In the quest to reduce traffic and create more sustainable communities, rail-centered communities are poised to make a comeback.
All through Bellevue’s Bel-Red corridor, mega developments like the Spring District are concentrating new housing and offices around future light rail stations.
But the idea isn’t new. In fact, it goes back to some of Seattle's oldest suburbs.
In 1917, the Puget Mill Company had a bunch of stump land up near modern-day Lynnwood. The company subdivided the land and sold it to people from Seattle. Immigrants sometimes bought the land sight unseen.
The developers had a sales pitch: Move to Alderwood Manor and get rich as a chicken farmer. The new Interurban trolley allowed Alderwood’s chicken farmers to get their eggs to Seattle.
Those cars full of farmers with money proved a tempting target for robbers.
"The trolley was held up quite often. Just like in the movies," says Betty Lou Gaeng, 87. The trolley line cut through forests where criminals lurked. Road bandits would board in front, where male passengers smoked and gambled.
"And then they'd go through the rest of the car," Gaeng says, shaking everyone down.
In 1933, when Gaeng was growing up in Alderwood Manor, the trolleys had become safer. So safe that her father would let 6-year-old Gaeng ride alone to Seattle.
"The conductor used to pick me up and put me on the trolley. He always kept an eye on me," Gaeng says.
Gaeng didn’t know it at the time, but the Interurban trolley line was on the decline. When Highway 99 opened, people started driving south to Seattle instead. New suburban communities that came after Alderwood Manor were built around highways, not railways. The price we eventually paid for that was congestion.
Now, with congestion at record levels, the region is looking at communities built around rails again. King County’s population could grow by 400,000 new residents by 2040.
This time around, those communities aren’t being built on stump land. They’re being built on parking lots.
On a recent afternoon, Bellevue city planner Paul Inghram stood on the future site of a development known as the Spring District.
"It’s a big site, it’s about 36 acres,” he says. “And pretty much the entire site is paved or has a warehouse standing on it."
The project is worth $2.3 billion. This time, it’s not eggs but high tech that has inspired developers to turn underused land into real-estate gold.
"Right about where we’re standing right here, this will be the light rail tracks coming right through here,” Inghram says. “And then the station will be just right where this old gray concrete warehouse is."
The light rail station won’t open until 2023. But the first residential buildings open next year, says Greg Johnson, president of Wright Runstad & Company, the Spring District's developer.
Johnson says the first phase will have parking garages, just like anywhere else in Bellevue.
Which means people will still be driving to get places.
That's partly why Bellevue developer Kemper Freeman put up a fight over the development. He says Bellevue permitted the project without considering the impact of all those drivers before the light rail infrastructure is built.
But Johnson says the changes will come. “As we build more buildings, as they open in 2017, 18, 19, each one will build a little bit less parking.”
Until the light rail station opens. Then, Johnson hopes to build some buildings with no new parking at all.
You would think Alon Bassok would be totally on board. Bassok teaches classes on sustainable transportation at the University of Washington. (Wright Runstad's Greg Johnson is on the board of the University of Washington’s Runstad Center for Real Estate Studies, where Bassok holds a position.) But Bassok says the Spring District is missing the chance to do something exceptional.
"Everything that they are doing is cutting edge. It’s in line with the most modern thinking in terms of being environmentally friendly, in terms of architecture, in terms of being next to a rail station – all of those things are wonderful. And there’s just this one more piece missing."
And that piece is affordable housing, says Bassok. At least housing affordable for low-income residents, such as the workers who cook and clean for the higher-paid works who will inhabit the district's offices and eco-friendly apartments. The development won’t include anything that working families like that could afford. Instead, the developer will pay into a fund to develop affordable housing outside the Spring District.
"So you’re propagating essentially this area of poor people and an area of rich people," Bassok says.
"As opposed to what would make it more convenient would be to have everybody living in one place and not having to make that commute."
Bassok says when rich and poor people live in the same neighborhood, a community grows stronger.
That’s what happened in Alderwood Manor during the depression.
Betty Lou Gaeng, now a historian and docent at Lynnwood Heritage Park, says she and her brother spent their childhood running around in clothes made from cast-offs and flour sacks. But she says rich people helped poor people. The general store owner let people buy items on credit. The barber accepted goods in barter.
"I can’t remember anyone going hungry," she says. And that's what made it feel like a community for her.
Correction 10/22/2014: An earlier version of the story incorrectly identified the year and name of the lumber company that sold the land.