriguing. Johnson's comment is not a suggestion that Bellevue doesn't have authentic neighborhoods already, though the suburbs are often criticized for sterile commercialism. He is referring to the bar Wright Runstad has set for itself as it ambitiously goes about creating something more than a cluster of successful buildings. Making an entirely new place seem authentic is tough to do when you're not revitalizing a downtown neighborhood like Capitol Hill's Pike-Pine or even Bellevue's Old Main Street, a neighborhood that comes with readymade character in the form of older or historic and re-habable structures.

Of course, the suburbs tend to celebrate the culture of the new. Though there have been examples of adaptive re-use in downtown Bellevue — the old Belle Lanes bowling alley became a Barnes and Noble, the John Danz theater is now a Mars Hill Church — Bellevue has no landmarks board. The shiny-new, factory-fresh development feel is authentic in a suburban kind of way.

The raw material here in the Spring District is rough. Metro and Microsoft's Connector service have bases here. There are large bottling plants, like Coca Cola, and huge power transmission towers march nearby. The Spring District-to-be is close to some of Bellevue's auto row dealers, the ones who sell Porches and Mercedes. Apart from empty sidewalks, there's not much evidence of walkability in sight. This landscape is designed for cars, trucks and, yes, the Porsche.

It is surprisingly verdant, however, with maturing street trees and pockets of green belt. In fact, Terry says the Bel-Red is the headwaters of numerous streams —  Kelsey Creek for one — that have been largely paved over or in other ways hidden by 50 years of development. Part of the larger plan for the Bel-Red is to reclaim the streams and turn them into green areas and trails with park amenities that can begin the process of reconnecting people and the land. The very name Spring District suggests this connection with water, not to mention the whole hope springing eternal thing.

All eyes are on the district to see how it comes together and whether this "catalyst" actually catalyzes anything. Things are shifting. For Sale and For Lease signs are common and white boards for the project have already been posted — and graffiti tagged. How's that for authenticity? It feels like a place poised for change -— that much is authentic anyway.

Authenticity is tough to define, even harder to attain by design — like trying to "plan" spontaneity. Seattle land use attorney, Crosscut contributor and author Chuck Wolfe has a new ebook (Urbanism without Effort," Island Press, $3.99) on the very topic of how to navigate the tension between "authentic and prescribed urbanism." He writes: "It is time to look at cities in a more holistic way that better explicates today's often irrational fusion of the planned, the spontaneous, and the natural…" His book offers examples from around the world of cool urban stuff that didn't necessarily spring from a drawing board.

Authenticity is connected to place and history and evolves out of need and improvisation (think Pike Place Market). Developers themselves are usually focused on other things, making money, for one. Plus, because of the scale and long project time frames they tend to like predictability. When making an investment over a 20-year horizon to build a new district from scratch, change can be nervous-making, but room must be made for the inhabitants to shape a new place. Creating opportunities for that is the trick.

Developers must also respond to large market shifts that are beyond their control. The demographics of Bellevue and Redmond are very different today then they were 20 years ago. The influx of immigrants and the tastes of the high-tech workforce, for example, have changed significantly and will likely continue to do so. Greg Johnson notes that Wright Runstad developed the main Microsoft Redmond campus decades ago. Back then companies wanted office parks and Bill Gates ordered up something akin to a college campus.

But pastoral settings are becoming passe. Google workers, game developers and Amazonians are young and tend to be more urban focused. Migrant knowledge workers flow from denser cities. Quiet offices have given way to open floor plans. Cubicles are out, bullpens are in. Sprawling low-profile buildings are traded for high-rises. Companies seek newer, hipper urban zones — South of Market in San Francisco, or Fremont in Seattle. Amazon towers sprouting in Seattle's Denny Triangle will bring the "office park" greenery indoors with futuristic "bio-domes." Johnson observes that the location of high-tech companies today is no longer decided by a company's chief financial officer with his sharp pencil, but rather by the human resources department with its desire to please and retain younger employees who are expensive to recruit.

Wright Runstad has to design for an evolving market and a moving target.

The Spring District will roll out in three phases, roughly south to north, with the last phase arriving right about the time light rail service begins in the early 2020s. The first phase (2014-18) will occur at the southwest edge of the district. Johnson envisions a grand staircase entrance there. The plan calls for 10, four-to-six-story multi-family buildings with more than 500 units. Johnson anticipates they will be 10-20 percent cheaper than their closest equivalents in downtown Bellevue's core. The first should come online sometime in 2015. "It'll look more like Ballard or Fremont than the Eastside," he says. That is, New Ballard and New Fremont.

The units will target tech workers. Some ground-floor apartments will have direct access to the street, good for dog lovers which Bellevue apartment dwellers apparently are. A large piece of the District's big park will be put in early, a public space essential to making the whole district work. As a private development, the Spring District is creating most of its own on-site infrastructure. It also wants to collaborate on the design of the East Link station.

Johnson wants a real diversity of buildings — varied heights and angles, view corridors that allow for people to see deep into the neighborhood and find their way. The park is being designed to allow a long view through the district, a key in helping people feel connected. Johnson describes the planning hierarchy as: pedestrians, bikes, transit, cars. Sidewalks will be wide with some rain protection, the parking will be placed under buildings or on the street — no big surface-level parking lots.

This hierarchy bears no resemblance to the existing site or adjacent development. To make it work, pedestrian connections, for example, will have to be improved. One local urbanist says that an early risk for the Spring District is its becoming a kind of urbanist orphan surrounded by suburban seas.

Stroh thinks that's unlikely, in part because the Spring District is big enough to stand on its own. "It has its own gravity, critical mass," he says. He also cites its location and thinks that the rail station will keep it connected to other neighborhoods. But it also won't be alone for long: another, large master planned community called Pine Forest is already in the application phase directly west of the Spring District.

In spite of its transit focus, the District will also bring more traditional auto traffic. The Bel-Red plan calls for expansions of a couple of major arterials (120th and 124th) and an expanded 520 interchange. Wright Runstad is going ahead with the initial phase, but reached an agreement last fall with Kemper Freeman of Bellevue Square and other project skeptics to conduct a major study of eventual traffic impacts. If the District is built out, it could bring over 2,000 new residents and 13,000 office workers. Even with rail, the demand for access and parking will probably be considerable.

The city is still in the process of deciding how to fund some $300 million in Bel-Red infrastructure improvements. There's been skepticism about various revenue-generating options, such as property tax increases or Local Improvement Districts, where property owners help finance improvements that will raise their property values. Solving that piece of the puzzle will be key to the corridor's transformation, and the Spring District's success.

In the search for how to nurture a whole new neighborhood, Johnson has traveled the country to look at other development projects, the kind touted by groups like the Urban Land Institute: South of Market and Mission Bay in San Francisco, LoDo in Denver, Victory Park in Dallas, the Pearl in Portland. Johnson has picked up lots of "Do/Don't Do" details along the way. Like DON'T put roads on either side of rail stations because that impedes pedestrians. Or, DO put public spaces on the south side of buildings to take advantage of light and sun. And use timeless materials like metal, stone and brick, not "orange-colored composites." If you don't have historic architecture to work with, at least the materials can be "authentic."

"As a developer," Johnson says, "we think about space that people adopt as their own." That's the unpredictable element — human behavior, changing tastes, new folks with different senses of space and expectations. And small things can have a big impact.

Early on, Crossroads Shopping Center put in a large chess board at the heart of the mall. It became a magnet for techies and also appealed to immigrants from Russia who were flowing into the area in the 1990s. The soccer field at Microsoft has proven popular with South Asian employees and workers from soccer-loving countries. Microsoft also added a Commons so employees can mix in a Crossroads-y type environment. While the Spring District isn't a corporate campus or a mall, it will have some of those elements. The vision of the evolving market and new residents will help shape and reshape the details. Maybe the Spring could use a cricket pitch in its park.

Johnson, who came to Wright Runstad from San Francisco in 2001, has a degree in engineering, an MBA from the Wharton School and the gleam of a man engaged in a fascinating game. In fact, he likens development to playing World of Warcraft, a multi-player computer game with many levels, hidden treasures, shifting alliances and moving targets. And Bellevue has many players in that game, not the least of which is competitor Kemper Freeman who recently announced his own billion-dollar retail/residential/hotel expansion in downtown Bellevue.

Wright Runstad may want to extend downtown along the light rail-lined Bel-Red corridor, but no one is about to forget the man who is ensconced at the downtown's center. Political struggles over Bellevue's future, who controls it, infrastructure funding, and the make-up of the city council that presides over it will doubtless continue.

Greg Johnson thinks the Spring District is a pretty safe bet. It would work, he allows, even without light rail because of its proximity to the freeways and two giant employment centers. But rail "galvanizes the vision" and opens up the real urban potential of the corridor, which is what the city of Bellevue is after. It'll certainly give observers a whole new way to measure and grade the transformation of the Eastside.
 

Tomorrow: Bremerton.

Photos of Spring District site by Jack Hunter.

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