Guide to the Eastside:
With its ideal location in the middle of Lake Washington between Seattle and Bellevue, Mercer Island is a residential community that feels like a retreat from the rapidly growing urban areas of the two cities on either side, but with plenty of places to eat and complete your weekend errands. Even the downtown area is quite quiet, and crime is essentially a nonissue on Mercer Island. In addition to being very safe, Mercer Island has everything you need, including good grocery stores, professional services, and lots of unique spots to grab a bite to eat or sip coffee, tea, wine, beer, or cocktails.
2019 Data at a Glance
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Pros of Living in Mercer Island
Mercer Island is an excellent place to live, particularly for families or working professionals who need access to Seattle or Bellevue without the noise and busy-ness of urban life. It’s an easy and relatively quick commute to either city for work, and then you can come home to your suburban retreat on Mercer Island.
With several parks and excellent schools, the island is an ideal spot for kids. In the downtown area of Mercer Island, it’s very walkable for errands as well as places to eat. There is a decent amount of restaurants to choose from, including ethnic cuisine and some delicious, authentic Mexican and Japanese eateries. At Island Crust Cafe, you can get kosher pizza, some excellent vegetarian options, and more. Mercer Island also has a 100+-year-old tavern, Roanoke Inn, which is still in operation today.
Mercer Island has nearly 20 parks across its 6.38 square miles, with one of the more popular being Luther Burbank Park. Park visitors can fish, swim, and boat at the lakefront park, with seven acres of shoreline, a playground, a dog park, and wetlands to explore. The dog park is more than just a typical dog run, with two off-leash areas for dogs of different sizes or social interests (if you have a smaller, shy dog, they will be right at home).
In addition to parks, there are numerous walking, running, and hiking trails across the island, but more toward its center. Just a short drive east, Mercer Islanders can explore more of the hiking and outdoor recreation the region has to offer from the Cascade Foothills. Along East and West Mercer Way, Mercer Island boasts over 10 miles of stop-sign-free road that Puget Sound cyclists can take advantage of. If you like riding a bike, this is a playground in your backyard, and there are over 2,200 bike trails throughout the island. For all others, be prepared to take it slow for all the cyclists out there.
Cons of Living in Mercer Island
The community is mostly made up of upper- and middle-class professionals and families where both parents work high-paid jobs, and therefore it’s not very diverse. Some have complained that residents seem a bit “snobby,” and the lack of diversity and expensive housing can be a deal-breaker for potential homeowners. Mercer Islanders are mostly middle aged or retired, and there really isn’t much nightlife.
Another con of the expensive housing is that in some cases, homeowners have found the steep price tag doesn’t equate to quality, with a fair number of 1950s homes on Mercer Island that sell in the $600,0000 to $700,000 range when they would see a value of $200,000 in White Center or other South Seattle neighborhoods.
If your commute to Seattle or Bellevue is a primary factor in considering living in Mercer Island, you should expect a drive of 30 to 40 minutes each way. Traffic on the I-90 bridge can be an issue during certain times or inclement weather, but despite the freeway feeling and looking like a parking lot at rush hour, you’ll still move through pretty steadily.
History of Mercer Island, Washington
Mercer Island has a very interesting history, particularly in Native American lore. The local Duwamish tribe, who inhabited most of the Greater Seattle area before white settlers arrived in the 1850s, had some dark legends concerning the island, and allegedly stayed away from it, particularly at night. There were two reasons for this: According to legend, the island either housed an evil spirit or it sank into Lake Washington every night, to rise again in the morning.
Regardless of the myths, early Seattle pioneers eventually took their chances and began to settle the island in 1860, naming it after one of the early settlers of Seattle, Judge Thomas Mercer. But it wasn’t until Charles and Agnes Olds settled here in 1885 that other homesteaders began establishing residence on Mercer Island.
As the 20th century approached, C.C. Calkins had dreams of turning Mercer Island into a fashionable resort, and built the Calkins Hotel on the west side, facing Seattle. However, the once-wealthy entrepreneur’s luck changed and he was forced to sell. Then a fire destroyed the hotel in 1908.
Over the early 1900s, Mercer Island’s population grew steadily as steamships brought more people (and supplies) across Lake Washington from Seattle. In 1940, the world’s largest concrete floating bridge was completed between the island and the city, and Mercer Island’s population really blossomed. After just a decade, the population had nearly quadrupled, from 1,200 to around 4,500 residents.
Mercer Island was finally incorporated in 1960, and at that time, the population was approximately 12,000-strong.
The old floating bridge from the 1940s was replaced in the 1980s, and the new I-90 floating bridge stretched across Lake Washington, connecting the north end of Mercer Island with Seattle and Bellevue. This was the most creative and expensive stretch of interstate in the country at the time. Created to minimize the impact of I-90, The Lid Park, now known as Aubrey Davis Park, was opened in the 1990s with tennis courts, picnic shelters, playgrounds, basketball courts, softball fields, and open grassy areas.
Today, Mercer Island continues to grow. The largest and most significant project underway for Mercer Island residents is probably the East Link light rail project to expand the light rail system from downtown Seattle to Mercer Island, Bellevue, and Redmond. The initial construction phases for the project began in April 2016, with the Mercer Island phase initiating in June 2017. The future Mercer Island station will be located at 77th Avenue S.E., bordering the current Park & Ride.
Home Prices in Mercer Island, Washington
The average home value in Mercer Island is $1,614,357. Zillow has predicted that home values will increase by over 5.0% in the next year, despite a decrease of 0.6% in the past 12 months. With the median price per square foot at $510 in Seattle, Mercer Island homes are usually listed at slightly more expensive prices of $581 per square foot. The average in the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue Metro area is $286. Mercer Island is a popular place to live for people commuting either to Seattle or the rapidly growing Bellevue area, and tends to attract wealthier residents who can afford the higher price point of homes here.
Midcentury modern and modern architecture are the primary styles used for homes in the area, with clean lines, sleek design, and minimalist appeal. There are other types of home designs as well, such as traditional, Craftsman, split-level, and even some houses with Victorian features.
In addition to single-family homes, Mercer Island does have some apartments and condominiums, mostly located in the downtown area close to I-90. Throughout Mercer Island, the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom is $2,253. There are studios available, as well as more spacious two- and three-bedroom apartments.
Walk Score & Transportation in Mercer Island
Mercer Island has a walk score of 31, with the most walkable neighborhoods being the downtown area, Beaumont, and McGilvara. Most errands and activities require a car, unless you live in the downtown area. It’s relatively bike-friendly, with bike lanes in some areas and a bike score of 35. The transit score in Mercer Island is 26.
There’s a Park & Ride on Mercer Island, and many of the area’s bus routes pass through it, particularly route 204, which goes from South Mercer Island to the Park & Ride. Route 630 is a community shuttle that transports passengers from Mercer Island to Downtown Seattle, and two routes (891 and 892) travel throughout Mercer Island with stops at Mercer Island High School. Route 894 also travels to the high school, but starts at the Mercer Village Shopping Center in the downtown area.
Sound Transit is also underway on the East Link project, which will connect Seattle with Mercer Island and beyond with an extension of the light rail system. The Mercer Island Station at 77th Avenue S.E. will serve the light rail as well as current bus and metro routes throughout Mercer Island, bringing far more convenience and environmentally friendly transportation to the island.
Unique Gems in Mercer Island, Washington
Despite its lack of diverse residents or nightlife, Mercer Island has some unique gems to offer. The community also has its own farmers market, which offers fresh, local produce, fruit, fish, meat, cheese, baked goods, and more on the north end of Mercerdale Park from June through October, on Sundays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. In addition, these one-of-a-kind spots break up the scattering of regional chains with something special:
Island Crust Cafe: It can be hard to find a favorite eatery that’s kosher, halal, and vegetarian, but Island Crust Cafe is all at once! There is delicious vegetarian pizza, salads and soups, and truly excellent lasagna. Favorite dishes include the house fish and chips with daily cut fries, Alaskan salmon burger, or fresh Alaskan snapper. Island Crust Cafe serves breakfast and lunch every day except Saturdays.
Island Books: As the only independent bookstore on Mercer Island, local residents appreciate that Island Books has been serving the community for more than 45 years. Since 1973, this family-run bookstore has offered a diverse selection of things to read for all ages, plus fun in-store events such as book signings and readings. From the books to the cards, gifts, games, toys, and even locally made chocolates, everything at Island Books is hand-selected with care by the shop’s beloved staff.
Oh! Chocolate: Three generations of family ownership and confection-making shows off at Oh! Chocolate, a local Mercer Island chocolate and sweets shop. In addition to hand-crafted chocolate and sweet treats that you can buy and enjoy (even in bulk), chocolate making classes are offered for both kids and adults.
Bennett’s: For upscale, yet simple and delicious American cuisine made with locally sourced ingredients, Bennett’s bistro is the place to go. In addition to an amazing brunch, the eatery has a popular happy hour and a great wine list featuring Northwest vintages. Bennett’s has a commitment to authenticity, original food, and using only local ingredients, and they stay away from chemical food dyes, artificial preservatives, additives, colors, and sweeteners.
Roanoke Inn: Step into a piece of Mercer Island history at Roanoke Inn, a lively local pub that’s literally the oldest- and longest-running business in operation on the island. In its early days, it served vacationers and visitors who came across Lake Washington on the ferry from Leschi or Kirkland. Today, the pub serves classic American bar fare, plus sandwiches, salads, entrees (rib eye steak or chicken breasts), and homemade desserts. To keep you entertained as you eat (or drink), there are darts and a jukebox. The Roanoke also has outdoor seating for the nice PNW days. It’s the spot “Where Friends Meet Friends.”