Improving Bellevue’s Grand Connection: Part 1 – Lake Washington and Main Street

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A photo of people sitting a small beach on a sunny day with evergreen trees in the background.
Meydenbauer Bay Park on Lake Washington near Downtown Bellevue. (Photo by author)

Downtown Bellevue is undergoing one of the fastest transformations our region has seen. By 2023, commercial office space is expected to double. This poses a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to shape the urban character of the city.

Bellevue has its roots as a city built around the car, but with forward-looking progressive city leadership it has adopted many urbanist features in recent years. Wide sidewalks, protected bike lanes, transit priority and designated pedestrian corridors are just some of these features. Bellevue’s Grand Connection, described by the City as a 1.5-mile “series of cohesive, connected and memorable spaces and pedestrian-focused experiences through the heart of downtown Bellevue” will advance these urbanist improvements further. The Grand Connection also is posed to reshape land use patterns throughout the corridor.

A map shows the path of the Grand Connection from Lake Washington to the East Trail in central Bellevue.
A map illustrates the Grand Connection. (Credit: City of Bellevue)

I have previously written about the Grand Connection and I am glad that recent developments like Vulcan’s 555 Tower are indeed implementing a pedestrian design that lives up to the highest standards I envisioned. This article is the first in a series presenting an in-depth look at every segment of the Grand Connection with the latest plans spanning public and private development, and crucially, ways to improve them further.

Let’s take a stroll! (Part 2 and Part 3 of the series can be accessed here or at the end of this article.)

Meydenbauer Bay Park to Main Street

On one end of the Grand Connection we start our journey in beautiful Meydenbauer Bay Park on Lake Washington. This park was completed in 2019 and was a dream for the city for decades. They actually acquired very expensive waterfront residential land to make it happen which is an amazing feat.

Current state

For this first leg of our journey, Lake Washington Blvd connects the park with Main Street. It is currently flanked by 70s/80s dingbat-style multifamily residential buildings (meaning open carport on the ground floor) to the east and a steep ridge to the west with no sidewalk there. Both introduce significant discontinuity between the highly activated pedestrian environments of the park and Main Street.

A photo of a wide residential street with a marked pedestrian crossing and an apartment building on the left side.
Lake Washington Boulevard in Bellevue. (Credit: Google Maps)

Suggested improvements

A number of strategies can improve the pedestrian realm here:

  1. Widening the sidewalk on the east side and adding a green buffer where possible.
  2. Creating a sidewalk and bike lane (since it is uphill) on the west side where neither exists.
  3. Furthermore the entire row of buildings on the east side is ripe for redevelopment. Pedestrian realm improvements should be part of the zoning code for new builds. Ideally we would see mixed-use development with ground-floor retail and a larger setback. This can help extend the active pedestrian environment of Main Street towards the park.

Main Street and 100th Ave NE

Moving further east along Lake Washington Blvd we get to the intersection with 100th Avenue NE. This is where Main Street begins. One could consider this the gateway into town. This is also another access point to Meydenbauer Bay Park (via the marina) that feels very much secondary today, but could easily become the most desirable path.

Current state

The current pedestrian environment of the southern approach (south on 100th Avenue NE) presents narrow sidewalks next to suburban style development. It provides no indication or affordance that going down any direction of the intersection would lead to the park, nor does is it a particularly pleasant walk.

A photo of an intersection with traffic lights.
The intersection of Lake Washington Boulevard and Main Street in Bellevue. (Photo by author)

Suggested improvements

The Grand Connection Framework Plan already has a proposal for building a new entrance to Meydenbauer Bay Park here including extending the park itself through the marina.

A graphic showing proposed intersection improvements at 100 Avenue NE and Main Street.
A rendering of proposed intersection changes. (Credit: Bellevue Grand Connection Framework Plan)

This treatment would not just benefit the park but also make the marina more attractive, since right now it faces a bleak grey parking lot. A raised intersection is also proposed here. These are ambitious plans, especially since they require some property acquisition, but are fully justified given the significance of the public space.

Main Street from 100th Ave NE to Bellevue Way

Main street is one of downtown Bellevue’s busiest pedestrian retail corridors – a truly wonderful nexus of activity. Car traffic here is confined to two lanes and average speed appears to be about 10 mph when things get busy.

Current state

One of the positive effects of the pandemic included the repurposing of most street parking spots to outdoor dining.

A photo of an outdoor café with sidewalk terrace divided in two parts. The first is next to the building and the second is next to the street.
Restaurants and cafes have expanded outdoors on Main Street in Bellevue. (Photo by author)

This treatment is temporary, however, and also not consistently applied. This is baffling given that there is no shortage of off-street parking nearby. Many of the large buildings have structured parking directly off Main Street (meaning on the exact same block) — including The Meyden and Venn (even includes a Tesla supercharger). Other buildings also offer complimentary customer parking.

Given this extremely high availability of parking it is surprising that outdoor dining isn’t given some form of more permanent or higher quality treatment. After all, even when parking is available, the two spots in front of a restaurant with 20+ seats obviously don’t make a large dent in their bottom line. I should note that this is an issue where typically a very small but vocal minority of patrons would complain to the restaurant about lacking parking and the restaurant owner would think the issue is much bigger than it actually is. The reality is that in highly walkable areas like this, often times a bigger proportion of patrons arrive by means other than driving. But they also don’t complain about parking and are taken for granted. Either way, it would be better for any restaurant to have outdoor dining than two outdoor parking spots.

Suggested improvements

One of the closest examples of a similar sized city improving a similar street is in Mountain View, California. Their Castro Street is of similar length with a similar retail mix (although also including a section with banks, city hall and a performing arts center) and similar parking situation.

Here is what they have implemented:

  1. Created a “flex zone” from the street-side parking area by raising it slightly and paving it in a special material. The curb is more gradual and allows vehicles to climb it if needed. This zone is very clearly designed to either be pedestrian (outdoor dining) or parking depending on the need.
  2. Trees are planted to dot this flex zone. The space between two trees is long enough to fit a vehicle so that each space can be used as parking if needed. From the pedestrian perspective it also creates great shaded areas plus protection from vehicles going straight through.
A view of a street with expanded cafe area in former parking spaces made permanent with cement planters.
The addition of concrete planter boxes made outdoor dining space permanent in Mountain View California. (Photo by author)

You can see three spots, each separated by a tree in the picture. Two of the spots are used for outdoor dining and are nicely separated from the street with concrete planter boxes. This provides both a safety and aesthetic barrier. The one remaining spot is used as parking.

Main Street and 102nd Avenue SE

The Grand Connection corridors turns north on 102nd Avenue SE towards Downtown Park.

Current state

This street sees almost no traffic, yet has three lanes dedicated to traffic plus two additional partial lanes for parking. This space is not well utilized today. At the same time nearby restaurants struggle to take over every little bit of sidewalk space for seating.

A view of a pedestrian crossing on a commercial street.
(Credit: Google Maps)

Suggested improvements

It would be great if we get widened sidewalks with flex outdoor seating areas long the path here as well. Instead of a configuration of two parking plus three travel lanes, far more people would benefit if the configuration is two wide flex plus two travel lanes.

I’ll pause my analysis here. Part 2 of the series continues exploring the Grand Connection at Bellevue’s Downtown Park.

We hope you loved this article. If so, please consider subscribing or donating. The Urbanist is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit that depends on donations from readers like you.

Anton has been living in the Pacific Northwest since 2005 and in Seattle since 2011. While building technology products during the day, his passion for urban planning and transportation is no less and stems from a childhood of growing up in the urban core of a small European city.

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CE Wood

There has always been a dearth of parking for the handicapped, and now you propose to move any parking even further away. Establishments that want customers, as well as you who want disabled people to have equal access to the wonderful WALKING opportunities, need to provide free valet parking for the large number of residents of Bellevue and nearby cities who are now unable to use anything on Main St.!

Remember, all you TAB (Temporarily Able Bodied) folks are less than a second away from becoming one of us!

Last edited 5 days ago by CE Wood
A Joy

Wider sidewalks do. Outdoor dining does not. Numerous “Safe Streets” like programs have garnered complaints from disability advocates because tables and chairs are so densely packed onto the street that even with a walking stick they are an impassable labyrinth. The outdoor dining advocates care nothing about us disabled people. All they care about is the profit to be made at the public’s expense.

Jack

a

Last edited 6 days ago by Jack
Keith D. Tyler

The increase of pedestrian focus downtown is nice and welcome, but it’s not really meaningful if people are still having to drive to work from half an hour away. The scheduled explosion of office space (which hits different in the Covid era) will be a mess if its not coupled with an explosion of residential space. No good having pedestrian friendliness if everyone but the top tier of folks still has to be a commuter. Which I’ve said from the start.

A Joy

“One of the positive effects of the pandemic included the repurposing of most street parking spots to outdoor dining.”

While I am certainly not pro-car there is nothing positive about taking public land and handing it over to small businesses so that they can profit off of it for free or below cost. Unless a restaurant is paying what the parking fees for 24/7 use would be in the area, they’re stealing our land and not giving anything of value back.

Ryan

That’s a good point. How do restaurants like Purple get their sidewalk spaces? Is it a part of their lease or property? Either way it’d be much better for the sidewalks on old Main Street to be wider as they’re super narrow and made worst wherever restaurants have taken space for outdoor dining (on the sidewalk). Looking at you Bis on Main.

Stephen Fesler

You could say the same for on-street parking spaces, loading spaces, and general purpose car lanes. Taking land and handing to private interests for free, often to make a profit. It’s literally the same thing. Whether or not use of the right-of-way should be paid or not is entirely a policy choice. Perhaps Bellevue should implement tolls for cars to use the street.

A Joy

But on street parking spaces and general car lanes aren’t private interests. They’re public. Public parking. The public’s cars. Loading zones likewise should be for the public to load/unload items quickly and easily for all they’re often taken up by private interests like Uber/Lyft and taxis. I agree that commercial loading zones should require payment, moreso than public parking. But moneyed interests would throw a fit if you proposed forcing freight to pay its fair share like that.

Any time public property is being used by private, for profit companies, a steep payment should be levied. That isn’t happening with outdoor dining. Even in Seattle, where such a fee is now charged, it amounts to less than 30 days of public parking fees at 8 hours a day. For an annual permit. There’s nothing good, fair, or just about that. Restaurants didn’t need a handout to stay open during The Spanish Flu Epidemic. They don’t need one now.

Stephen Fesler

Private trips by the public are private. Of course that’s a private interest. The only public interest is that by public agencies. Your trip to the park or to a restaurant are private trips. You attach a value to it and you profit from it whether financially, emotionally, or otherwise. As I said, this is literally no different than any other use. We just like to pretend it’s somehow different.

gavin

good luck getting this past the family that owns the mall downtown

Sam

Thanks for the post!