A group of about 100 small businesses, sandwiched into a Bellevue shopping area between Highway 520 and Northeast 20th Street, couldn’t wait to see the neighborhoods a few blocks to the south and west develop in time for light rail’s Eastside debut in 2023.
For almost a decade, the city has been forming and rolling out plans to transform the 900-acre Bel-Red Corridor from a mostly worn, industrial area into a bustling, public transit-centered neighborhood packed with apartment buildings, offices, retail spaces and hotels. Together, the city, developers and business owners are aiming to attract the Seattle metro area’s youngest and brightest to a new, progressive place to live and work.
“We planned for light rail coming here and I was told, ‘Sit right here: It’s going to be a gold mine,’ ” said Shaun Afshari, who opened his Persian-influenced Persepolis Specialties Cafe there five years ago.
But a potentially divisive reality set in this spring when it dawned on Afshari that his business, and as many as 100 others, may not get to be part of the urban gold rush without a fight for survival.
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Sound Transit, the same entity expected to pump new life into the Bel-Red Corridor with a light-rail station, says it needs as much as 25 acres for a train-maintenance yard. Although a Lynnwood location is possible, two of the sites the agency is considering are in Bellevue: One would displace Afshari and his fellow business owners. The other would eliminate a prime spot to build apartments near a light-rail station — a spot where new residents could live car-free.
In order to survive, the businesses — an eclectic crowd that includes wig makers, manicurists, pizza bakers, guitar repairmen and an Acura dealership — could end up fighting against the interests of the heavyweight developers, who don’t want a rail yard dampening their plans.
Wright Runstad and Shorenstein have already committed to invest $2.3 billion next to the future 120th Avenue Northeast light-rail station, through the 36-acre Spring District project they broke ground for last year. Though the rail yard wouldn’t be on their property, the companies say a sprawling maintenance facility so close to a light-rail station goes against the vision for a densely developed area.
The obstacles involved in putting the rail yard in Lynnwood have Bellevue officials and businesses worried that the project is headed to their city. The Lynnwood site would cost $3 million more a year to operate, Sound Transit has said, could trigger a court battle with the site’s owner, the Edmonds School District, and reduce train frequency.
The Sound Transit board’s capital committee is expected to make a recommendation to the board July 10. The full board will vote on a preferred site July 24.
The city of Bellevue has been adamant that it doesn’t want a maintenance facility in either place.
“The Bel-Red site alternatives may look like a one-time savings to Sound Transit, but it undermines the value of building light rail in the first place,” reads a stern, five-page letter the city submitted to Sound Transit last Monday.
“Our hope is that we can continue to work together to see Eastside light rail through to the finish line, and that the [facility] will not become a severe obstacle working against that end.”
Wherever the facility does go, Sound Transit engineers say it needs to be next to the light-rail track, rectangular in shape and 20 to 25 acres — and the sites now being considered meet those criteria. Saving money on capital costs and overall system operations is a goal as well.
Geared up for a fight
Andrea Duffield knew she’d finally ended a years-long search for the right space to move her MOSAIC Children’s Therapy Clinic when she checked out Plaza 520 in Bellevue.
In the Bel-Red Corridor at Northeast 20th Street and 130th Avenue Northeast, the relatively affordable suite had plenty of parking for parents to come drop off their kids. It was near Highway 520 and had 9,000 square feet inside with room to grow. So, last year, after investing more than $250,000 into customizing the clinic with padded floors, extra rooms and wall-mounted gym equipment, Duffield opened a larger, more comprehensive therapy center there.
“We currently can’t keep up with the demand for services,” said Duffield, who has already taken on an additional 1,800 square feet with high hopes for expanding more in the future.
Now, instead of focusing on growth, Duffield is throwing all the energy she can into joining the No Rail Yard on SR 520 group she and other business owners formed last month.
They’ve held rallies in front of Plaza 520, built a website and distributed as many yard signs as they can.
Carrie Hakola, a Woodinville mother who brings her twin 5-year-olds to MOSAIC for multiple therapies several times a week, is cheering the group on.
“This is like a second home to us,” said Hakola, who says her kids have made rapid progress in the last year. “This place is important to a lot of people, not just us.”
Afshari, who opened up his first business at age 21 not far from MOSAIC, won’t be joining the group, though. He’s pessimistic, saying he’s confident Sound Transit will choose to displace the businesses in his area.
“It’s more worth it for Bellevue to focus on urban growth,” said Afshari. “We know what’s going to happen — we’re already on a sinking ship here.”
He said it hurts to say that, especially because he just signed a five-year lease and invested $20,000 in a new kitchen ventilation system.
Although Sound Transit would help tenants with relocation expenses, it’s not clear how much of those expenses would be covered for each business. Afshari says he can’t afford to wait and find out.
He plans on moving out as soon as possible so he can plan for the long-term. Because of his budget and the increasingly pricey Bellevue real-estate market, he said he’ll likely relocate to Redmond or Bothell.
Threat to grand vision
Wright Runstad and Shorenstein Properties hope their investment in The Spring District is a catalyst for other companies to develop land near the light-rail station, an area the city rezoned for high-density use. But the companies are worried a giant rail yard could turn some of the excitement about investing in the area sour.
Sound Transit already owns most of the potential site’s land, a former BNSF rail yard.
The Spring District’s 16 blocks are expected to be complete by 2028. Of the 5.3 million square feet planned, 3.7 million would be for office space, 1.2 million for residential, 158,000 for retail and 199,000 for hotels.
Another developer could do something similar on the BNSF site and make it possible for more people to live without cars, or at least without using them as much, said Wright Runstad President Greg Johnson.
“More riders means less cars on the road and it becomes this virtuous cycle,” Johnson said.
Development on the site itself could bring the city more than $6 million in tax revenue a year, according to the city of Bellevue.
Bellevue Mayor Claudia Balducci, who sits on the Sound Transit board, said she had not decided which of the Bellevue or Lynnwood sites she would recommend.
But as far as plans for Bellevue go, she said she knows which site would impact the Bel-Red Corridor’s transformation most.
“The BNSF site would be the most damaging to our future plans and what we envisioned that whole corridor to be,” Balducci said. “It’s displacing smart growth that we’re trying to encourage and it’s sending a signal to the marketplace that we’re not serious about transforming this corridor.”
The other 17 Sound Transit board members did not return comment on which site they might select next month. Until then, Balducci said she and other City Council members will continue pressing Sound Transit to not build the facility in their city.
“It’s just ironic that the train system itself would damage the kind of development it was meant to support.”
Alexa Vaughn: 206-464-2515 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @AlexaVaughn.