Newport Hills residents worried about rezone application

Rezone would let developers build residential, retail and service space on a 6.4-acre plot.

Newport Hills Shopping Center is once again under consideration for a land rezone after the city of Bellevue rejected a prior application in 2016.

Toll Brothers has applied on behalf of Rainier Northwest to change the property’s zoning from neighborhood business to neighborhood mixed use. This would let developers build residential, retail and service space on a 6.4-acre plot which currently houses a 60,700-square-foot strip shopping center and parking. The property is currently zoned for up to 88 residential units.

The current neighborhood business zoning means it mostly caters to retail businesses. In its application, Toll Brothers said this has not allowed enough flexibility to develop a “successful and vibrant neighborhood center” with mixed uses, including housing.

Toll Brothers entitlement manager Charles Hare said in an email the existing shopping center was built in the 1960s and that its declining condition is prohibitively expensive to remodel under current code. One-fifth of the center is vacant, he said.

An increase in housing units prompted a reaction from the Newport Hills community during the last rezone attempt when developers sought to turn the site into townhouses and commercial properties. Intracorp, a Seattle-based developer, then asked the city to designate the shopping center as an R-30 zone, allowing the most dense development permitted in Bellevue. While Intracorp said it would only build 23 units per acre, the potential increases to traffic congestion and school enrollment worried neighbors like Victoria Radabaugh, who feels much the same this time around.

“My concerns are more common sense concerns than anything else,” Radabaugh said.

The Newport Hills neighborhood, as its name implies, sits atop a hill with sweeping views of a distant downtown Bellevue. Most of the roads are two-lane and Radabaugh said congestion is already a concern, with rush hour traffic tacking on up to an hour of commute time.

She has concerns about an influx of new residents overloading nearby schools that are already near capacity. Numbers provided by the Bellevue School District show that Tyee Middle School has 1,016 students enrolled and Newport Heights Elementary has 604 students. The capacity for each of the schools are 1,067 and 690, respectively.

Heidi Dean, Newport Hills Community Club President, had similar concerns. She said the shopping center is the heart of the community and didn’t believe claims a redeveloped mixed-use center would provide amenities or a location for local businesses.

In a meeting with the community club, Dean said Toll Brothers representatives stated if they couldn’t find an anchor tenant, the amount of retail could be reduced to 13,000 sq ft and still comply with the mixed-use designation. This would be significantly less than the amount currently offered and mean most of the current businesses would be dislocated.

“If you’re downsizing all of our retail and taking away all of the services that we use here, you’re not actually benefitting the community,” Dean said.

She believes other Bellevue neighborhoods should pay attention to Newport Hills and said if the zoning change is approved, other neighborhoods in the city may see similar developments.

“Bellevue’s neighborhoods need to be paying attention to this because Newport Hills is the proverbial canary in the coal mine,” she said.

These concerns were largely behind resident’s objectives during the last rezone attempt.

Hare said a mixed-use designation could reduce traffic since residents would have access to closer services.

On a recent afternoon, the parking lot at the modest Newport Hills Shopping Center was largely empty.

Karen Low, owner of Newport Hills Mailboxes and Shipping located in the center said she hadn’t heard much from either Rainier Northwest or Toll Brothers. A representative from the development company had visited her but didn’t have much information due to the rezone application’s recent submission to the city.

“We’re just kind of up in the air,” she said.

An apparently lack of communication between Toll Brothers and the Newport Hills community at large was a concern for Dean as well, who said there was yet to be a community-wide meeting. This is supported by a list of meetings Toll Brothers had held which was provided in its rezone application. While many businesses had been approached individually, no general meetings had been held.

While Low said more businesses in the area would be good for the community, she was worried her business wouldn’t be able to stay if the shopping center was redeveloped. Like Dean and Radabaugh, Low would like to see the shopping center revitalized.

Radabaugh echoed this sentiment, saying the shopping center was generally rundown.

“I would love to see it stay exactly as it was zoned, as a neighborhood business area and improved,” she said. “Tearing it down and making it a high-density housing project is an entirely different ball game.”

The shopping center houses businesses that are popular with locals, including Resonate Brewery and Pizzeria and the Mustard Seed Grill. Toll Brothers plans on building new commercial spaces first to let these businesses stay open through development.

Stod’s Baseball and Equipment Sales, which has batting cages, is also in Newport Hills Shopping Center.

The application was reviewed during an introductory study session at a March 14 Bellevue Planning Commission meeting as part of a Comprehensive Plan update. The commission will conduct study sessions and hold public hearings on proposed amendments in June.