Embedded in Bellevue’s Coal Creek wilderness area are a handful of parcels that have been developed or zoned for single-family homes. In 2016 and 2017, the two largest parcels were purchased. Their developer seeks to build 35 new single-family homes on six of the 12.3 acres. After learning about plans to redevelop the two parcels, Save Coal Creek was formed by Issaquah Alps Trails Club in 2016 to convince the City of Bellevue to preserve the parcels as park land.
When I first heard about this initiative, I was reminded of the countless NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) plots to shroud anti-development with plausibly sensible motives. However, my opinion shifted as my research began. Isola Homes, the developer, wants to build 35 single-family homes in the middle of Coal Creek. While it does increase housing stock, these homes would be at the southern border of Bellevue, far from the City’s services and employment core. The developer would basically create 35 new car-dependent households. Unique and valuable animal habitat would be sacrificed and Coal Creek and Cougar Mountain would see more impact at their meeting. This movement isn’t opposition to urban vibrancy, but instead a containment of and rare opportunity to shrink damaging suburban sprawl.
Accusations of NIMBYism fall flat in light of the site’s context. Notice how close the parcels are to Coal Creek, the near enclosure of the parcels by green space, and the wetlands and streams running through the parcels. The city doesn’t need more single-family homes in transit deserts and irreplaceable green space, housing supply should be added with multifamily development closer to the city’s economic and transportation amenities. The site is further complicated by its history and critical nature, which make the dramatic development of the site potentially unsafe and damaging.
Preserving Coal Creek
The coal under Newcastle and what’s now Bellevue formed 35 million to 40 million years ago after a changing climate covered swamp with layers of mud and sand. Compressed plant matter (coal) would eventually be pushed to the surface with the uplift of Cougar Mountain that began 30 million years ago. Later, glacier retreat from the last ice age 16,000 to 16,900 years ago would reveal the steep hills of now Newcastle. This topography would allow coal deposits to emerge with local creeks cutting through the thin layer of soil hiding the resource.
On January 9, 1864, Philip Lewis and Josiah Settle found coal along the banks of a creek by what is now Red Town Trailhead on Cougar Mountain. Over a century of mining, many mining companies and modes of transportation would carve their way through and to the mines under present day Cougar Mountain, Coal Creek Natural Area, and The Golf Club at Newcastle. From 1864 to 1963, nearly 11 million tons of coal would be produced and fuel the growth of Seattle, its port, the wider region, and where else the fossil was destined.