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September 10, 2009

10.5-acre site a chance to define downtown Bellevue

  • Developer Wasatch wants Washington Square to be an urban, approachable living space.
    Washington Square

    Photo by Michael Gordon/Wasatch
    Wasatch has completed two condo towers in its Washington Square development, and could begin construction on the second phase next year with a new development partner.

    When Wasatch Development first announced the plans for its 10.5-acre superblock in downtown Bellevue, executives envisioned a residential development of five towers housing 900 condominiums and three office towers fronting Northeast Eighth Street.

    Now with two condo towers complete and 51 percent occupied, the Salt Lake City-based company is getting ready to announce new plans for the southwest corner of the site, a plan that includes a new development partner. On the drawing board is 650,000 square feet of office, hotel and retail space.

    Wasatch hopes to seal a deal and announce its new partner around the beginning of 2010, and, subject to city of Bellevue approval, the second phase could begin construction later that year.

    Separate discussions are ongoing that could jump-start a third phase of development, and bring a continuing-care retirement community, or CCRC, development to Washington Square. Several local and national players are interested in building a 270- to 350-unit CCRC on the opposite corner, at the intersection of Northeast 10th Street and 108th Avenue Northeast.

    Gateway to downtown

    Washington Square is unique in downtown Bellevue. The development encompasses a whole superblock, which in Bellevue means that each side of the parcel is the equivalent of three regular city blocks.

    Wasatch is one of only two Bellevue developers to control an entire superblock and create a multi-building site on such a grand scale. Only Kemper Freeman has a similar hand in defining downtown Bellevue.

    Washington Square occupies a prime part of downtown Bellevue: Its southern edge sits on Northeast Eighth, Bellevue’s main drag. It straddles 108th Avenue, the city’s main office tower corridor, and 106th Avenue Northeast, which it shares with Freeman’s Bellevue Place, and soon, a new performing arts center. The northern border is Northeast 10th, which houses new condo and apartment buildings and the library. Wasatch views its superblock as a gateway to the downtown core.

    “We view our site as the transitioning point between all the residential to the north and the employment center of downtown,” said Troy Thompson, president of Wasatch Development.

    “As more and more people live and work downtown, they will be walking to Bellevue Square, the entertainment venues in Lincoln Square and beyond, and to work. We will provide a very pleasant experience enhanced by retail at ground level and green park-like areas.”

    This second-phase development, roughly 650,000 square feet including parking, would run from Northeast Ninth Place south along 106th Avenue to the intersection of Northeast Eighth.

    Although still in the design phase, Wasatch and its new partner plan to erect two towers that would rise out of a podium building. One tower would house office space while the other tower would house a hotel.

    The two towers could be linked by a sky bridge, and retail space will make up the balance of the podium building, Thompson said.

    Wasatch is interviewing potential tenants for the retail portion, including a community market that could offer organic produce, wine, a full deli and room for other hard-good products, he said.

    Continuing care

    Separately, Wasatch is in discussions with additional partners that want to put a continuing-care retirement community at Washington Square. A CCRC typically features independent and assisted-living units, a central health-care facility, a dementia care unit with memory care suites for people with Alzheimer’s, and skilled nursing suites. They also offer amenities such as restaurants, a mini theater and a swimming pool.

    “Having a continuing-care retirement community at Washington Square would be a great addition and brings an older demographic to our site and means we cater to all ages, not just one group,” said Thompson.

    “We learned that many Eastside residents are looking for such a facility, and they tend to be recession-proof developments.”

    A green look

    Although the original site plan is being altered, Wasatch’s goal is to design a well-thought-out, unified, urban living space that encompasses all age groups.

    The intention is to create a greener look than typically found in Bellevue, one that gives the development a less imposing edge. There will be no intimidating concrete streetscapes where cars reign. Site designers are creating pleasant walkways that bring residents through the superblock, with trees, shrubs, a fountain and other greenery to soften a city so far filled with glass towers.

    The less imposing look is evident when you look at the completed phase one of the development encompassing the two condo towers on the northwest corner of the site.

    Townhouses with their own courtyards skirt the base of the 22-story condo towers. A tree-lined, wide walkway separates the two towers and slopes from Northeast 10th to a new circular drive that is part of Northeast Ninth Place and, when developed, to open-air retail space inside the superblock.

    Once other phases are complete, the path will lead pedestrians to Northeast Eighth, into Bellevue’s shopping district along a new yet-to-be named street.

    Adding streets, pathways

    Originally, the city hoped Wasatch would cut the superblock in half from west to east, adding a full street called Northeast Ninth Street, but the grade between 106th and 108th avenues is roughly 25 feet, which would have made the street very short and steep. Instead, Wasatch created Northeast Ninth Place, which currently enters from 106th, and ends in a cul-de-sac after a block.

    The new plan extends Northeast Ninth Place, allowing cars to turn right at the cul-de-sac’s circle and travel south to Northeast Eighth. It also provides a right hand entrance off of busy Northeast Eighth, creating a desirable location for hotel or retail on the corner of Northeast Eighth and 106th Avenue.

    Wasatch deeded a small sliver of the superblock to the city for free, a move that made it possible for the city to widen Northeast Eighth. The widening project was completed in June. The result is a third lane that runs the length of Northeast Eighth between 106th and 108th at the superblock’s southern edge.

    This right-hand turn access into the block from Northeast Eighth could help the project attract a hotel or retail partner seeking high visibility. Cars will be able to make a turn off the busy street without having to be at an intersection, and the slower speed makes it easy for cars to enter and see what the block has to offer, Thompson said.

    The new plan also adds a second street, one that enters from the northern side of the superblock at Northeast 10th and runs south for two blocks before it joins a traffic circle that allows cars to either circle back north to 10th or allows them to exit on the east side of the block onto 108th.

    Pedestrians will be able to walk throughout the superblock along landscaped pathways. They’ll also be able to walk east to west between the two internal streets via a grand outdoor staircase that could include an escalator, elevator or other features that animate the center of the superblock, Thompson said.

    While current zoning allows them to build 250 feet high in the middle of the superblock, Wasatch is considering a smaller signature building, of two to three stories, that ties the center of the block together with the two adjacent streets.

    Keeping the height low allows them to keep the corridor open for views and enhances the superblock, giving it an open feel. The building could house a restaurant, a fitness club or a musical venue similar to Seattle’s Jazz Alley, for instance, and could have retail stores at its base.

    When development does begin, residents and downtown workers will not need to worry about street closures, as Wasatch will not tear up the adjacent streets. The company planned ahead and put all the utilities in during the initial site development several years ago.

    Mike Nielson is chief operating officer and legal council for Washington Square.

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