Remake downtown Bellevue the right way

Richard J.

Richard J.

Schonberger

I’d like to offer a citizen’s welcome to newly appointed Bellevue City Council member, Patsy Bonincontri. That welcome is based on just two things I’ve heard about her: she is an architect and was former chair of the Bellevue Planning Commission.

The council could use such people, given the heated competition among developers to load the downtown with ever more high-rise buildings. And to get in and out quickly, before the council and planning department can find their way toward tightening up the present, old, loose building criteria.

Realistically, the remake of downtown is unstoppable. Who would deny the merits of the switch: from the old, low, architecturally-challenged commercial center, all dark and uninhabited by night — to a mix of tall, gleaming offices, apartment and condo buildings, and hotels, all grounded with fine, new, upscale retail establishments, and the city center populated day and night by thousands of live-in citizens?

How it’s done is the issue, and on that the old permit criteria contain a kernel of good sense: The basis for building heights is Bellevue’s dome model covering a defined commercial core: tallest buildings in the center arcing down to lowest at the dome’s edges, generally where residential homes begin. Beyond the dome model, downtown planning criteria include, mainly, awards to developers — in the form of increased building heights—for amenities: architectural pizzazz, pedestrian walkways, and so on.

What is very disturbing to those of us who’ve already moved in (and, later, those who move in and then find out) is minimal consideration for the big three livability factors: sightlines, density, and property value. These were of little import in the old model of a U.S. city’s downtown, because (exceptions being San Francisco and New York) there was scarcely any live-in population.

That model is dead. Downtown condos and apartment buildings are springing up even in smaller cities, such as Bremerton and Port Orchard, Fresno and Bismarck. But we who live downtown rightfully deserve some consideration of viewspace, air, elbow room — and street mobility.

Viewspace? Air? Elbow room? On those issues it is easy to envision a laissez faire, let-the-buyer-beware reaction. If so, there still is no way around the street-mobility matter — a large issue for every entity in the downtown. It is an issue as well for people in the surrounding residential community who rely on downtown commercial access, and for many who are just trying to navigate through and to the highways.

The main commercial property, Bellevue Square, draws heavily from beyond Bellevue, partly for lack of nice shopping elsewhere. That is changing, given Redmond Town Center, Kent Station, renewed Renton, etc. If skyscrapers keep going up cheek by jowl downtown, creating all-day, not just morning and evening gridlock, shoppers will go elsewhere.

What can be done? I’m no architect, or planner. But when I look out my window from a high floor of Bellevue Pacific Tower (at Northeast Second Street and 106th Avenue Northeast), I see some of what looks sensible just to the north and west. Nearly completed is the Avalon-Meydenbauer half block fronting Bellevue Way: lots of apartments atop commercial businesses, including a new Safeway — all just six or seven stories high. The pair of buildings — my high-rise with a mid-rise a long corner away — is relatively inoffensive. The mid-rise brings a lot more people, and their vehicles, onto that half block, but only a fraction of the number if Avalon-Meydenbauer had gone up as two skyscraper living units.

But that cluster — high-rise across from mid-rise — is an exception in the way downtown Bellevue is growing. Rather, what we are seeing much more is tall blotting out tall blotting out tall. That pattern is a blot on downtown Bellevue.

Ms. Bonincontri, I hope your work as new council member will include addressing — soon — these issues of design, livability, practicality, and economics in the city center.

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