Case Study

Central Bellevue, Washington, USA: a new suburban downtown (1980 to the present)

The City of Bellevue lies 10 miles (15 kilome- A city of 90,000 people, Bellevue is strategi-tres) east of Seattle across Lake Washington. cally located in the centre of a rapidly grow-The cities are linked by two floating bridges. ing region of 380,000 people (in 2000).

In the 1950s, it had a traditional suburban centre of two-and three-storey buildings along its principal streets.

During the 1960s and 1970s Bellevue's central business district (CBD) acquired a standard regional shopping mall and a haphazard sprinkling of six to thirteen storey office buildings generally set back from the streets in a Modernist fashion. By the mid-1970s the area had taken on a design totally oriented to the ease of automobile use. By the 1980s walking in the area had become demanding and unpleasant. The residential areas adjacent to the CBD felt threatened by the increase in automobile traffic and pollution and faced a potential future of being dwarfed and overshadowed by what was perceived to be out-of-scale development. In addition, residents feared that new office buildings would also 'pop-up' in the residential neighbourhoods of the city. On the outskirts of the city in King County of which Bellevue is a part, strip shopping was being developed. It was perceived to be a threat to the economic viability of Bellevue's CBD.

In the mid-1970s there was a proposal to build a super-regional shopping centre in King County outside Bellevue. The proposal was rejected in accordance with Washington State's strong Environmental Policy Act on the grounds that it would lead to environmental degradation. A non-design tool was thus used to reinforce the viability of Bellevue's downtown. At the same time a positive effort was required if the CBD was to be made attractive. The Bellevue City Planning Commission drew up sub-area plans to halt any potential rezoning of residential areas to commercial use. No buildings outside the downtown were allowed to have a Floor Area Ratio (FAR) of more than 0.5 (i.e. the useable floor area of a building could be no more than half the site size). This FAR did not stop development of commercial space but led to campus type development along the highways outside Bellevue. It is a type of development that citizens of the city found acceptable.

From the early 1980s onwards much planning (and development) effort in Bellevue has been focused on the CBD. The professional planners of the Bellevue Planning Commission made a decision to encourage all major developments in Bellevue to locate in the CBD. The goal was to have a vibrant 'even discordant' downtown of mixed-uses -a high-density urban place with pedestrian walkways, a revamped transit (bus) system, and parking as part of buildings. One of the planning objectives was to encourage the use of the transit system. The Bellevue City Council adopted this goal as policy in 1981. A central transfer centre (designed by Zimmer Gunsul Frasca) built at a cost of $US5 million was included in the city centre plan to encourage transit use. The next step was to develop design guidelines for new development based on the desire to make the district pleasant for pedestrians.

A number of steps were taken. Parking requirements for each building were reduced from 5 places per 1000 square feet (about 100 square metres) of development to 3. An incentive zoning scheme was developed whereby buildings were allowed to be taller than specified in the plan in return for ground level amenities. In 1984 the Bellevue City Council adopted a stepped, or wedding-cake, zoning configuration which controlled the height of buildings, the tallest being in the centre to the lowest (single-family homes) on the periphery adjacent to residential neighbourhoods (see Figures 9.4, 9.5 and page 396).

Figure 9.4 The use of the stepped height-bulk zoning ordinance in Bellevue. (a) A typical 'wedding-cake' building height profile and (b) the building height regulation for Bellevue.

Figure 9.4 The use of the stepped height-bulk zoning ordinance in Bellevue. (a) A typical 'wedding-cake' building height profile and (b) the building height regulation for Bellevue.

Figure 9.5 Downtown Bellevue in 1993.

One of the amenities that the planners sought to put in place was a pedestrian corridor running right across the centre of the city. It was felt that mid-block pedestrian ways were needed to give access to it because the blocks were 600 feet (180 metres) long. All new developments in the downtown area are required to provide links to this corridor. The guidelines for these links by type of street were developed collaboratively by a committee consisting of all those people who held property along the corridor and the staff of the City Planning Commission (see Figure 9.6). The guidelines have no legal basis but are advisory and regarded as 'inspirational'. The hope was that piece-by-piece, as the result of individual developers building individual structures, a new CBD would be created along the lines proposed by the City Planning Commission. The details of all proposals for new buildings have to be submitted by their architects for review and the ability to enforce the design guidelines comes from the threat of delaying

1 4A* Rights of Way

a) Rights-of-way designated A' shall have the c highest orientation to pedestrians. This shall be .§ achieved by emphasizing the designer relation-^ ship between the first level of the structure and ^ the horizontal space between the structure and =i the curb line. This relationship should empha-qq size to the greatest extent possible, both the physical and visual access into and from the £ structure, as well as the amenities and features >, of the outside pedestrian space. In order to 0 achieve the intended level of vitality, design 3 diversity, and people activity on an A' right-of-o way, retailing or marketing activities shall be provided for in the design.


1. Street level edges of the entire project limit shall incorporate retail activities.

2. The following characteristics shall be incorporated into the design of the structure:

Windows providing visual access Street walls Multiple entrances Differentiation of ground level Canopies, awnings or arcades

3. The following characteristics should be incorporated into the design of the sidewalk:

Special paving treatment Seating

4. These Guidelines for 'building/sidewalk relationships' are to be used in conjunction with other guidelines adopted by the City. In the event the guidelines conflict with more specific guidelines adopted for Old Bellevue, the Major Pedestrian Corridor, or the Major Public Open Spaces, the more specific guidelines, now or as amended in the future, take precedence.

Figure 9.6 Design objectives and guidelines for central Bellevue streets. (a) The CBD street plan and (b) the guidelines for Street Type A.



approvals for building development. Delays cost developers money.

The guidelines were based on a series of propositions: the elements of the downtown should be part of a system; building frontages should be 'pedestrian-oriented' (see Figure 9.7). This latter objective could be met by having places to sit, by adjacent places being complementary, by having protection from the weather, by having focal/ curiosity points along the way, by having nighttime activity, etc. Twelve sets of guidelines were developed. They were for primary paths and secondary paths, for corridor walls, linear sectors, the continuity of elements, elements of diversity, vegetation, street crossings, the massing of abutting structures, and for the management of the system (Hinshaw, 1983). Such terms are usually undefined in planning studies but in the guidelines for central Bellevue they were given operational definitions.

To enhance the quality ofBellevue's central area, a new park was proposed. The hope was to have it funded by municipal bonds issued by the city. The referendum on the bond issue, which required a super majority (i.e. 60%) to pass, was narrowly defeated. The push to build the park was taken up by a citizens' committee and largely privately funded. It was developed according to a design by Beckley/Meiers, Architects.

What has been the result of all these efforts? The development of central Bellevue is often held up as an exemplar of public/ private partnership in development. Much

commercial development has taken place in Bellevue as a consequence of these efforts. By the mid-1990s there was 10 million square feet of commercial space and over 30,000 jobs in the downtown area. Land prices have escalated resulting in increased tax revenue to the city. A side effect of these successes and the concomitant rise in land prices is that unsubsidized housing in the CBD (a goal of the plan) seems unattainable. The parking restrictions and the prohibition on entrepreneurial parking lots has meant that some potential project developers have invested elsewhere but also that 15% of workers use the transit system and another 13% use car pools. These figures may seem low but for suburban United States they are high.

Major references

Hinshaw, Mark L. (1994). Transforming suburbia: the case study of Belleveue, Washington. In Brenda Case Scheer and Wolfgang Preiser, eds., Design Review: Challenging Urban Aesthetic Control. New York: Chapman and Hall, 111-18.

Miles, Don C. and Mark L. Hinshaw (1987). Bellevue's new approach to pedestrian planning and design. In Anne Vernez Moudon, ed., Public Streets for Public Use. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 221-31.

Punter, John (1999). The city of Bellevue. In Design Guidelines in American Cities: A Review of Design Guidelines and Guidance in Five West Coast Cities. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 57-65.

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