Bellevue City Council moves forward on Eastgate shelter, with major caveat

In a boisterous public meeting Monday night, the Bellevue City Council voted 4-3 to agree on the terms of a joint letter of agreement to work with King County on a permanent men’s homeless shelter.

And no one seemed all that happy about it.

The primary site identified by city staff was a controversial one located in the Eastgate neighborhood of the city on county property, not far from Bellevue College and residential zoning.

Opponents of that site were upset by Monday’s vote, because it still promoted the Eastgate site (actually one of two sites on the 4.8-acre property) as the primary one. Councilmembers Kevin Wallace, Jennifer Robertson and Conrad Lee voted no.

However, proponents of the shelter were frustrated because of a 45-day exploratory period amended to the agreement terms to look at two alternative sites for the shelter. They argued the shelter process was behind schedule and more waiting wouldn’t do anything to change minds on the council. Mayor John Stokes, Deputy Mayor John Chelminiak and Councilmember Lynne Robinson voted yes.

That left the newest councilmember Ernie Simas as the deciding vote. It was due to his doubts that Chelminiak proposed the 45-day period as a compromise, securing the yes vote for “Option 1”.

“At least I know what Anthony Kennedy feels like on the Supreme Court,” Simas said.

The proposed shelter in Eastgate would consist of a 100-bed, low-barrier permanent shelter for homeless men, a day services center and 50 to 60 units of affordable 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.

Bellevue Police Chief Steve Mylett said the department already patrols the area, and he expects the impact of any shelter to be within the capability of the department’s existing resources.

“We’re not seeing a tremendous burden from the winter shelter,” he said before saying the shelter provides a net benefit to the city. “There are benefits to having a facility where people are out of the elements and have resources to get out of homelessness. In my humble opinion, I think yes, when people are in an area with the resources they need to survive, they are less likely to engage in criminal activity in order to survive.”

Progress on this location began in August of 2016. Staff has quoted a price of $19.8 million for the five-story building. More than half of that would be funded through tax credits, five 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.

The other options

The council was presented with three options at the meeting. The first, and approved after the amendment, was to move forward with the agreement with King County. This option would not (and will not) guarantee any action will be taken at the Eastgate site directly. According to Mary Kate Berens, deputy city manager, either party could back out of the agreement if decisions could not be made.

“We have the tools in place to say “time out, this isn’t what we committed to,”” she said.

It confirmed the site as suitable for the shelter and agreed to move forward with the county and city staff to look at that location. How it will do that, secure funding with the county, A Regional Coalition for Housing, Imagine Housing and Congregations for the Homeless while simultaneously looking at the other two sites as also feasible options is anybody’s guess.

The hybrid option accepted at last night’s council meeting is problematic for a number of reasons, the least of which that Option 1 technically needs land use code amendments, city code amendments and the formation of a citizens’ advisory committee for just the Eastgate shelter.

Option 2 was to decline to work further on the letter of agreement with King County, and to look at a different strategy with regional partners.

Option 3 was to suspend the city’s participation in the site. City staff admitted they didn’t know what exactly this option would entail.

The other locations

The other two locations to be looked at during the 45 day exploratory period are in light-industrial areas of the city. Both are farther away from residences and schools, the major points from those opposed to the Eastgate shelter.

The first alternate location, the Bellevue-owned 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 senior city planner Camron Parker, the facility has a larger problem.

“The biggest issue is the plumbing, or lack therof,” he said.

All that could be fixed, true, 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.

The second location, the Sound Transit Operations and Maintenance Facility East, is a large site owned by the transit authority north of Bel-Red and next to the Spring District.

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).

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.

According to the city’s due diligence reports, there are too many unknowns about the site to move forward with it in any meaningful way.

The 45-day period to analyze the sites while also moving forward with Eastgate will seek to answer some of those questions.

The meeting

City Hall was packed with opposing parties regarding the shelter. People dressed in red came from the Eastside’s faith and volunteering community. Many of the 300-plus in attendance wore red and supported fast-tracking the shelter.

Others, donning purple and “Bellevue Resident” buttons (due to an apparent rumor that many of the red-shirted folks came from out of town) were slightly in the minority, but a distinctly more vocal crowd.

Susan Blake, a Newport Hills resident, said she was adamantly in favor of a shelter, but not at the Eastgate location.

“Things weren’t open or public until things were decided, it seems like,” she said. “I’m frustrated that they are pretending crime isn’t going to go up when they showed that thefts, burglaries and car prowls went up 100 percent. And they are going to place it next to a five-story parking garage.”

Others thought the location was an opportunity to show what kind of city Bellevue is.

“I live very near the proposed shelter,” said Michael Brown. “I’m so excited my daughter can grow up in a community which cares.”

Previously homeless residents spoke of the good track record of Congregations for the Homeless. Opponents said the facility had a county stake, making it a place to “import crime, drugs and bad behavior.”

Councilmember Wallace wanted to look into the prospect of maintaining the interim shelter and that the homes in Eastgate were closer than he was comfortable with to the proposed shelter. Councilmember Robertson said there were too many unknowns, and that although the site would make a good transitional housing site, it was not right for a shelter. Councilmember Lee agreed.

“We’re going to pay for it one way or another,” he said. “Let’s do it right, let’s take control. Let’s do it the Bellevue way.”

Councilmember Robinson said people were arguing a false premise. She said mitigation efforts, Congregations for the Homeless and a police presence were enough to create a safe environment.

“I want to get rid of the premise that we cannot site this facility near neighborhoods or schools, basically anywhere near where people in the community currently live, work, or congregate,” she said. “In order to succeed, we need to have viable community uses such asmarket rate housing and offices nearby and adjacent to the shelter, in a safe and clean environment.”

Deputy Mayor Chelminiak said a site like the Eastgate shelter made the entire city safer.

“It’s not about whether it’s a good or bad site, it’s about people saying “not here,”” he said.

Mayor Stokes agreed, saying there was going to be backlash for a similar shelter in any neighborhood.

Imagine Housing, to move forward with the site in a timely manner, needs a primary location to apply for funding by May 30. Funding requests are due in September for county, state and ARCH funding.

Villette Nolon, interim director of Imagine Housing said the council decision was an odd one, but not necessarily a bad one.

“We didn’t expect Option 1a, that was a curveball,” she said.