Bellevue Council moves forward with all 3 homeless shelter locations

Instead of using a scalpel, the Bellevue City Council decided to use what some feel was a shotgun approach to deal with the delicate issue of a permanent men’s homeless shelter in the city.

During an April meeting, the council voted 4-3 to move forward with a letter of agreement with King County to look at the shelter in the controversial Eastgate location. This came with a caveat that city staff would analyze two other sites as potential locations for 45 days and bring findings back to council.

At a contentious council meeting on Monday, the council voted 6-1 to move forward with revisions to the Eastgate land-use code amendment and the development agreement. Essentially, the city will look if adding a homeless shelter, services and subsidized housing is legal according to city code, what they would look like and how the city would move forward with such revisions.

The council also voted unanimously on two separate motions to move forward both with the Lincoln Center and Sound Transit Operations and Maintenance Facility East sites, propelling all three potential locations along as sites for the men’s homeless shelter.

But it wasn’t done without some heated words.

“The strict adherence to the rules when we’re trying to find the right answer is frustrating,” said Councilmember Ernie Simas. “I feel like we’re kind of missing the point here. I wish we could have a discussion about what the best solution is.”

The City Council could consider the proposed Eastgate land-use code amendment revisions as early as the June 26 meeting.

The proposed shelter in Eastgate would consist of a 100-bed, low-barrier permanent shelter for homeless men operated by Congregations for the Homeless, a day services center and 50 to 60 units of affordable housing constructed by Imagine Housing. Half of those units would be set aside for those getting out of homelessness or with very low income and the other half would be for a slightly higher income.

King County owns the property, which currently hosts the Eastgate Public Health Center. The primary health and dental services at the health center, the proximity to the Eastgate Park and Ride and King County’s willingness to work on the property were all cited as reasons for that location.

The language of the April motion was somewhat convoluted, leading to some confusion on the council as to what it had meant.

“This feels like gamesmanship, sir,” said Councilmember Jennifer Robertson to Deputy Mayor John Chelminiak over his interpretation of the wording. “It’s a surprise to me. It wasn’t in my mind when we voted on it.”

“It was a decision to move forward,” Mayor John Stokes said. “It was clear there when the council decision was made.”

The wording of the April motion was important, as it stipulated the city would indeed move forward with Eastgate regardless of other action. The City Council can only change a vote on something it has seen in the preceding six months if there are “substantial changes” to the situation. Simas indicated he had seen information that fit that criteria for him during the council’s study session.

The 6-1 vote (with Councilmember Conrad Lee as the sole dissenting vote) on Monday also requested draft code provisions that would apply citywide to better define how shelter uses are permitted, prohibit safe injection sites, prepare options for stronger vehicle parking and camping in public places enforcement, and develop a public education campaign on panhandling.

Lee quoted a newspaper editorial in defending taking a measured approach to the issue.

“We have laws, but the laws are made by us and we can change them,” he said. “This is going to affect all of us. We have good intentions but we need information.”

Councilmember Lynne Robinson took umbrage with Lee’s remarks, saying more navel-gazing would not solve the homeless issue.

“The current data is that we need to take action now,” she said.

Construction on the Eastgate site could potentially begin as soon as 2019.

“I feel like this is premature,” said Councilmember Kevin Wallace. “This is still just a vapor project.”

The council also voted unanimously to engage Sound Transit on its Operations and Maintenance Facility East (OMFE) near the Spring District along 120th Avenue Northeast, one of the alternate locations city staff looked into. Councilmember Kevin Wallace presented the idea of a land swap of some city-owned land in that area with Sound Transit.

It’s plenty spacious enough for a facility, but lacking transit (at least until 2023, when Sound Transit 3 would open a light rail station almost next door).

According to city staff, the biggest problem for the site is that Bellevue does not own large enough parcels to develop the project independently. Sound Transit could transfer the land to the city or the county for the development of affordable housing, as their bond allocation plan stipulates. Construction could not start there (if Sound Transit decides to go along with the plan) until 2020 at the earliest. Senior City Planner Camron Parker said it was difficult to plan on that location when no one was aware what the final boundaries of the parcels of land would be.

“I’ve never seen Sound Transit give anything away,” Robinson said. “There’s no guarantee they’ll even want to work with this project.”

The City Council also voted 7-0 to do a study on work needed at the Lincoln Center (the third site city staff analyzed) in the Wilburton neighborhood.

The Lincoln Center is the site of the interim winter shelter, operated by Congregations for the Homeless. Transit is poor at the location, said Planning Director Dan Stroh. It is close to Overlake Medical Center, but doesn’t have ready access to the primary care many homeless men will need.

Additionally, the facility is well past its shelf life. The roof on the building will need costly replacement in the next few years. According to Parker, the facility has a larger problem.

“The biggest issue is the plumbing, or lack thereof,” the senior planner said.

All that could be fixed, but city staff did point out that the Lincoln Center site will lose a significant portion (between 50 and 70 percent) of its acreage to city projects and light rail projects coming through the area.

Simas bridged the gap between two sides of the council, suggesting the city could work towards a medium-barrier shelter (a shelter that would have some restrictions on which men could stay there) at the Eastgate site and a low-barrier shelter (one that would allow men with active drug and alcohol problems in) at the Sound Transit site.

“As housing prices continue to go up, homelessness is not going to get smaller. It’s going to get bigger,” Simas said. “Eastgate and the OMFE site will cost more but I think it’s money well spent.”

A proposed Eastgate shelter has been estimated to cost near $19.8 million. More than half of that would be funded through tax credits, 5 percent through private funding sources and the remaining through public funding — King County, ARCH, the state of Washington and Imagine Housing would comprise the bulk of that funding.

Mayor Stokes urged the council to take action.

“We can’t be ostriches and stick our heads in the sand,” he said.