BELLEVUE — The downtown parking garage kitty-corner from City Hall doesn’t look particularly notable, with its beige exterior and blue “public parking” sign.
But this four-level structure, where Northeast Sixth Street meets 110th Avenue Northeast, sits as a symbol of both Bellevue’s tradition of easy driving and an ongoing building boom that is forcing the city to rethink how people get around.
In the coming years, the garage is expected to be demolished to make room for Amazon’s tallest building yet, a 43-story tower that, along with other corporate expansions, will bring thousands of new workers downtown. Other developers propose more towers for apartments, offices and hotel rooms nearby.
City staff anticipate a net gain of roughly 18,000 downtown jobs by 2025, as Amazon, Microsoft, Google and others grow their Eastside workforces. The new hires would join more than 52,000 people now working in the city core, and boost employment higher than current numbers in Seattle’s busy South Lake Union.
In this city built for the automobile, traffic already stacks up during afternoon commutes, and Interstate 405 slows to a crawl.
“I don’t know how you could stick more cars in here,” said Chris Hawkins, of Tukwila, while installing holiday music speakers recently over a downtown Bellevue sidewalk. He opts to drive 45 minutes on Interstate 405 and park for free, rather than hop two buses that would take twice that long.
The city is planning for trains, buses, bicycles, walking, vanpools and maybe even autonomous vehicles to keep people moving.
Bellevue aims to cut the share of downtown commuters who drive alone to work to about one-third by 2035, a reversal of today’s pattern where more than two-thirds drive alone. In Seattle, the current downtown drive-alone rate is 25%, says Commute Seattle, a nonprofit funded by business and transportation agencies.
“Bellevue is very car-centric. You can’t really change that,” Bellevue Mayor John Chelminiak said, “but what you can do is figure out a way for people using other modes to be able to safely transit the city.”
Cars were king
Bellevue incorporated in 1953, during the heyday era for cars.
Back then, planners designed wide six-lane arterials meant to move vehicles fast. The road grid creates 600-foot-wide superblocks on former farmland.
Even now, limited street parking — about 350 spaces — is free. And the real-estate development firm Kemper Development Company provides free parking for Bellevue Square and Lincoln Square customers, while previously opposing light rail. (Kemper Development Company helps fund Seattle Times Traffic Lab.)
Bellevue even wrote minimum requirements for vehicle flow into city code. If drivers are already delayed by more than one minute at an intersection, new development can’t delay traffic further. Builders must then reduce their project’s size, postpone the opening date or contribute money to transportation improvements.
Also unlike Seattle, Bellevue and several other suburbs impose impact fees on developments to help fund transportation projects.
In past years, the Bellevue City Council voted to create a safer walking network by converting Sixth Street to a 60-foot-wide, tree-lined walking corridor and shortening a street to complete its circular Downtown Park.
Instead of narrowing six- and seven-lane streets with so-called road diets, Bellevue’s approach to reducing car-pedestrian conflicts relies on skybridges around Bellevue Square, and altering some traffic signals to give walkers a head start at intersections. Smaller streets include walker-activated amber flashers.
Large employers and city officials are counting on the $3.7 billion Sound Transit East Link light-rail line — projected to serve 50,000 daily passengers when it opens in 2023 — to handle many of the new commutes.
New bike lanes on 108th Avenue Northeast serve a trickle of riders for now. More bike lanes are planned on Main Street. Just east of I-405, the 42 miles of abandoned BNSF railroad tracks are being redeveloped for bicycle riders and pedestrians as Eastrail, spanning from Snohomish to Renton.
The Grand Connection, a sprawling vision for a 1.5-mile east-west pathway prioritized for pedestrians, could include a lid over Interstate 405.
Remaking a car-dominated landscape doesn’t happen overnight, local leaders acknowledge.
“Is light rail going to take everything? The answer to that has to be no. Light rail provides another option for people to use,” said Ron Kessack, assistant director of the transportation department in Bellevue.
Chelminiak believes that with light rail and a renewed push for vanpooling, the city “can move the ball in that direction” in reducing drive-alone commutes.
Trisha Nerney, who has lived in the Bellevue area since 1963, is less optimistic.
“It’s a little town. It wasn’t made for this kind of density,” she said. “I feel like it’s going to be crammed full of people.”
Widened streets, adaptive signals
Bellevue isn’t sacrificing automobile movement, though.
With aid from a $100 million federal loan, the city has created or widened 11 streets between Wilburton and the Spring District east of I-405 where REI’s headquarters, Facebook and other companies are locating.
That follows citywide spending of $5.5 million to equip 197 intersections with adaptive signals that continually re-time to move clusters of approaching vehicles.
And that 43-story Amazon tower? Its permit paperwork shows 1,175 underground parking stalls, or nearly double the 632 spaces in the garage it would replace. (Amazon declined to comment for this story.)
“We’re not afraid to have road capacity in areas that need road capacity,” Chelminiak said.
On I-405, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) will build an express toll lane each direction between Renton and Bellevue, to open in 2024, along with exit-only lanes to clear departing drivers off the mainline.
The existing carpool lanes will be converted to a second toll lane each way. Sound Transit will follow with new bus-rapid transit and park-and-ride lots.
The freeway serves 400,000 vehicles a day at Bellevue, nearly double 1990 volumes.
Vic Bishop, chairman emeritus of the pro-motoring Eastside Transportation Association, insists WSDOT go further and build out its 2002 master plan for I-405 that depicts two more general-purpose lanes each way — “to provide a more permanent fix to the freeway’s notorious gridlock.”
Bishop has compiled a $13.6 billion wish list of upgrades from Lynnwood to Tukwila, including additional Bellevue ramps to I-405 and Highway 520, based on ideas suggested by local and state governments to the Puget Sound Regional Council.
A grander connection
Bellevue’s political leaders look east toward Wilburton, where former strip malls and car-sales lots provide opportunity to expand downtown. But adding one-mile drives and ride-hailing trips from there to downtown would create more congestion.
So they’re considering a pedestrian and cyclist bridge or park lid above I-405, just south of the nearly completed Sound Transit rail bridge. Design concepts show amphitheater steps, sculptures and a row of ginkgo trees.
It’s the most audacious piece of the Grand Connection that would stretch between Meydenbauer Bay Park on the west, through Main Street and downtown, and across the freeway to Eastrail.
There’s no funding yet. Costs vary based on whether Bellevue builds a full park like Mercer Island has over I-90, or a thin bridge, for around $130 million.
Bellevue’s vision resembles the Atlanta BeltLine and the New York High Line, said Emil King, assistant planning director for community development in Bellevue. Unlike the longer Burke-Gilman Trail in Seattle, the Grand Connection would encourage people to linger at cafes and parks. As a traffic-free shortcut, it would reduce the need to drive and park at downtown spots.
“The success of the Grand Connection is contingent upon better regional connectivity,” said Claire Martini, East King County manager for Cascade Bicycle Club. “It’s unlikely that anyone’s full commute is on the Grand Connection.”
Eric Tang, who lives east of I-405, said a footbridge could help him avoid walking the vast I-405/Northeast Eighth Street interchange, where turning cars zip by and sometimes Tang must run to cross the street.
“It’s not safe,” he said. “Essentially, the pedestrians have no way to get across the freeway. It would be nice to have a better walkway.”
Private transit fills a void
Bellevue’s growth spurt won’t necessarily translate into massive public-transit ridership, at least in the short term. Private transit is adapting faster.
About 50 commuters lined up on the sidewalk one recent morning to catch the private Amazon Ride shuttle between Bellevue and South Lake Union, which lacks an express public bus. Amazon’s contractor, MV Transportation, runs buses and minibuses through a vacated Sound Transit bus stop along 106th Avenue Northeast.
Morning trips to Seattle were only 25 minutes but increased lately from Highway 520 construction that shortened the carpool lane, said Aditya Rajuladevi while waiting recently for an Amazon bus. While he expects Amazon to keep adding private buses, Rajuladevi thinks he’ll switch to light rail in 2023.
“When you have more possibilities, you are more flexible,” he said.
Bellevue hired an innovation director, local technology advocate Steve Marshall, to develop projects for automated, connected, electric and shared vehicles. He’s focused on two concepts: self-driving cars to round up carpoolers from their homes and driverless vans circulating downtown.
Long before self-driving cars become safe, shuttle vans could “learn” the territory in Bellevue’s downtown street grid — for instance, a fixed route from the transit center to Downtown Park, Bellevue Square and Bellevue Public Library.
Meanwhile, statewide traffic continues to grow, as does Eastside commuting.
Bellevue may find itself in the same boat as Seattle, where despite big gains in walking, bicycling and transit, the economy grows at such a blistering pace that traffic congestion increases, too.