Why Our Suburban Cities aren’t Working


Cities in our booming region need to know more about real estate if they want to create good places to live. Three suburban cities, Bainbridge, Bothell, and Bellevue illustrate this.

If affordable housing were simply a question of cost, people would be moving to Omak and other cheap and remote areas of the state. But these house-hunters want good jobs, neighbors who share their values, locally-owned restaurants/bookstores/shops, plus parks that are more than soccer fields. This combination of livability features is what makes housing so coveted in places like Kirkland.

We need more good places for more good housing, which will require real city planning and city-building. To do this right, cities need to know much more about real estate markets to make their plans work and draw builders. The redevelopment of our smaller cities is a far more complex challenge than developing raw land on the fringes of the urban, or packing people into dense apartments. The following three examples of cities trying to make transformative changes illustrate the hurdles.

Bainbridge Island: Yet One More Plan

To gain more control over land use decisions, residents of Bainbridge Island voted in 1991 to make the whole island a city. The grand bargain that swung the vote was the concept of focusing growth in and around downtown Winslow, the small town in the center of the island near the ferry landing.

Forty years later, that strategy is largely unrealized, despite conditions that should have drawn housing developers. Winslow has a charming main street with a host of high-quality, locally-owned stores and restaurants, anchored by one of the best supermarkets in the region. There’s a free art museum, a great small library, a performing arts center, a large aquatic center, and six public and private schools — and all of this is within walking distance.

Yet in the last 20 years there’s been only limited development downtown, and most of that is two-story townhouses, not the four- and five-story condominiums that the market would support. One special-area plan envisioned turning the lots around the ferry terminal into a neighborhood with views of the Seattle skyline across the Sound. So far, that area remains a sea of asphalt. Retirees are flocking to Bainbridge from all over the country, and many locals would like to downscale, but there is no smaller housing to buy.

Why hasn’t the plan worked?  One reason is that plan focused mainly on density and building constraints, rather than the place-making features that might get people to give up their gardens and live on the upper floors of a building. For example, there’s been no plan for where or how to finance pocket parks like those that make Vancouver, BC’s downtown peninsula such a good place to live.  

There’s a half-million-dollar effort underway to update the previous plan, and yet the consultants are again focused on the numbers, and have not asked why the previous plan failed. It’s like reinventing the wheel without asking why the old one didn’t roll.

Bothell: Dreaming of A Walk to Coffee

Imagine that one day you are living on Capitol Hill where you make a daily walk to your neighborhood coffee house, and then next you wake in a bedroom community to find yourself driving to a Starbucks in a Safeway store. That’s the situation that a number of Millennials find themselves in, and they want their java-walk back. 

Unlike Bainbridge, Bothell has been successful in remaking its downtown, perhaps too much so. It realigned Highway 527 and turned the main north-south boulevard into a walkable multi-way boulevard. It got McMenamins to turn the old Johnson School into a hotel and restaurant complex. And it laid out a new grid of streets on under-used school district land that is now 1,500 units of new housing, much of that with small stores and restaurants on the first floor.  

But not all residents were happy with the transformation, and the local council elections last year were a contentious race between NIMBYs and YIMBYs. A younger generation of YIMBYs won out, but struck a compromise that has the city focusing on remaking local shopping centers as more mixed-use places, both to walk to and to live in. 

That strategy won’t be easy to implement, for after World War II, the U.S. learned to produce commercial development along the new arterials like so much extruded Playdough. It is now one of the toughest challenges in real estate to connect them to low-density neighborhoods and make them more walkable within.

You see just how big the challenge will be when you drive the area. Much of the city’s retail space is strung out along the Bothell-Everett Highway, and that highway is eight lanes wide where it intersects 228th St. SE. QFC and PCC supermarkets face one another across that intersection, and yet legally walking from one to the other is a quarter-mile-long trip. Each of their parking lots is about 400 feet deep, more than the lot south of Husky Stadium. Imagine coming home to all that paving.  

So far, Bothell is planning for these changes in an utterly conventional way. It carried out a long “public outreach” process in which it found — surprise! — that people don’t like sprawl or traffic. The city hired a public-policy company that wrote pages and pages of goals. And recently Bothell engaged an urban-economics firm to analyze demographic and market statistics. None of this will tell you which shopping center owners are ready to redevelop and where on those sites to begin redeveloping. Nor whether locally-owned businesses can afford the rents that go with new construction. 

This redevelopment requires a level of discussion with real estate and business people that the city seems afraid to engage in, or it wouldn’t be putting its faith in numbers. For cities, that fear usually comes from three places: not understanding the business of development; fears of being taken advantage of by developers; and a worry that their plans may not be feasible after all, at least as they have written them.  

Bellevue: Missing An Essential Type of New Housing

It would be hard to find a boomier place in the U.S. Even while Amazon was cutting 12,000 headquarters jobs in Seattle last year, it added 10,000 new ones in Bellevue. High-rise office buildings and apartments fill up the sky, light rail construction is finishing, and the city is planning to build “The Grand Connection,” a sweeping pedestrian bridge over I-405 that make it possible to walk and bike from the Wilburton area that lies to the east of downtown.

Bellevue knows that to stay competitive over the long run and to avoid the problems that now beset the office districts in downtown Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco, it must fix the jobs/housing imbalance. To that end, its recent draft of a new comprehensive plan calls for 44,000 new housing units over the next 20 years, much of that in Wilburton and the Bel-Red corridor that runs from Overlake Hospital east to the Microsoft campus. 

Remaking these areas and busy arterials such as Bel-Red Rd. and Northup Way will be a challenge. They are filled with warehouses, car dealerships, shopping centers, and other drive-to uses. Bellevue’s poker hand for redevelopment is also missing a key face-card: for-sale housing.

Given the jobs and income in this area, you would think that condominiums would be an easy thing to sell, but people who would like to offer them say that the risk of litigation created by state law keeps them from building. Most of the recent housing development has been apartments.

In Bellevue, Redmond, and Kirkland in 2022, there were about five apartments built for every for-sale unit, and most of the for-sale units were high-end townhouses. When young tenants now renting in the area want to buy or grow a family, they’ll have to move 30 miles or more north into Snohomish County. The lack of affordable for-sale housing explains why places like Sultan, halfway up the highway to Stevens Pass, are turning into bedroom communities complete with cricket fields for Indian-American engineers.

The condo problems mean that there is virtually no homebuilding industry operating in central Puget Sound at any scale, and thus no one to lobby for changes the condo laws. You might expect the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce’s Eastside Multifamily Policy Group to lobby for such changes, but the big companies in that group are apartment investors like Vulcan, and it is against their interests to lobby for a competing for-sale product.

This leaves Bellevue and other cities like them to lobby for change. They could argue that they should not do so because they are not in the business of homebuilding, but they do hire lobbyists to get grants, and they are responsible for creating more places to live. If they want development to work, they need to work with and on behalf of industry “partners.”

The Business Side of Place-Making

For too long, cities have taken the attitude that “If we zone it, they will come,” and clearly that has not worked when it comes to housing. Planning has become about process, in which a paper plan is the final result, as opposed to results on the ground. Redevelopment is a complicated business. Cities need to get a lot smarter about how housing is carried out day to day, and how to enable builders to build in good places.

Rod Stevens
Rod Stevens
Rod Stevens is a development consultant specializing in urban revitalization. 


  1. @Nathan, the “problem” (population decline) is not in Seattle proper, but the burbs. Seattle continues to grow while the surrounding metropolitan statistical areas see out-migration https://worldpopulationreview.com/us-cities/seattle-wa-population

    It’s hard to say why, but it could be that quality of life – the walkability, amenities and other urban goodies mentioned in this article that the burbs try and fail to achieve – is one reason. I suspect though that it is because in spite of everything, there is money to be made here, more than the burbs. Lots would love to see population decline somehow vindicate their anti-Seattle sensibilities, but that’s not reality.

  2. Maybe I read this too fast, but I’m not sure I got the point. Why put these three cities together in this exposition – something in common? All start with B? Author is not satisfied that they’re as smart as he is?

    I haven’t been to Winslow in a pretty long time, but the answer is pocket parks? I doubt it. Unless people are having problems finding places for their dogs to defecate. I think it’s just possible that people who want to live in 5th story apartment just don’t look on Bainbridge and aren’t going to. Winslow may be the relatively lucky city of the three, if it’s hopefully spared the crash project growth that has been metastasizing around the region. A good city can’t be built in a few years, however good the plan they start with, because it isn’t just a one-size-fits-all physical plant. It’s a society, that brings the physical infrastructure about to serve its needs.

  3. Several years ago, Bellevue decided against being a bedroom suburb and declared itself a city in its own right. It’s still a temple to consumerism and urbanism-lite. Add culture and shake well, and we’ll see what cocktail emerges.

  4. My take-away is that place-making is needed. Place-making is an externality for developers, and city staff don’t have the tools or know-how to do it without collaborating with developers – is that right?

    This is not just a suburban problem. Take a look at Seattle’s 25-year effort to develop urban villages along Aurora Avenue, apparently believing proximate density will tame and transform the state highway and its auto-oriented uses. After 25 years with zero place-making Seattle has succeeded in making the areas around Aurora far denser, but Aurora itself is virtually unchanged except that traffic levels are higher and social service problems are worse. So now Seattle proposes to amend its comp plan to add even more density around Aurora, because 25 years of failure can only mean they didn’t pursue their strategy aggressively enough.

    I agree with the premise that you need to invest in the placemaking, collaborative planning, community engagement and public infrastructure building that the original urban village concept envisioned to make real neighborhoods, but that is something Seattle, I think, has abandoned. If the author has suggestions or models for how the public sector and developers on place-making, it would be great to hear them.

    • How can you have constructive community engagement when the community is apparently divided between NIMBYs and YIMBYs? How do you pull collaborative planning out of name-calling?

  5. These places are working just fine for their residents and businesses, just not in the way that urban planners and consultants think they should.


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