Construction will begin this summer to complete the circle walk at Bellevue’s Downtown Park. But nearby merchants say the elimination of a parking lot will only make parking, already difficult, even worse.
On a recent sunny afternoon, Bellevue’s Downtown Park filled with techies out for a break from their cubicles, East Indian and Japanese grandparents pushing strollers, and joggers moving alongside a cascading waterfall and skittish baby ducks.
With its gravel path, circular walk and tree-lined promenade, Bellevue’s 21-acre park, between Bellevue Square and Old Bellevue, has been compared to New York City’s Central Park and the old-world parks of Europe.
But a plan to complete its original 1984 circle design, including relocating a parking lot, is riling merchants and property owners with a new-world problem — adequate parking downtown.
Bellevue hasn’t gone the route of Seattle and eliminated parking requirements for new construction in its urban center. It hasn’t added pay meters or pricey hourly rates in Old Bellevue — the two-block stretch of Main Street lined with boutique shops and cafes in the historic heart of the city.
But last week, the Bellevue City Council, over the objections of some developers and restaurateurs, voted to go forward with completion of the final quadrant of Downtown Park, despite complaints that a larger park with a larger playground would only compound the existing parking problems in the neighborhood.
“Parking is really, really limited and it’s limited all the time,” said Joe Vilardi, owner of the restaurant Bis On Main, who can fit 30 cars in the lot behind his building. He added free valet parking eight years ago, he said, so his customers wouldn’t have to search for space.
Four new residential buildings with a total of 1,051 units are being built near the Old Bellevue neighborhood, and while they are required to have at least one parking stall per unit, business owners say they’ve lost existing parking to construction and worry about the increased traffic once the buildings are completed.
The city allows anyone to park in the Downtown Park’s lots after 6 p.m., but the lot being eliminated is the one just a block from Main Street. The new expanded parking lot will be on the west side of the park, two blocks away.
“No one’s going to walk,” said Vilardi, “especially at night.” He also blames the city for not requiring parking for businesses smaller than 1,500 square feet in existing buildings.
Bellevue leaders acknowledge that in some cases, city codes have made a bad situation worse.
“We have to own part of the problem,” said Councilmember Jennifer Robertson. “We’ve allowed new businesses to go in without requiring them to have new parking. We haven’t been consistent across the city.”
No one, it seems, is against completing Downtown Park. Plans call for a new grand entryway with a water feature and a plaza on the south side facing Old Bellevue. A new expanded playground for children of all abilities will replace the existing play area. The circular path and canal will no longer dead end at a parking lot.
City officials say that while they are eliminating the parking lot closest to Old Bellevue, the expansion of the existing parking lot on 100th Avenue Northeast will result in a net loss of only five spaces.
In all, the park will have 194 parking spaces, said Patrick Foran, Bellevue parks director. Construction is scheduled to start soon after the Fourth of July, the city’s biggest civic celebration, which fills Downtown Park with as many as 40,000 visitors.
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Carl Vander Hoek, part of a family that has owned property in Old Bellevue for three generations, said he learned about plans to relocate the parking lot last fall, about the same time construction began on the four new residential buildings.
In September, Vander Hoek and the Old Bellevue Merchants Association proposed that a local improvement district be created, in partnership with the city, to build a parking garage in a corner of the park.
In a letter to the City Council, he said the existing parking doesn’t accommodate current needs, much less future growth. The expanded, all-abilities playground at the park is likely to be a regional draw. And he said that at peak times, park visitors who can’t find parking overflow into Old Bellevue and the surrounding neighborhoods of Enetai and Meydenbauer Bay.
“The city has grown since the park was built. Why isn’t the parking at the park growing too?” he said.
City leaders held four meetings between October and January with the Bellevue Downtown Association, the Old Bellevue Merchants Association and the Vander Hoek Corp. to address the problem.
Pam Bissonnette, Bellevue’s deputy city manager, said a May 2014 transportation study completed for the city concluded that existing parking isn’t being used efficiently. The study recommended combining private and public parking, managing them together and providing better signage and marketing so shoppers can find it.
“Better parking management is a lot cheaper than building a new parking structure,” she said.
Other strategies to improve the parking supply might include paid meters to encourage turnover and parking impact fees to fund off-site parking options, according to the study. If parking remains a problem, the study said only then should more expensive solutions such as a parking garage be considered.
But a feasibility study to develop those options, Bissonnette said, would cost up to $80,000. She said the last meeting with the business leaders ended without any recommendation or even a consensus to continue meeting.
And no one in the private sector has stepped forward to share the costs of a feasibility study with the city.
Vander Hoek said he doesn’t think it’s fair to combine public and private parking and manage them as one.
“Tell me what that sounds like if you own a parking lot, pay taxes on it, and now have to share it with anybody who wants to park there?” he asked.
Patrick Bannon, president of the Bellevue Downtown Association, said there’s broad agreement that a number of solutions should be considered. “There’s not agreement on how best to move forward,” he said. “The city has said pretty clearly it will consider a public/private partnership, but on the private side, there has to be a coalition of the willing.”
City Council members say they were unwilling to hold up completion of Downtown Park, 30 years in waiting, in order to solve the parking issue.
“I understand the frustration with parking, but they’re wanting to use the park to solve their Old Bellevue parking problems,” said Councilmember John Stokes. “If we keep adding parking to the park, there wouldn’t be a park. It would all be parking.”
Correction: Information in this article, originally published April 21, 2015, was corrected April 22, 2015. A previous version of this story incorrectly described the parking exemption for businesses smaller than 1,500 square feet as applying to new construction.