As other suburban cities struggle to reinvent their downtowns, Bothell has become a national model for its $150 million revitalization project.
More than 100 years ago, Bothell’s riverfront neighborhood was once the center of community life, until there no longer were logs to transport downriver to Lake Washington sawmills.
That’s about to change.
In the next few years, the river will again be the community center as the city adds three acres, an outdoor cafe, kayak launch, playground, bridge, amphitheater and nearby shops to what’s known as The Park at Bothell Landing.
It’s part of the city’s $150 million revitalization project to reshape the downtown, giving it an urban future where citizens can be less car-dependent and live close to shopping and entertainment venues. It will be paid for with state and federal grants, sales of public land in partnership with developers, and money set aside over the years for capital investments.
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As suburban cities across the country scramble to find ways to attract new businesses while reducing their carbon footprint, Bothell has become a national model for its ability to create a sense of place that’s key to successful redevelopment, urban planners say. And it’s doing so on a grand scale and without raising taxes.
“It’s small-town living with a global reach,” said Bothell City Manager Bob Stowe, who has found himself on a number of panels concerning revitalizing the suburbs.
The project is an example of a trend called New Urbanism, which emphasizes walkable, mixed use, urban centers with smaller, denser housing and common areas that are pleasant and inviting.
In addition to the Bothell project, New Urbanism is the basis for downtown revitalization efforts in such cities as Sammamish and Mountlake Terrace. And in Skagit County, the citizens’ group Envision Skagit 2060 is considering New Urbanism concepts to handle a projected 200 percent population growth in the next 50 years without creating sprawl.
Success in public-private partnership
When Stowe wants to show off the city’s plans, he takes visitors to the red brick, art-deco Anderson School. The school, with its outbuildings and swimming pool, has been sold to McMenamins, known for hotels and brewpubs throughout the Northwest.
The company has agreed to keep the school’s historic character as it turns the property into a 70-room hotel complete with restaurant, pub, live-entertainment venue, spa, community garden and theater. The chain will also run the swimming pool — which now costs Bothell $150,000 a year to operate — and keep the pool open to the public.
David Wallace, a researcher for the International Council of Shopping Centers who spoke recently to city officials from all over the Puget Sound area, said Bothell’s arrangement with McMenamins is an example of a successful public-private partnership.
Not only did it accomplish historic preservation, but it will incorporate green-building practices as well, he said.
While other suburbs struggle to avoid massive cuts during the recession, Bothell’s budget has been balanced without higher property taxes, without layoffs and with new projects designed to create a stronger economy, Stowe said.
The overall revitalization, according to a 2007 economic-assessment study paid for by the city, could bring $650 million in capital investment, and could generate 8,400 temporary and 1,600 permanent positions over 25 years.
The city received numerous state and federal grants for its projects that has allowed it to do things such as purchase 25 acres of downtown land, reselling 18 of them to developers aligned with the revitalization plan.
Existing structure burdens cities
Shannon’s Flowers and Gifts on Main Street Bothell has been in Peg Dowd’s family for 50 years.
In the 1970s, as suburban sprawl widened, merchants watched as their neighbors got into cars and drove elsewhere to shop.
“Finally, the city has come up with ideas to keep (downtown) retail and extend it,” Dowd said.
The redevelopment is “bringing Bothell back to life,” said Chazz Kaskes, who works at Hillcrest Bakery, which his grandparents started.
Changing shopping and living patterns only happens if you create a sense of place with desirable amenities, planners say.
“Baby boomers are pushing this way … they’re returning to their roots and starting over,” Stowe said. “But nobody wants to live in a townhome if there’s no town.”
At the Urban Land Institute (ULI) conference at Bothell’s University of Washington campus a few months ago, author Peter Calthorpe of San Francisco told a group of suburban officials that “like it or not, the globe has an urban future.”
The late 1980s brought a surge of incorporations in the Puget Sound region as citizens grew dissatisfied with the quality of life. They wanted neighborhoods that would give them local control and a sense of place.
Covington, Federal Way and SeaTac, among others, were created after decades of being catchall areas for a hodgepodge of development.
Federal Way, for example, was stuck with a downtown network of long blocks that were not pedestrian-friendly, said Mayor Skip Priest. Turning those numerous blocks into a pedestrian-friendly area requires a significant amount of money.
Covington, too, struggles with its legacy. The challenge is balancing a hospitable environment for some of its big-box stores, that are a large portion of their tax base, with creating the walkable urban village Covington citizens dream of, said community development Director Richard Hart.
Whether it’s Federal Way’s long blocks, Covington’s strip malls or Bothell’s bend in Highway 522, “What’s burdening every city is existing structure,” Calthorpe said.
Where revitalization is concerned, it’s important that local governments provide the leadership and planning, as Bothell has, and start the project moving, Calthorpe said. Only then is private development more likely to follow, he added.
Some 102 developers have expressed interest in being part of Bothell’s revitalization, say city officials.
“We should never underestimate the power of a community’s dream,” Stowe said.
Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or firstname.lastname@example.org