The Future of Bellevue, Washington Part 1: Becoming a More Livable, Memorable City

This post is first of a two-part series about DCI’s project experience in Bellevue, Washington. Discover the attributes of the Downtown Livability Initiative and what it means for the future of the city’s central business district.

Many current residents, professionals, and frequent visitors of downtown Bellevue, Washington describe the urban core as more community-oriented than decades past. When DCI Engineers started in 1988, the original headquarters was based on the Eastside and downtown Bellevue only had 10,000 residents. Since then, staff witnessed the rapid changes up close and personal. DCI completed about 38 structural projects and 40 civil projects in downtown. Development and construction are expected to continue, particularly for residential buildings.

The Bellevue Department of Community Development estimated 19,000 Bellevue residents will live in the downtown area by 2035. The department formalized a plan to make Bellevue a more livable and memorable city with the Downtown Livability Initiative. The initiative reflected the City of Bellevue’s direction for the future of downtown: a more human-scaled, pedestrian experience. A mayoral/council-approved Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) was formed to update land use codes, assess new developments, encourage pedestrian-friendly spaces, and promote building variety. DCI’s founder Mark D’Amato was selected as a member of this committee (held position for two years) - and joined the Bellevue Downtown Association (BDA). Mark and other A/E/C professionals on the CAC were already familiar with the City of Bellevue’s vision to transform the 1950s-era superblock layout and concrete streetscapes - a design style originally intended for an automobile/commuter experience. They knew the City of Bellevue gave floor area ratio zoning points to project teams that came up with plans to break up Bellevue’s 600-ft by 600-ft superblocks. Modifying the land use code to integrate more interstitial roadways became the next logical step to encourage the practice.

“That gives you more street surface to add interesting spaces and access to your buildings that you wouldn’t have normally,” Mark said. “The intent is to pull some of the traffic off of the main roads to flow into the block so you can add utility access, loading and unloading areas, and other support services associated with residential and office buildings.”

Having 30+ years of experience in Bellevue’s gradual transition comes in handy when supporting clients who have never built in the downtown area. From Mark’s personal experience, that professional insight can promote a smoother design review process for a newly formed project team unfamiliar with the City of Bellevue’s formalities.

“If during the building design process, you note an architectural element that might earn or detract from the FAR goals of the project, you can alert a developer or architect and inform them of alternatives they may not be aware of,” Mark said. “In most land use codes, the intent of the code is not necessarily written in black and white. Understanding the City’s design objectives can help immensely during the ‘design’ negotiations with the City.”

Mark and others on the CAC collected their best development recommendations for the Downtown Livability Initiative. Some of the strategies emphasized include prioritizing pedestrian amenities; promoting variability in building heights to create a distinctive skyline and neighborhood districts; incentivizing open space; and strengthening requirements to integrate pedestrian pathways through superblocks.

“The motive is to make Bellevue look softer – to mute the edges of some of the large glass high-rises in downtown,” Mark said. “One thing the Livability Committee recommended in the code change was to allow for taller buildings with bigger set backs so you could build community base surfaces on the same property and add things like daycare, community centers, and amenities that serve the in-city residents.”

The development of the Washington Square Condominium Towers, Hilton Garden Inn in Bellevue, and the 929 Office Tower on the “Wasatch Superblock” (bound by NE 10th Street, NE 8th Street, 106th Avenue NE, and 108th Avenue NE) presented a design opportunity for DCI’s civil and structural engineering teams (DCI was EOR for all three projects). The long-term plan was to make the block more accessible to above-grade and below-grade parking levels and to easily navigate with a new traffic circle and side street: NE 9th Place.

The public plaza between the Washington Square Condominium Towers routes foot traffic through a corner of the superblock with a pedestrian “gateway.” The plaza’s pathways, pedestrian ramps, and transitioning terraced landscaping lead to retail businesses.

“The idea behind the parceling creates public access,” Mark said. “You - as the public - walk those streets to take shortcuts and you don’t have to go 600 feet to get there.”

The Wasatch Superblock now comprises key characteristics recommended by the Downtown Livability Initiative: pedestrian-friendly sidewalks, community amenities, streetscape variability, and a minor side street to route local traffic. These modifications to the block gradually change Bellevue’s urban district experience.

Tune in for Part II about the future of Bellevue!

About the author

Rose Bechtold

Rose Bechtold, Communications Specialist | Rose comes from a journalism and technical writing background. She is in her element while in research mode and naturally immerses herself in expert knowledge by interviewing staff members about new subjects. In her spare time, Rose practices plein-air sketching of buildings and random scenes around town.

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