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Saturday, March 4, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Different kind of developer dreams big for Crossroads mall

Seattle Times Eastside bureau

In the aggressive, alpha world of developers, Ron Sher speaks a different language.

He wants his shopping centers, bookstores and restaurants "to improve the public realm." He's renowned locally for creating "third places," all-too-rare spots outside of work and home where people can feel comfortable lingering and connecting with each other.

His biggest project in the Seattle area — Crossroads mall in Bellevue — has grown from a crime-ridden eyesore into a vibrant, multiethnic center of music, food and community.

Now Sher is planning another transformation: He wants to forge Crossroads into the mall of the future.

Instead of a cluster of retail surrounded by a sprawling parking lot, the mall would share space with upscale apartments or condos. Sher envisions a bustling city district, where housing, shopping and an adjacent park would flow together with tree-lined walkways and enhanced public spaces.

The Seattle area is ripe for this kind of mall, Sher says. With a booming population and better public transportation expected over the next few decades, he says, the idea of a traditional mall surrounded by asphalt is outdated.

His plan builds on a national trend toward open-air, pedestrian-friendly malls — called "lifestyle centers" — that sometimes include housing or offices alongside stores. The area around Seattle's Northgate Mall just started an expansion that will add 100,000 square feet of open-air shopping, landscaped pathways and 650 apartments and condos.

Redmond Town Center and Seattle's University Village also are lifestyle centers.

The open-air concept creates town squares more in line with the dense, streetfront-style development becoming increasingly popular across the country, said Patrice Duker, spokeswoman for the International Council of Shopping Centers.

Neighbors don't always appreciate the extra density, though. The Northgate revamp faced early community opposition, and neighbors protested when 685 housing units were approved at Factoria Mall in 2002.

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Crossroads is three miles east of downtown Bellevue, near Microsoft headquarters, and serves as the heart of east Bellevue and an ethnically diverse neighborhood.

When Bellevue city officials shared some of Sher's ideas for the mall at community meetings last fall, the response to adding housing was mostly negative. Neighbors said more apartments would bring down property values and increase crime and traffic. One woman called Sher and the city "dream merchants" for trying to sell the public on the Crossroads plan, and another neighbor said she was "terrified of one more apartment."

In response to the criticism, the city and Sher pulled many of their drawings off the table and will restart community meetings next month. If residents come around to Sher's ideas, the new housing still will be subject to City Council approval.

Sher says he is committed to making Crossroads better. It's the next step, he says, in the mall's evolution.

People linger longer

Sher, 63, is a part owner of Elliott Bay Book Co. in Pioneer Square and the owner of Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park and North Seattle's Ravenna neighborhood. His stores have large, common spaces that invite people to stay, and lineups of hundreds of community events, musical acts and readings, ranging from Paul McCartney to local folk bands.

During a recent afternoon at Crossroads, Sher raved about the "marvelous" pub that just opened in his Ravenna store, which was built inside a former PCC market. Instead of a chain grocery, the neighborhood now has a bookstore, a Honey Bear Bakery (which Sher owns) — and the woodsy watering hole below.

"It's all old growth and it's in the basement and it's going to be really cool," he said.

Sher grew up in Los Angeles, attended college in Colorado, met his wife through the Sierra Club and had a brief stint as a sheep farmer in Eastern Washington. But in his mid-30s, he took over the family business and eventually developed the largest retail brokerage on the West Coast. He sold the business and now owns several developments in New Jersey and California through his new company, Metrovation.

He has said his experience makes him a bridge between mainstream business and "people who want to change the world."

After reading about third places in the 1989 Ray Oldenburg book "The Great Good Place," Sher began to focus even more on community-building. He opened the Lake Forest Park bookstore in 1998 and the Ravenna store in 2002. He serves on the board for the national Project for Public Spaces and plans to bring the group's "Great Places, Great Cities" conference to Seattle next year.

Sher took over Crossroads in 1988, when it was close to failing. It was one of his first developments here, and it is still close to his heart. He visits the mall about once a week, chats with store managers and picks up trash outside.

The mall has fewer big-name merchants than most shopping centers, but includes a library, a police substation and a mini City Hall where residents can pay bills or learn about neighborhood events. On any given night, the center is packed with people listening to concerts, reading magazines and playing chess on a giant set, one of the mall's most popular features.

Connect housing, mall

Over the next five to 10 years, Sher wants to construct two mixed-use buildings in lots on the east side of the mall: one next to the movie theater, with perhaps 80 units of housing; and another near Circuit City with about 40 units. Each building would have a floor of retail and about three floors of housing above.

The housing would be connected to the mall and existing Crossroads Park by landscaped pathways. No existing buildings would change, and the footprint of the mall wouldn't expand.

He also mentions other, more distant ideas — such as building senior housing above the mall — but they're far away and may never happen, he said.

Last fall, the city told residents that Sher could build 900 units at Crossroads over the next 20 years, though Sher says that has never been his plan.

"Some neighbors think, when they envision apartments, they envision the worst of what's out at Crossroads and they say, 'We don't want more of those,' " he said. "But the last thing that I would want to do is create the problems that I've been getting away from for 20 years. To me, it's a way to enrich it and enhance it."

About 10,500 people already live in the neighborhood, with about 2,700 apartments and 600 condos, according to the 2000 Census. About 70 percent of the housing is apartments or condos, a percentage second in the city only to downtown.

Crossroads is one of the few relatively affordable neighborhoods left in Bellevue, and Sher's plan for a mixed-use, carefully designed district could drive up rents and home prices. Sher said he's conscious that affordable housing is difficult to find, but says it's the role of government, not developers, to mandate housing that is more affordable.

Bellevue Mayor Grant Degginger said he still has questions about Sher's plan, including the number of units, how well-connected the housing would be to the park and mall, and whether neighbors would sign off on the idea.

The city wants most of its new housing to be focused in high-rise apartments and condos downtown. Already 4,500 people live there, and that is expected to grow to 14,000 by 2020.

But Sher has a reputation for making developments succeed, Degginger says, and the city is not opposed to some limited housing outside of downtown. If Sher's plan is well designed and has adequate connections to the surrounding area, "it certainly bears a good conversation with the neighbors about whether it works," Degginger said.

Sher said he's confident his vision will connect with neighbors. The value of Crossroads — as a mall and a community — would be improved over the long term.

"If it makes sense," he said, "there will be a way to get it done."

Ashley Bach: 206-464-2567 or abach@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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