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

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.

Neighborly unrest

Still, some critics accuse the city of straying from the very vision it's promoting. Before the ink was even dry on the proposed rezone, Bellevue had approved another car dealership just southeast of Bellevue College. And there are details to be worked out. Existing homeowners will see their rent rise — 12-story buildings could mean expensive views of Lake Washington — but not everyone is excited about what they'll get in exchange for the added density.

The cul-de-sacs of the Spiritwood neighborhood, north of Eastgate and just down the street from Bellevue College, are what you might expect — well-groomed lawns, kids riding bikes in the street and low-slung houses with lawn ornaments in the front yard.

But sometime in the last two years, the neighborhood, built in the 1950s as a single-family community, began to undergo changes. A massive three-bedroom house was converted into an eight-bedroom unit that dwarfed almost every other residence on the block. Neighbors noticed other houses sold and redeveloped in similar fashion. When they investigated further, they found Craigslist ads clearly marketing the rooms to international students.

Sure enough, they connected the dots to discover that the new developments were being operated as informal dorms. Spiritwood rallied and took their concerns to the Bellevue City Council, attributing the changes in large part to Bellevue College’s expansion and claiming that they hurt the character and property value of their neighborhood.

The college is now the state’s third largest institution of higher education with six approved baccalaureate programs and 38,000 students, 11,000 of them full-time. As a commuter campus, composed of an older demographic and with a significant running start population, Bellevue College has never concerned itself with housing.

Though it's been buying up homes for student housing in a wedge of property northeast of its main campus, White says Bellevue College won’t be ribbon-cutting student housing for another two to four years.

“We don’t want to become a university. We won’t have the marching band or a lot of the research and campus life. We’ll keep our two-year college model. That’s in our fabric,” said Ray White, vice president of Administrative Services. “But it’s inevitable that we grow east…to continue meeting our community needs.”

There have been other hurdles too. When Bellevue College petitioned to change its name, expand its board of trustees and join the list of four-year universities overseen by the Higher Education Coordinating Board, the University of Washington and some legislators were resistant. Faced with the recession and its associated budget deficits, they worried Bellevue College might make an already stretched budget even tighter.

“We’ve never had any quibble or quarrel about community colleges fulfilling their mission,” said Norm Arkans, spokesperson for the UW. “Our only concern is when people get the idea somehow, that the state is going to establish new four-year institutions before we build out the capacity of our existing institutions.”

White sees things differently. “We’re scrutinized by other two-year and four-year colleges,” he said. “The other thing is finding instructors, developing the curriculum and getting the word out.”

Arkans says he doesn’t see the two as competing interests, but with UW’s own branch campuses in Tacoma and Bothell and others not yet built to potential, it’s important the state doesn’t leave existing projects unfinished. Both branches were built to accommodate 8-10,000 students and now serve about 4,500 a piece.

He isn't the only one concerned. “We’ve got so many resources, but sometimes I think we’re trying to grow faster than is healthy,” said student Alex Clark.

The first two years Clark attended BC, it took him three buses and an hour and a half to commute. Clark, who plans to study permaculture and eventually transfer to the University of Washington, was drawn to a campus culture he couldn’t find anywhere else.

Class sizes were small and Clark knew his teachers: “We’re not a university and I kind of dislike the fact that we’re trying so hard to be one.”

Much of BC’s expansion is still in the broad strokes visionary stage, when hopes are high and lofty ideas are tossed around. It will be at least two years before it breaks ground in the Highlands and 20 to 30 before the campus is fully built-out. The recession blunted expansion plans, as did the search for a new president in 2011.

Bellevue College will first need to secure the funding and demand. Even the curriculum and programs to be offered at the Issaquah campus haven’t crystallized. The idea, says White, is that they will be specifically tailored to the technical fields and with Eastside industries in mind.

A decades-long timeline is hard to envision, but the potential for both is huge. Incentivized by the new development criteria, Eastgate is expected to grow to 1.8 million sq. ft. of office space, 100,000 sq. ft. of retail, and 800 housing units by 2030.

Rule tempers those projections.

“Even though ‘community’ is no longer part of the college’s name, we’re still a community college,” he says. “We don’t play in the same pool or market as the University of Washington, which is nationally and internationally known. We’re still just Bellevue College and a great deal of what we do aligns with the industries, local high schools and the community at large.”

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