Waiting on the train: Light rail equals opportunity, headaches for Bellevue
September 22, 2009 · 3:48 PM
Light rail presents a mixed bag of headaches and new opportunities for Bellevue, which is yet to find a ceiling for its potential as a regional heavyweight.
Construction of a light rail station downtown could last up to three years, with the disruptions greatly affecting businesses in that area. But the long-term payoff could be even greater.
“Almost everywhere they exist, light rail stations have become a magnet for development,” said Bellevue planning and community development director Matt Terry. “It’s generally viewed as a positive.”
That’s especially true along the Bel-Red corridor, where there are new land-use guidelines in place to transform what is now mostly industrial property into a bustling mixed-use district that includes offices, shops, condominiums, and hotels.
Building light rail through the corridor – a process expected to start around 2014 – is seen as a precursor to this re-development, which is why many developers and civic leaders are touting the Bel-Red plan as a shining example of regional collaboration.
Greg Johnson, president of the Wright Runstad development company, told The Reporter in August that he considered the plans to be “refreshingly forward-looking.”
“This is how you would hope it would be done everywhere,” he said.
That response is no surprise considering what Johnson’s company has to gain from the plans.
Wright Runstad owns the largest single parcel along the Bel-Red corridor, a 36-acre plot currently serving as a Safeway distribution center and dairy facility. The plan is to convert that area into 3 million square feet of office space and 1,000 multi-family homes, along with several open spaces.
Market forces will eventually dictate that the rest of the corridor follow suit, pushing existing businesses out over time. But even with the loss of those operations, light-rail construction and the concurrent Bel-Red re-development could result in considerable upside as the city continues to grow and generate new revenue.
Bellevue’s central business district is a different type of story. The Sound Transit board of directors has recommended a street-level route as one of its preferred alternatives through this already bustling area.
The city adamantly opposes that plan, saying it would increase vehicle congestion and create a regional chokepoint for light-rail trains. A deep-bore tunnel option is the preferred alternative among city leaders, although moving in that direction would require finding considerable cost savings elsewhere and new funding sources.
Even if the city gets its way, there’s still the issue of construction impacts.
“Those are, to some extent, unavoidable,” Terry said. “For retail types of businesses, it can be fatal.”
Construction of the six underground light rail stations in downtown Seattle prompted many shops there to close.
“Drive-up and drive-by traffic diminished to near zero,” Terry said. “It took years for Third Avenue to repopulate.”
Still, many expect light-rail to ultimately benefit the community despite any negative impacts that come along initially.
The Bellevue Downtown Association has supported light rail in downtown Bellevue for years.
“We need that additional capacity to continue to grow along the lines that we’ve been growing,” said BDA President Leslie Lloyd.