A library stocked with books and computers perches along 156th Avenue Southeast, near the place where the QFC used to be. Adjacent is an office building where any day now new businesses may find a home. Apartments and duplexes are planned over the coming years.
This is the former Lake Hills Shopping Center, a 60-year-old suburban Bellevue retail hub that declined over the years due to changes in shopping patterns and development rules.
Its rebirth as Lake Hills Village is an example of how communities and developers are trying to bring new life to aging shopping centers that dot many suburbs.
A few Eastside centers have been redeveloped, while others are waiting for a face-lift. What sets Lake Hills Village apart, officials say, is the plan to add housing to the mix.
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Housing “is really a departure for a neighborhood shopping center because it’s so small and nestled right in a residential area,’’ said Dan Stroh, Bellevue planning director.
“There are a lot of larger sites elsewhere where that kind of model might be more common. Mixed retail and housing in the same development is common in downtown Bellevue, but in a little neighborhood center it’s much less common,’’ he said.
Lake Hills renewal
The 6.7-acre Lake Hills Shopping Center opened in 1958 at a time when the suburbs were taking off. Land was cheap, gasoline was inexpensive and disposable income was on the rise.
The center thrived for decades. But an agreement between the community, the city and the developer stymied expansion of the Lake Hills QFC — the original store of what grew into a grocery chain.
When the grocery store couldn’t compete with larger stores in the area, it closed in 2001. Other stores eventually left as well.
Today, nothing is left of the center as it was.
Liebchen Delicatessen, one of the last remaining tenants, moved out in January. It had been at the center 41 years but moved because an agreement with the existing center forbade them from cooking — necessary for the business to grow, said Siobhan Donohue, whose parents own the business.
Lake Hills’ developer Oscar Del Moro, vice president with Cosmos Development, believes a redevelopment can be successful if you “have a captive audience to live, work, shop and enjoy one area.”
The Lake Hills Branch of the King County Library System opened at the site last year, and underground parking is being built. The next few years will bring duplexes and apartments, a grocery and offices that could house anything from medical and dental offices to accountants, Del Moro said. He estimates the cost of the entire development at $80 million.
The “mixed use’’ concept of adding living, working and shopping space side-by-side has long been used in Europe and more recently in urban areas such as downtown Bellevue and Northgate.
The idea is to create neighborhoods with less reliance on cars and provide gathering places for people to linger, as they might have in a town square.
The center eventually will include an outdoor stage for performances, Del Moro said.
Cosmos worked for the past 10 years with the East Bellevue Community Council on the plan.
Steve Kasner, chairman of the community council, enthusiastically backs the project and would like to see other shopping centers in the area redeveloped as well.
At Newport Hills Shopping Center, not far away, a nail salon, dry cleaners and martial-arts studio cling to the edge of a vast parking lot, and there are shadows of the letters R-e-d A-p-p-l-e on the empty building where a grocery once was.
“This is what happens if nobody steps in to do something,’’ Kasner said. “A lot of people have approached us with ideas,’’ about redevelopment, he added. So far there are no plans.
At Bellevue’s Kelsey Creek Center, the city, developer and community joined forces in 2011 to revamp the shopping center, which
had slipped into decline once it lost its anchor, Kmart.
In that case, the big obstacle to redevelopment was a city requirement that any work include daylighting Kelsey Creek, which was running through a culvert.
But after years of negotiation, the city allowed developers to leave the creek covered, in exchange for other modifications to the site, Stroh said.
The center still has a large parking lot, but not quite in the acres-of-asphalt style as in the past, and now native landscaping is part of the design. Now anchored by a Walmart, the center is lively and well used.
So is Crossroads Bellevue to the north, where redevelopment 20 years ago included adding game tables and a floor chess board in the food court, a community meeting room, a performance stage and outdoor space for a farmers market, which draws 5,000 people a week.
“It connects us to the whole community,” said Susan Benton, Crossroads property manager.
Also on the Eastside, the city of Kenmore purchased the aging Kenmore Village center in 2005 and is in the process of finalizing sales of parcels to developers who plan to build 160 apartments, mixing them with offices and shops, said City Manager Rob Karlinsey.
Why aren’t more aging shopping plazas developed into mixed-use centers?
One reason, experts say, is the kind of legal quagmire that prevented expansion of the grocery at Lake Hills.
“The body of laws and codes developed over the last 50 years … really mitigate against good traditional urban design,’’ said James Howard Kunstler, an expert on urban design and author of “The Geography of Nowhere.” “And they are very difficult to overcome.’’
It took Cosmos 10 years working to clear a path for redevelopment of the Lake Hills Shopping Center. The company doesn’t have an exact date for completion of the project but hopes to start building housing units in the next two years.
“We’re in it for the long haul,’’ Del Moro said.
Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or firstname.lastname@example.org