Part 1: Introduction
Edmonds is best known for its quaint downtown with historic buildings and waterfront views, complete with stunning sunsets. But there’s another Edmonds on the horizon that includes taller buildings, affordable housing and transit-oriented development.
That other Edmonds is the city’s stretch along Highway 99, a two-and-a-quarter mile piece of state highway that runs north from the King-Snohomish County line to the Edmonds/Lynnwood border. It’s an area best known for car dealerships, cheap motels and criminal activity, and – more recently – for the modest but bustling International District of shops and restaurants.
In August 2017, the Edmonds City Council unanimously approved land-use planning and zoning changes for Highway 99 and nearby neighborhoods aimed at fostering a range of economic development, including housing and transportation improvements. The development is welcomed by many who say the area has been long ignored by city government.
“We’re the forgotten stepchild,” said resident Robert Elder, who for 10 years has managed a multifamily property just off Highway 99. It’s ironic, he added, that the highway’s car dealerships provide the bulk/a large chunk of the city’s tax revenue, yet those living and working in Highway 99 neighborhoods don’t see city amenities like flower baskets and uniform sidewalks enjoyed by downtown Edmonds and the bowl area.
“We’re on the other side of the tracks,” Elder said. “We give the benefits but we don’t reap any of them.”
According to the City of Edmonds figures from 2014, the most recent year available, the Highway 99 area had 250 businesses — several of them auto dealerships — that generated $2.4 million in sales tax. Downtown Edmonds, by comparison, in 2014 had 293 businesses that generated $577,932 in sales tax revenue.
The city is now ready to put millions of dollars into Highway 99, following the council’s passage of the Highway 99 subarea plan. (The term “subarea,” is related to the city’s comprehensive planning process. In this case, the Highway 99 Subarea Plan refers not just to the two-mile stretch of highway that runs through Edmonds, but the entire corridor of commercial and multi-family areas located several blocks off the highway.)
The city hired a consultant, SJC Alliance, in September 2017, with the goal of creating a literal “roadmap for the road” between 244th Street Southwest and 212th Street Southwest, said Economic Development and Community Services Director Patrick Doherty.
The idea, according to Doherty, is “to come up with a concept of the plan overall and then prioritize the projects.” The improvements will be completed in phases, as state and federal funding becomes available.
This is similar to Highway 99 enhancements in Shoreline, which were done in four stages over 15 years, and in Federal Way, currently underway and being completed in five stages over five years.
“No small city can take it on all at once,” Doherty added.
Edmonds is following Shoreline’s lead in many ways. In fact, the consultant’s scope of work notes that the project will “extend the recent transformation of Highway 99 in Shoreline through Edmonds.”
The estimated project cost of this first phase is $467,517 is being funded out of the $1 million from the state transportation budget. That money was advanced in 2017 from the $10 million long-term appropriation approved during the 2015 legislative session.
The overall budget also includes an additional $300,000 in real estate excise tax funds for a total of $1.3 million in funding. After the conceptual design is complete, the remaining money will be used toward funding for future stages of the project.
Shoreline was successful in acquiring state and federal grant money for its $140 million, three-mile Aurora Corridor project. Edmonds Public Works Director Phil Williams estimates that the Edmonds project will cost around $100 million and take about 10 years.
A draft of the initial Highway 99 conceptual work was presented to the Edmonds City Council in February. It is anticipated that a draft plan will be available for public review in late 2018, which will identify improvements to be made, environmental documentation and right of way costs.
Meanwhile, the city is looking for additional grant funding for future portions of the project.
Elements to be considered include wider replacement sidewalks, new street lighting, raised center medians, “attractive and safe” crosswalks, better stormwater management, targeted utility replacements, potential undergrounding of overhead utilities, landscaping, “and other improvements to identify the area as being in Edmonds,” the scope of work said.
Addressing traffic congestion and pedestrian safety was a major driver for Highway 99 redevelopment, Doherty said. The highway’s double left turn lanes – appropriately nicknamed suicide lanes – “have become a problem and a safety issue for vehicle drivers, “ Doherty said. “There are fewer and fewer breaks now as the volume is increasing. There’s a lot of illegal turning.”
And with few signalized intersections – especially in the southern end of the Edmonds stretch — pedestrians are left with few ways to safely cross the busy highway.
Doherty offered another reason for improving the highway: “To incentivize walking and biking and getting people to come to the transit connections.”
Community Transit’s Swift bus rapid-transit system, which runs along the highway from Shoreline’s Aurora Village to Everett, has the highest ridership in South Snohomish County. Additional transit connections are expected when Sound Transit completes its light rail line to Lynnwood, with a station in nearby Mountlake Terrace by 2024.
Edmonds’ Highway 99 plan calls for both economic development and housing, especially affordable housing, in the area. Some of this will be “mixed use,” with businesses on a prominent part of the site and residences above the business or located on another part of the site. Transit-oriented development, which allows people living or working nearby to easily use transit, is encouraged. The city has stressed livability and an attractive environment as key themes.
The highway also is one of the few remaining parts of Edmonds with land that is not already built out. This is key to accommodating future growth; the city projects that the Highway 99 corridor will need as many as 3,325 more housing units and 3,013 more jobs by 2035.
In the coming series of articles, we will explore the following:
– The history of Highway 99, including a timeline of how the Edmonds section of roadway was acquired.
– Lessons learned from the City of Shoreline, which recently completed a similar project on Aurora Avenue, the section of Highway 99 that runs through the city.
– What the project could mean for road safety and public safety in the area.
– What the future may hold for affordable housing along the highway, including a permanent low-income housing project.
– A snapshot of proposed projects as well as new ideas for economic development along the highway, including food for thought from the Edmonds Economic Development Commission.
— By Teresa Wippel