Main Street in downtown Bothell, Washington seen Thursday, March 31, 2022. (Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times/TNS)

Main Street in downtown Bothell, Washington seen Thursday, March 31, 2022. (Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times/TNS)

Bothell just built a downtown. A new crop of leaders will tackle what’s next

Few Puget Sound communities have undergone so much change so quickly, and change is never easy.

By Daniel Beekman / The Seattle Times

BOTHELL — In the past decade, Bothell has increased its population by more than 40%, moved its main highway and built a dense new downtown, transforming itself from a rustic suburb into a somewhat-urban destination.

A construction fence blocked one sidewalk of Bothell Way Northeast last month, shielding work on a huge new apartment building. Families strolled down the other sidewalk, past pop-up shops hawking holiday gifts.

“You think you live in a small town,” said Dani Clewell, selling handmade soap inside a market shed. “And then it starts to grow like crazy.”

Few Puget Sound communities have undergone so much change so quickly, and change is never easy. In the city of almost 50,000 that straddles King and Snohomish counties, there have been complaints about parking, traffic and, some years ago, a homebuilder mayor’s potential conflict of interest. There are some residents who miss the quieter Bothell of bygone days.

But the candidates who dominated the local November election and their City Council allies say voters sent a clear message that most want Bothell to continue evolving into a genuine city.

Backed by environmental, real estate and Democratic Party groups, this year’s winning candidates see their victories as contributing to a political trend in multiple suburbs north and east of Seattle, where residents are electing a wave of younger leaders with liberal values and pro-housing dreams.

It’s a trend driven, the winners say, by people who are concerned about housing costs and who want to live in diverse, more walkable communities. Now that they’ve vaulted a new crew of leaders into office, they’re going to want to see results.

“I think voters are responding to candidates who are going for something rather than just trying to stop stuff,” said Carston Curd, 30, whose Nov. 7 election with 59% of the vote will give millennials a majority on the seven-seat Bothell City Council for the first time. “It’s been really encouraging.”

Downtown makeover

The story behind Bothell’s makeover dates to the late 2000s, when a different set of council members adopted an ambitious downtown redevelopment plan and the city began acting as a land dealer, buying and selling key properties in the area that hugs a bend in the Sammamish River.

The vision didn’t take shape overnight and there were bumps along the way, as some residents raised concerns about the pro-business leaders carrying out the plan. Republican Mayor Joshua Freed caused an uproar in 2015 when he and other investors suddenly bought the rights to the back nine holes of the Wayne Golf Course, near downtown, so they could build homes there.

Freed said he went after the land only after the council quietly let the city’s purchase option lapse in 2013, and an ethics investigation cleared him of wrongdoing. But he ultimately succumbed to pressure from neighbors and conservationists, allowing the city to acquire the course to be used as a park. Meanwhile, other puzzle pieces started coming together. More than 1,300 new apartments and town homes sprouted downtown between 2014 and 2020.

The city rechanneled Highway 522, moving it away from Main Street, and a $47 million new City Hall opened in 2015, as did a McMenamins hotel and entertainment complex, built on the campus of a historic school.

The golf course controversy helped a second, set of council members gain control in the late 2010s, and now a third set has arrived, determined to invigorate the entire city with street events, cross-cultural connections, bike lanes and “middle housing” options, like duplexes.

“The whole region is growing, so how do we play our part?” said Councilmember Rami Al-Kabra, 47, who helped organize a local Black Lives Matter march in 2020 and then — encouraged by that experience — ran for office in 2021. “How do we navigate our growth properly, and how do we make it enjoyable to be part of this community and not remain the old Bothell, which was a commuter town where you came home to sleep at night?”

Housing solutions

Downtown hasn’t stopped booming: The apartment building under construction on Bothell Way will have about 370 units, a senior housing complex across Highway 522 will have about 75 and an apartment building at the terminus of Ross Road will have about 90. The University of Washington’s Bothell campus, less than a mile from the downtown core, opened its first student-housing complex in September with 380 beds and will add another 658 beds next year. Some shiny new eateries are popping up, as well.

Current Mayor Mason Thompson, who was elected to the council in 2019 and reelected with 62% support in November, says the next challenge is to spread growth more evenly across Bothell, rather than just downtown, and to at the same time ensure downtown is an exciting and inclusive place.

“Most people really like what’s happened in our downtown … But we’ve seen so much change concentrated in one area,” said Thompson, 44, who backed April’s passage of a state law requiring cities like Bothell to allow at least four housing units per lot near major transit stops and at least two everywhere.

While leaders in some other suburbs opposed the law, arguing for local control, Bothell was working on its own “middle housing” plan long before the Legislature acted and could now venture beyond the state’s requirements. The aim is what Councilmember Amanda Dodd refers to as “gentle” density.

The council is also considering a proposal associated with Bothell United Methodist Church to develop affordable housing and community space on one of downtown’s last vacant, city-owned parcels.

“We can offer more kinds of housing to more families, so people who want to live here don’t have to buy a million-dollar home,” said Dodd, 36, a Bothell-bred millennial who was appointed to a vacant council seat last year and then retained her seat by a wide margin in the November election.

Bothell’s population has climbed to an estimated 48,000 last year, up from 33,500 in 2010, with people of color now accounting for about 33%, up from 20%. The city’s median monthly rent is $2,122, according to Apartment List data, and the median sale price was $940,000 this fall, according to Redfin, making Bothell less expensive than Bellevue but more costly than Seattle.

Another new state law says cities like Bothell, as they update their growth plans, must include housing for people with lower incomes.

Balancing density with livability will be key, said Bryan Engquist, who joined neighbors this year to oppose an apartment complex proposed for a back street just west of downtown. Engquist sees some growth as necessary — and has some misgivings. He hopes the winning council members listen to all constituents, including those who disagree with them.

“I would much rather see development happening here than out in Lake Stevens, where they’re tearing down forests and somebody has to drive an hour in traffic to get to work,” he said. “Let’s just make sure we do things right.”

Public spaces

Dodd wants to improve Bothell’s parks as the city grows — not only downtown, by reviving a plan to revamp Bothell Landing Park, but in outlying neighborhoods, as well, by building new playgrounds. Funding has been hard to come by, amid spending on downtown and the rejection of a so-called parks levy that would have raised taxes mostly to pay for street upgrades.

When adding density, “you should also add recreation space,” including in the Snohomish County part of Bothell that Dodd calls home, she said.

Before getting elected, Curd, Thompson, Dodd and Councilmember Jenne Alderks were all once involved with Bothellites for People-Oriented Places. That group came together 2019 in response to the closure of Country Village, a quirky, decades-old shopping center with little stores clustered around pedestrian pathways and duck ponds, and the idea was to discuss and create new community gathering spots. Although Bo-POP is less active today, Dodd and her colleagues have brought the effort to City Hall, she said.

Case in point: Thompson led the council last year in a vote to extend a COVID-19 policy that banned vehicles from a block of Main Street to promote outdoor dining and strolling, and the city used the space this past summer to help host a series of Friday night events celebrating local music, art and culture.

Another example: Bothell partnered with a nonprofit in 2021 to create a pop-up shop program that incubates small, women-owned businesses in market sheds on Bothell Way Northeast, next to a vacant city-owned lot. This fall, the city conducted a community survey about what to do with the lot until it gets developed, such as more market sheds or an ice-skating rink.

“I can see the change” in Bothell, said Shama Farag, selling books, souvenirs, cookies and falafel at a table by the pop-up shops. “It’s really amazing to see people who look like you, people who don’t look like you, people coming and going.”

Voter mandate?

Not everyone is impressed by the new crop of leaders and their style.

In his unsuccessful race against Curd, council candidate Mark Swanson told voters he would work to save Bothell from “the rush for urbanization” warning that “too many apartments are going up and trees (are) coming down.” Swanson, a retired engineer, raised no money to campaign, whereas Curd, a natural resources planner, collected $12,000, with donations from the Washington Realtors, Master Builders of King and Snohomish Counties, Washington Democrats and Washington Conservation Voters.

Andy Rheaume, who served on the council from 2012 to 2019 and as mayor from 2016 to 2019, said his successors have talked a lot without actually accomplishing much. The block of Main Street closed to vehicles “just sits there” a lot of the time, without anyone using the space, he said about the experiment that’s drawn mixed reviews from business owners.

Although the election “was definitely an endorsement from the community on where they’re headed,” he said, “I don’t know where they’re headed.”

Rheaume also thinks the council is becoming too political, he said, citing a January resolution supporting access to abortion services.

“There are a lot of people in the community who do not share that sentiment and, by the way, the city has no bearing or capability to say whether or not abortion is legal,” the ex-mayor said. “They’ve been very divisive.”

Rheaume recently decided to move to Anacortes to take a new job there, not to escape Bothell politics, he said. On the other hand, he is relishing life in a place that reminds him of how Bothell used to be.

But Thompson, the current mayor, thinks voters “see the direction we’re going and like it,” he said, pointing to steps like a regional agency Bothell has created with nearby cities that sends mental health workers with police to certain 911 calls.

“It’s not about locking things down and saying we’re full and no one else is welcome,” added Alderks, elected in 2021. “The people getting elected are the people championing policies … to create a vibrant community.”

For Alderks, 37, that includes “more buses and opportunities to get around town,” and making sure that students from UW Bothell and Cascadia College (they share a campus) are integrated into the rest of the city.

“We need to adjust to the fact that we can be a college town,” she said. “We have a 35-mile bike lane network that we’ve designed, that we need to fund.”

Even between the ascendant political bloc and Bothell’s other council members, “everybody agrees on 99% of the issues,” Al-Kabra added.

Christian Sinderman, a longtime Seattle political consultant whose company worked on Thompson’s reelection campaign this year, said what’s going on in Bothell is emblematic of something also happening in Eastside cities like Redmond and Kirkland. Voters are rewarding candidates who are progressive on land use and moderate on public safety, Sinderman said.

Building denser housing with an eye toward affordability and with a focus on arts and culture “is very popular,” the political consultant said.

“It’s popular in Seattle. It’s popular in Redmond. It’s popular in Bothell,” Sinderman said. “There’s a generation of leaders really stepping up with urgency.”

The concepts aren’t new, but recent election results do show “a rejection of what we think of as the suburban mindset,” he said. “The population is getting younger and more diverse … and the idea of living in a semi-remote, car-dependent community is valued less and less. People want amenities close by and a higher Walk Score when they go to Zillow.”

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