An ambitious vision for Bothell’s downtown is finally springing to life after more than a decade of planning and budgeting for a new city-center identity.
And it may be happening at just the right time: Bothell’s population has grown by at least 6.1 percent in the past four years to about 35,500 as high housing costs have driven more people away from urban centers. In the past five years, enrollment has increased 75 percent at the fastest-growing campus in the state, University of Washington, Bothell.
Dirt is already moving for a new, $46 million City Hall that will be built above three floors of free underground parking intended to lure visitors to the remade district, and an official groundbreaking ceremony will be held there Wednesday morning. The energy-efficient building will replace a decaying, soon-to-be demolished City Hall in use since the 1930s, when the town’s population hovered around 800.
“We’re trying to leverage the fact that we need a new City Hall for downtown development,” said Bothell City Manager Bob Stowe. “It’s an office building, town hall, and has public plazas for events that are designed to help the community connect.”
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Later this month, construction is expected to begin just down the street on Bothell Way Northeast for McMenamins’ first Seattle-area hotel resort, at the Anderson School. Both projects are expected to be finished by the end of 2015.
Across the street from the new City Hall site, Six Oaks — one of many large apartment complexes expected to open in the area in the next year or two — will open in October. Altogether, at least 1,100 more units could be added in the section of the city dubbed Bothell Landing.
The city also aims to transform the area near the Sammamish River and Burke-Gilman Trail into an outdoor-recreation magnet that regularly draws even nonresidents into the city.
“Bothell is really well situated for growth — we have great schools, housing is still reasonable, and it’s a fairly accessible commute to the Eastside, Seattle and Everett,” said Mark Lamb, a Bothell City Council member for 10 years. “We’ve had this vision for a long time, and now that vision is finally coming together.”
But not all the funding has come through to complete the city’s downtown makeover. The city this fall will ask residents to pass a $42 million levyaimed at improving public spaces, including many in downtown.
Although there’s plenty of excitement surrounding plans for Bothell Landing, some have been skeptical about the city’s financial priorities as it tries to increase the pace of downtown development.
City Councilmembers Andy Rheaume and Tris Samberg in June voted against the financing strategy for City Hall after their requests to further discuss its feasibility were rejected by five other council members.
Bothell is using a kind of lease-to-own financing under Internal Revenue code 63-20 that does not require a public vote or competitive bidding. The city can set a maximum price for the building and lease it from a nonprofit corporation until it’s paid off. Beforehand, the city is required by state law to perform a market analysis to ensure the new City Hall would not cost more per square foot than similar buildings in the area.
Rheaume and Samberg considered the two-page market-rate analysis they were given the night the City Hall plans were approved inadequate.
“Bothell did not do a thorough rate study,” said Samberg. “We want to make sure elected officials and citizens are aware this could happen in their city and it may not be the greatest deal.”
Stowe and Councilmember Lamb defended the financing strategy, saying that because it sets a maximum project price, the city doesn’t have to worry about cost overruns or change orders that create an adversarial relationship between the city and the developer. In this case, it’s Vulcan.
Stowe said it’s common practice for contractors to win projects with low bids, then ramp up the project cost later through change orders.
Over a 25-year lease period, the city will have a debt service of $78 million, Stowe said. Initially, officials thought the debt service would be $23 million more, but negotiated a lower interest rate.
“We worked very hard to reduce the cost of City Hall,” said Stowe.
Critical as Councilmember Rheaume is about the way some projects like City Hall are being financed and prioritized over others, he thinks the overall downtown transformation is long overdue.
“I was born and raised here and it’s always been a disappointment to compare us to what’s developing in nearby cities — we’ve seen them blossom and Bothell deteriorate,” said Rheaume, who also works a full-time job as a city planner for Redmond. “I would have liked to see investment in downtown prioritized over big projects like the City Hall.”
Stowe and other council members see the City Hall as a keystone project for Bothell Landing — one that will supply the area with enough parking to let new retail flourish and make a statement: Bothell is heading into a new era.