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Bellevue partnership bridges gap between developers, city

Bellevue partnership bridges gap between developers, city

As Bellevue developers continue to build more residences in anticipation of new office space set to open in 2023, some warn that housing supply still won’t be enough to keep up with demand. To help change that, the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce’s Permitting, Land Use Sustainability and Housing Committee (PLUSH) for over a year has been working with the city of Bellevue to improve the local development process and lower building costs.

“It’s about crowdsourcing the issues that are most relevant to our members both in the development community and the larger business community,” Bellevue Chamber of Commerce CEO Joe Fain said.

Recently, PLUSH and the city have worked to address rollout of 5G, as cellphone carriers had difficulty getting antennas installed.

“We’ve had a year’s worth of meetings, both as an industry work group and working directly with the city to put together a list of issues, prioritize them and then attacking them one at a time,” Fain said. “It’s been a good model. Some folks rightfully want to move faster, but at least we’ve shown some results.”

As PLUSH member and former Bellevue City Councilmember Kevin Wallace of Wallace Properties sees it, the committee’s effectiveness as the voice of developers to the city is “really only possible because unlike Seattle, Bellevue has a city council willing to work with the community on these issues. Bellevue will openly dialogue with developers to understand developer issues. Without that paradigm, I don’t think PLUSH would work.”

Fain said: “I’d characterize the city – both their leadership as well as rank and file officials – as incredibly open and welcoming of the feedback that we provide. Conversely, we’re trying to provide feedback in a way…that is helpful…. It’s really a partnership.”

The committee is chaired by Jessica Clawson, a land-use attorney with McCullough Hill Leary who works with developers as they obtain government approval for their plans, known as an “entitlement process.”

 She told Lens that their work with numerous cities throughout Puget Sound has provided them with a wide perspective on what makes this process work—or not. “We see it over and over and over and identify where there are friction points. Each jurisdiction has their own thing. A lot of it is about the policies of how the city wants to deal with utilities or easements. It’s not necessarily that one’s better than the other.”

While land-use policies are often tailor-made for that city, Clawson said there’s still opportunities for cities to streamline the development process. For example, several building permits that are issued concurrently in Seattle are issued separately in Bellevue, something Clawson hopes to get changed. Additionally, she believes much of the existing code is “superfluous, so hopefully we’ll continue to work with the city simplifying codes. The faster we can get these things (units) to market, the lower the rents will be. There’s no reason it needs to be this complicated.”

“It’s the death of a thousand cuts that happens in Bellevue and other cities, where the permitting process and land uses unnecessarily increase the cost of housing,” Wallace said.

Another recommendation made by PLUSH are pending changes to the city’s multifamily tax exemption, a statewide program that allows developers a 12-year exemption on property taxes paid on housing if a sufficient number of units meet the affordability threshold and other criteria set by the city.

“Very few people were utilizing it because the level of affordable housing was too low for market rate developers to want to do it,” Clawson said. “(It’s) one of the only tools for market rate developers. Hopefully there will be a much more robust affordable housing offering in Bellevue.”

Under the proposed changes, the applicable area would be expanded and the affordability level set at 80 percent of the area median income (AMI) while also offering alternative options for developers that can’t meet certain project size requirements.

“The first multifamily tax exemption was the first swing at the affordable housing issue,” Fain said.

Wallace said that critical to PLUSH’s success is hashing out specific policy changes for the city to consider, rather than overall goals.  “You can’t just say ‘I want housing to be more affordable in my city’. Now we’re working on things like how they can revise their zoning codes in some areas…to stimulate more affordable housing.”

Moving forward, PLUSH envisions greater density near planned mass transit centers and in neighborhoods such as Wilberton.

“Part of any affordable issue has to do with supply and demand,” Clawson said. “There is simply not the supply of housing, not only in our region but also in Bellevue, to accommodate the number of people who have coming for these jobs. We’ve really got to get more people living and working around those transit nodes.”

She added that other Eastside cities “all are doing whatever they can to attract these people, these jobs, this talent. At some point if Bellevue doesn’t allow itself to be open for that, then it’s going to keep moving. I don’t want that to happen to Bellevue.”

The Bellevue City Council will hold a public hearing on the proposed changes to the multifamily tax exemption at its June 28 meeting.

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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