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Businesses urge increased residential construction to ease Bellevue’s growing pains

Businesses urge increased residential construction to ease Bellevue’s growing pains

The city of Bellevue is expected to add tens of thousands of new jobs by 2023, along with the planned construction of large office space buildings in the years ahead. Although new housing units are also being built to accommodate newcomers, experts say it’s not enough to keep up with demand coming workers and new residents leaving Seattle and other states for Bellevue’s attractive community and amenities.

“I think it’s going to get worse,” Vulcan Residential Development Director Brandon Morgan said at a June 8 Eastside Real Estate Symposium hosted by the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce. “There’s a lot of work to do still in Eastside jurisdictions to get ready for the growth that we’re already starting to experience. We need to be prepared to keep up with our housing production. Right now, it’s off to a bad start. We cannot build housing fast enough.”

“The growth is happening so fast,” Microsoft Philanthropies Senior Director Jane Broom said. “We have a once in a lifetime opportunity to make sure housing is incorporated as we build.”

The increased housing demand is heavily connected to ongoing economic growth. Despite the shift toward remote work during last year’s lockdown in response to COVID-19, city officials have continued to emphasize the Eastside’s long-term transportation infrastructure needs to accommodate added vehicles on the road.

Kidder Mathews Executive Vice President Gary Guenther noted at the symposium that downtown Bellevue’s office space is expected to increase dramatically. Currently there is 5.9 million square feet of office space under construction, with another 9.1 million square feet planned.

“Bellevue and the Eastside are growing up,” McCullough Hill Leary partner Jack McCullough said. “Not just from a transition from suburban cities and bedroom communities into urban centers, but actually growing up vertically.”

Among the buildings under construction is the 555 Tower, which when finished in 2023 will be 42 stories high and will offer almost 1 million square feet of office space. The Onni Bellevue building currently in the planning phase will consist of three towers between 45-52 stories; the towers will offer 850,000 square feet of office space, 1049 residential units, and 257 hotel suites. 

“We’ve heard about the death of office buildings, the demise of downtowns and density, and that maybe true for certain parts of the country,” Guenther said. “But, I think in Bellevue and on the Eastside, we’re in a much better position to realize long-term growth.”

Much of that growth is due to a large influx of people relocating from other states, particularly California.

“Probably 50 percent of relocation is all California,” Compass broker Moya Skillman said. “(We’ve) always had a strong influx (from there), but it seems like its quadrupled since COVID. A lot of it is high-tech driven.”

Also driving growth in Bellevue is Amazon, which has leased 6.3 million square feet of office space in nine downtown Bellevue buildings to house 30,000 workers. Bellevue is already the headquarters for Amazon’s worldwide operations group. Guenther noted that right now Amazon’s growth in Bellevue is greater than in Crystal City, Virginia – home of Amazon’s HQ2.

“Is there more Amazon to come?” Guenther said. “If I were to bet, I’d say yes. It’s no secret that its relationship with the Seattle City Council is frayed. As long as Bellevue can continue to keep doing what they’re doing, keeping the open for business sign out…we’re going to continue to see more demand coming to us.”

To meet the new housing demand, Morgan said Eastside cities need to look at local policies that “can allow us to loosen up the strings a little bit and get more housing. A lot of these zoning provisions are legacies of an old sort of NIMBY-ist past when it was trying to create better transitions with single family zoning or concerns about bulk and scale.”

He added: “We’re not going to build our way out of the housing crisis by just building high-rises. It’s not a very affordable price point for most. The best thing we can do is maximize what we could build…to the maximum extent possible.”

TJ Martinell is a native Washingtonian and award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Bellevue, he’s been involved in the news industry since working at his high school newspaper.

His investigative reporting for various community newspapers in the Puget Sound region has been recognized by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society for Professional Journalists.

A graduate of Eastern Washington University, he has a B.A. in journalism and was the news editor of EWU’s student university newspaper.

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