This week the Bellevue City Council moved forward with rezoning properties owned by religious organizations to provide more affordable housing. (Credit: Christopher Randels)

Among several other items, Monday’s Bellevue City Council meeting saw an update from King County Council Chair Claudia Balducci on regional issues, a quarterly review of the implementation of the City’s Environmental Stewardship Plan, and a unanimous vote to ratify King County’s Countywide Planning Priorities.

Regional Update leads to Questions about potential Health through Housing site

The city councilmembers were joined early in the evening by their former colleague, who was there to provide her annual update on important regional issues, from housing to transit to homelessness services. Some key points from Balducci:

  • She noted that county-level planning, when evaluating the needs and gaps for jobs and housing, previously did not account for the housing needs at particular area median income (AMI) levels nor for the types of jobs needed and their pay. Since not doing so can lead to mismatches in housing and jobs availability, the County is looking at these factors more explicitly in planning. She also informed councilmembers that the County was in the process of updating its methodology to count homelessness in the region, since Point-in-Time counts conducted thus far likely represent an undercount.
  • RapidRide K, a future frequent transit line connecting Kirkland to Bellevue, got a shoutout from the chair, who stated that she was searching for capital improvements funding in this year’s budget. Perhaps jokingly, she mentioned her goal of keeping the project’s launch “in this decade.” For what it’s worth, King County’s outreach site still mentions a service start date of 2025 (though that’s likely to be pushed back).
  • Recently, King County notified the public that they were in late stages of purchasing the La Quinta Inn in Kirkland for the County’s Health through Housing program. Because the County is still conducting suitability assessments, a formal purchase decision has not yet been reached, but the council chair estimated one would be announced “in the next week or so.”

Followup questions from Bellevue councilmembers mostly revolved around this potential purchase and the use of the site for permanent supportive housing. Deputy Mayor Nieuwenhuis asked for clarification on what criteria were used in selecting the site, as well as what outreach methods would be used after a potential purchase. Chair Balducci shared that in addition to properties willing to sell, the County is looking at spaces with individual rooms with bathrooms, good ventilation, and enough units to be a reasonable purchase with the funds available.

Councilmember Stokes, referencing blatant misinformation that’s been spread in the community, like implying it will be a safe injection site (it’s not) and general fear mongering, asked that the County do more to get ahead of the falsities by disseminating accurate information, to which Chair Balducci noted the FAQs available on both the County and City websites. In response to a question about informing the community of the purchase in advance (which is atypical for a real estate transaction), she noted: “I’ve never seen people be happy, no matter what point on the scale you select [to inform them].” With similar bad-faith and inaccurate arguments emerging against the Kirkland site like the ones thrown against the County’s purchase of the Silver Cloud Inn in Redmond, it seems there might be some truth to that statement.

Environmental Stewardship: Missing the Mark

In 2020, council unanimously approved a five-year update to the city’s Environmental Stewardship Plan. Among other targets related to energy use, drive-alone rates, and waste management, the plan calls for a 50% reduction in Bellevue emissions by 2030 and an 80% reduction by 2050. Widespread community support from organizations like People for Climate Action Bellevue and 350 Eastside pressured the city into increased stakeholder outreach and more frequent progress updates. Last night’s quarterly progress update highlighted municipal accomplishments and previewed work that’s to come in 2022, but significantly focused on electrification infrastructure and tree canopy rather than the fundamental changes to land use and zoning that foster more sustainable communities.

The mayor and deputy mayor used their allotted time to ask about increasing tree canopy and reducing litter, respectively (with the latter noting how litter “hurts Bellevue’s brand as a clean city”). Although not trivial concerns, it’s important to note that neither litter mitigation nor tree canopy preservation serve as methods to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions — the core concern consistently raised by advocates and community members during public outreach. Only Councilmember Zahn seemed concerned with emissions figures, noting her fear that the City was not moving swiftly enough to reduce its emissions by 50% in just eight years’ time.

Advocates have argued that Bellevue’s slow implementation of the ESP can be partly traced to a lack of staff for a city of its size. To this end, Councilmember Zahn suggested an amendment to last year’s mid-biennium budget back in November to support funding additional staff positions. And despite acknowledging environmental stewardship as an important city priority, her conservative colleagues were unwilling to support the temporary use of one-time American Rescue Plan Act funds for the positions, so the talks stalled. Going into 2022, it had seemed there was still a sliver of hope from community advocates that funding could be found in the next few months, since testimony from environmental activists continued throughout the month of January to pressure the city. However, tonight’s meeting and comments from City staff confirmed that such deliberations must wait until the 2023-2024 biennium budget discussions this fall.

Countywide growth targets ratified: Bellevue has a big housing hole to fill

The council’s final study session item involved approving the County’s Planning Policies and Urban Growth Capacity report. As staff illustrated during their presentation, this document is important because it provides guiding principles and targets around which cities organize their comprehensive plan updates. Bellevue’s own Comp Plan update (whose outreach process begins next week) will be heavily influenced by conservative voices on the council – Councilmember Robertson was named by Mayor Robinson as council liaison to the City’s Planning Commission (replacing progressive Councilmember Barksdale), and she will be succeeded at the county’s Growth Management Planning Board by her conservative colleague Deputy Mayor Nieuwenhuis.

Significant attention was granted to Bellevue’s stated growth targets in jobs and housing. As Urbanist writer Ryan DiRaimo has previously explored, Bellevue currently has a significant imbalance between the number of available housing units and jobs. Growth targets of 70,000 jobs and 35,000 housing units by 2044 are modest attempts to reduce this disparity, but still fall short of the investments needed to bring Bellevue’s ratio in line with other nearby cities. Importantly, Bellevue’s current zoning is also significantly unprepared to absorb this growth: staff estimate a nearly 9,000 unit deficit between what the city is able to absorb through current zoning and its stated growth target.

If achieved, current growth targets would leave Bellevue with a 2.25:1 jobs to housing ratio in 2044. (City of Bellevue)

That Bellevue’s current zoning places the city in a significant housing challenge is seemingly a fact not lost on any councilmember. Robertson herself noted: “We’re going to have to get a little more aggressive on our housing stock to make sure we’re zoning really well for that. And I know that we’re up to the task.”

And by unanimously supporting ratification of the County’s plan, councilmembers indirectly expressed support for stated priorities of achieving equity outcomes and reducing historical disparities. However, true implementation of these priorities will likely face challenges from conservative members. Robertson, for example, has run multiple campaigns on a platform of preserving single family zoning in Bellevue’s neighborhoods, concentrating growth in dense neighborhoods, and historically opposed housing options like backyard cottages – policy positions that neither support good health or equity outcomes. And sadly, her opposition to missing middle housing options in all of Bellevue’s neighborhoods is not alone on the council.

Luckily though, this opposition is not universal: both Councilmember Barksdale and Councilmember Stokes joined 40 other municipal and regional elected officials in supporting HB 1782 in advance of its hearing in the House Appropriations Committee. Even after House amendments lessening its scope, HB 1782 would require a significant expansion of fourplex zoning in Bellevue. So long as there are voices supporting missing middle housing on the body, perhaps hope is not yet lost for the City’s upcoming Comp Plan update and the chance to increase housing opportunities that it represents.

Article Author

Chris is a UW Environmental Sciences graduate who moved to Bellevue in 2015. When he's not busy being an urbanist fox on the internet, he's working on the Eastside to support efforts reducing greenhouse gas emissions and going to city council meetings to denounce the hegemony of automobile infrastructure. Follow him on Twitter at @Deutski1.