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    Bellevue College's growth boom: Too big for its britches?

    With plans for a major campus expansion, the college has its sights set high. Not everyone is on board.

    In 2009, Bellevue Community College officially became Bellevue College. What seemed a minor name change at the time actually began a lengthy reinvention as a hybrid institution with four-year degrees and official state recognition. Over the next several years, Bellevue College will launch a massive expansion to include, among other features, a 20-acre branch campus in the Issaquah Highlands.

    When done, the expansion will total three campuses in Bellevue, Redmond and the Highlands. In fall of last year, the college submitted its master plan to the city of Issaquah, featuring seven buildings and an amphitheater. There are green terraces and rooftop gardens; for every acre of concrete, the college will keep another forested.

    With more than half of higher-ed students enrolled in community colleges, says Bellevue College President David Rule, increasing capacity is a social need. He believes that community and technical colleges are the logical place to absorb that capacity.

    The Bellevue College campus. Photo: Art Brom

    Situated in the city’s Eastgate corridor, the college's current location is encircled by a jigsaw multi-lane traffic and stout office buildings. Several churches, out of sync with their surroundings, tower above the sea of asphalt and a few sparse trees fringe sidewalks that are often too narrow, or end abruptly. It’s an environment that will undergo its own transformation as Bellevue ambitiously plans for its future.

    Bellevue College and the Eastgate and Spiritridge neighborhoods. Credit: Google Maps.

    Eastgate rising

    Characterized by squat office complexes and wide swathes of parking lots, Eastgate constitutes 17 percent of the city’s employee base. Boeing and Microsoft offices in the Northeast corner, Verizon in the Southeast and T-Mobile’s headquarters in Factoria anchor business.

    Access to I-90 and I-405 make the corridor ideal for regionally focused markets, but without a car Eastgate is almost impenetrable. And businesses have taken note. Drugstore.com left in 2004 for the higher real estate of downtown Bellevue. Expedia followed suit in 2007, citing as a reason for its move a lack of urban amenities.

    Much like the city’s Bel-Red neighborhood though, Eastgate is undergoing a land use update to concentrate more jobs there and promote it as a gateway to the city.

    Bounded by I-405 to the west, Southeast 26th Street to the north and 161st Avenue Southeast, the study area extends to 38th Street and encompasses parts of Factoria, Eastgate and Richards Valley. Most of the corridor is spoken for, but poorly developed. Greater walkability, taller building heights and a shift away from its identity as an automobile suburb are all part of the plan.

    “[The zoning] is 20-plus years old,” said CEO Pat Callahan of Urban Renaissance, which manages about a million square feet of office space for Beacon Capital in the corridor. “It really was reflective of the economy and the opportunities at that time…It doesn’t fit where Bellevue is today, and its economic potential.”

    To maintain its competitive edge and avoid piecemeal zoning, Bellevue’s blueprint for Eastgate will do away with low-density, two to four story suburban buildings in favor of 10-12-story transit oriented development around the local park-and-ride. City planner Mike Bergstrom describes it as a notch below downtown and Bel-Red. A nearly four-mile gap in the Mountains to Sound Greenway would also be filled out, promoting a more verdant backdrop with the rising skyline.

    The view of Seattle's skyline from Bellevue College. Photo: David Lee

    Businesses are already licking their chops over the opportunity. Callahan says the Lincoln Executive Center is ripe for redevelopment. Early talks between Bellevue College and Urban Renaissance could also lead to apartment-style housing marketed to Bellevue College’s growing student body. And Eastgate will likely absorb some of the industrial displacement from Bel-Red.

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