Is Bellevue the next Williamsburg?
Wait, wait, wait—hear me out. It's true that right now Bellevue feels nothing like the hipster enclaves of New York City. Brooklyn is full of fashionable neighborhoods, and Bellevue is almost the opposite. But that might soon change.
In five years, downtown Seattle and downtown Bellevue will be separated by a 21-minute train ride. There will be stops for the Central District, Mercer Island, and a few other spots in between. When Sound Transit's East Link train opens in 2023, it will make getting into downtown Seattle from Bellevue an easier commute than some of Seattle's trendiest neighborhoods. West Seattle won't get linked to light rail until 2030 and Ballard probably won't see trains until 2035.
It is an engineering marvel that light rail over the floating Interstate 90 bridge is happening at all. The 14-mile, $3.7 billion train line has necessitated some of the most challenging transit construction in the country, if not the world. When the light rail crosses Lake Washington, it will be the world's first floating light rail line, a feat that has received international attention.
And when that first East Link train crosses the world's first floating light rail track and ducks into a tunnel in south Bellevue (a tunnel that's already finished, ahead of schedule), it will be entering a community that is undergoing a massive transformation. Downtown Bellevue's grid is getting denser. Meanwhile, an underused industrial area on Bellevue's east side (roughly the same size as Capitol Hill) is being entirely redesigned with East Link in mind.
The city is building new streets, parks, and bike lanes in the 900-acre neighborhood of Bel-Red. The city estimates the neighborhood will have 5,000 new housing units and 10,000 new jobs. Will trendy cafes, music venues, and breweries follow? It's too soon to know exactly what will happen, but it's safe to assume that more people in Seattle are going to start looking east.
Bellevue is less than five miles from Seattle as the crow flies, but humans aren't good at flying, and neither are trains. For Sound Transit to connect Seattle to the state's fifth largest city, the agency first had to navigate how to cross a big obstacle: the 200-feet-deep Lake Washington.
I-90's floating bridges were the natural place to build the light rail, as they already include two extra lanes that were built specifically for mass transit. There was just one problem: No one has ever put a train on a floating bridge.
The Homer M. Hadley Memorial Bridge, the northern of the two I-90 bridges, floats on top of Lake Washington, twisting and turning with changing lake levels, the wind, and even the weight of vehicular traffic. These fluctuations are negligible to cars and buses, but an inch of movement can be disastrous for a train. How can engineers keep train tracks safely parallel in such a fluid system?
Sound Transit partnered with the University of Washington and other experts to invent a solution. Ultimately, an engineer from England named Andy Foan solved the riddle of how to put a 300-ton train on a floating bridge.
Foan designed 43-foot-long platforms that sit between the bridge's roadway and train tracks in eight different locations. These platforms use a combination of bearings and rails that can move with the bridge while keeping the train tracks stable and parallel at all times. Popular Science magazine called Foan's design one of the 100 greatest innovations of 2017. John Sleavin, Sound Transit's executive technical adviser, told Popular Mechanics that he was amazed by Foan's design when he first saw it.
"Quite honestly, when Andy laid it out, everyone's jaws dropped," Sleavin told the magazine. "It was a little bit of a feeling of, we are not worthy. It was so simple and so obvious."
Recently, I ventured down to a construction site in south Bellevue where the East Link will part ways with I-90 and turn left, crossing over the interstate and head north toward downtown Bellevue. A team was pouring concrete for a light rail bridge while being suspended over moving traffic. Thien Vu, the civil engineer and construction manager for East Link, had just explained what they were doing in midair when I asked him: Did he find this whole process exciting? It sounded a bit odd as we were standing between lanes of roaring traffic, so he laughed.
"Yes, this is the most exciting project I've worked on in my career," Vu then said. "This is very exciting. We are able to cross over a very important freeway without much impact to traffic. To do that is a pretty big deal."
Vu's team is using a special bridge-building technology to lay tracks through the air over the westbound lanes of I-90. The team is literally pouring concrete on top of moving cars. The bridge already has its three massive concrete towers, and now the team is connecting those towers segment by segment. Workers use a mobile form called "the traveler" that allows them to pour concrete into its shape, let it harden, and then extend the traveler farther out to repeat the process. Over the next few months, these segments will materialize in front of drivers' eyes, piece by piece, until the spans are connected and light rail tracks are laid on top.
When East Link opens in 2023, riders will be able to board a train in the International District and get to a new stop at Judkins Park in the Central District (5 minutes), then to Mercer Island (9 minutes), and then pass into a tunnel and through three south Bellevue stops before arriving at downtown Bellevue (20 minutes). By 2024, the line will extend to Redmond (38 minutes), with six more stops in between Bellevue and Redmond.
Connecting these communities with efficient mass transit will have a massive impact on the region. It will connect more than 200,000 existing jobs in the two cities and will create an estimated 49,000 more. It will eliminate 230,000 vehicle miles per day.
And it will reduce average travel times for commuters by an average of 25 minutes. Wasting time commuting costs the entire economy money; it is estimated these reduced commutes will save our local economy $65 million annually. The East Link is also good for the environment, reducing an estimated 22,000 to 29,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases every year. All of these estimates are from the US Department of Transportation.
And Bellevue's train isn't being built in a vacuum. When East Link opens, it will connect to the growing Sound Transit light rail system. In 2023, a rider will be able to go from downtown Bellevue to the newly opened Northgate light rail stop (38 minutes) or to Sea-Tac Airport (54 minutes). A year later, light rail will extend all the way from Lynnwood in the north to Federal Way in the south. That means someone could board a train in downtown Bellevue and get to Lynnwood (51 minutes) or Federal Way (68 minutes) without ever sitting in traffic.
Sound Transit's light rail system will still be small in 2023 compared to most other major American cities, but this recent progress feels extraordinary for people who grew up in the Seattle area—people like Chad Frederick, the principal construction manager for East Link. While I was standing there underneath those concrete columns in south Bellevue, I asked Frederick what it feels like to work on a project with such a big impact.
"It'll change everything out here, being able to go to Capitol Hill and the U-District from Bellevue without a car. I grew up in Seattle, and these are neighborhoods that I used to drive through, but I won't be driving to these places anymore. I think it will change Bellevue in ways they don't even understand yet."
Claudia Balducci has been an elected official on the Eastside for 14 years—and for all 14 of those years, she has been fighting for East Link. She said that when she takes that first train across Lake Washington, she'll be overcome with emotion: "I know when I ride it, I am going to be beside myself. I'm probably going to be very embarrassing, jumping up and down and squealing and stuff."
Since Balducci was first elected to the Bellevue City Council in 2004, she has had to fight against Eastside groups that either didn't want light rail at all or wanted it restricted to the I-405 and SR 520 corridors. These people wanted light rail to stay away from the places where people live. Balducci wanted the opposite.
When Balducci ran for reelection in 2011, she faced off against Patti Mann, a firefighter who campaigned on making sure the light rail ran along the interstate and SR 520 so that the train didn't run "too close to homes," according to the Seattle Times. Balducci not only wanted light rail away from the highways and close to homes, she wanted to literally build entire housing communities around light rail stops.
Balducci and like-minded transit supporters ultimately won the war, but not without losing some battles. Their opponents were backed by the deep pockets of Kemper Freeman, a Bellevue developer who has spent decades warning that light rail would be bad for Bellevue.
The Bel-Red neighborhood might be Balducci's biggest win. Cornered between SR 520 to the north and I-405 to the west, Bel-Red looks like any of the anonymous industrial parks that dot the Puget Sound region, with a collection of beverage distributors, carpet showrooms, and auto-parts stores.
Twenty years ago, the neighborhood was in decline, losing jobs during a nine-year period where the rest of the city saw employment rise by 20 percent, according to planning documents from the City of Bellevue. Major employers were leaving, but light rail was on its way, so the city studied what to do.
City planners recommended dramatically changing the zoning from light industrial to a mix of commercial and residential buildings. At that time, it was assumed that the light rail would leave Bellevue and flow to Redmond along SR 520, the path of least resistance. But the study recommended something different: Put the light rail straight through the Bel-Red area and build an entire new neighborhood around each stop.
"We really got excited about the idea of being able to build a whole new community around light rail stations," Balducci said.
And that's what's currently being built. The City of Bellevue is paving a dozen new streets to create an entirely new street grid in the industrial area centered on its two light rail stops. Rivers in Bel-Red that were surprisingly healthy are now being converted into green spaces, and 14,000 feet of new sidewalks and 21,000 feet of new bike lanes are being created.
The city predicts 5,000 new housing units and 10,000 new jobs will be added to the neighborhood by 2030. To put that into perspective, Capitol Hill added only 1,859 new housing units between 2006 and 2015, a time period many people describe as explosive growth for the hill.
Private partners are getting involved in a separate section of Bel-Red called the Spring District. REI is building its 400,000-square-foot world headquarters here, which will be used by about 1,500 employees, according to the company. And next door to REI is the Global Innovation Exchange, a new University of Washington partnership with the Tsinghua University of Beijing.
Will the redevelopment of Bel-Red be enough to make Bellevue into Seattle's future Brooklyn? I posed this question to Balducci. Is Bellevue about to become a bastion of cheaper housing that artists and creatives will flock to?
Balducci responded with a long pause, like she was searching for a way to shut down my question without sounding rude. "Uh, not exactly. There's not a lot of affordable housing anywhere along this alignment, even today. Some of the Bel-Red housing is a little more affordable. They're not luxury level. But what I expect is going to happen is there's just going to be a lot more back and forth—that there will be people that live in Bellevue that work in South Lake Union and Seattle. And there will be people that live in North Seattle who continue to work in Bellevue and Redmond. I just think it will be more attractive to housing on both sides."
That makes it sound like East Link will be a train full of techies and suburbanites, not a train full of club kids commuting in from the Eastside. With all due respect to Balducci, sometimes spending a lot of time in a place doesn't prepare you well to predict how it will change when something massive comes into town. I'm still pulling for East Link to make Bellevue a bastion of weirdos and warehouse parties.
This story has been updated since it was first published, to reflect Sound Transit's estimate that West Seattle will get light rail in 2030, not 2035.