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March 26, 2015
Two years ago around this time I was a city planner in a Colorado town seeking jobs in the Seattle area when I came across a posting for a job in downtown Bellevue.
My now husband, but then long-distance boyfriend, worked for Boeing. The chance of getting him to move to Golden was slim. I made the leap, packed my bags and set up life in the heart of downtown.
I haven’t looked back just forward and up and around. After two years, I recognize that I am still fairly new to the place; I am still learning the history and am in no way the definitive spokesperson for my generation, but here’s my view as a newcomer, and yes, a millennial.
Yes, Bellevue is clean, safe, shiny and new; but there’s more. Growing up in the Midwest and then moving to Denver for graduate school, I’ve experienced great cities of various scales. From a logging town with a “cross-river” high school rivalry to a Wild West growth center with tech hubs and sustainability initiatives, the places I’ve chosen offer some of the best opportunities for outdoor adventure and recreation.
Adventure is in my DNA, and downtown Bellevue’s proximity to opportunity and innovation is no exception.
Like every city, Bellevue is a product of its history. In comparison to Seattle’s story, downtown Bellevue’s architecture and modern economy are still quite young.
Bellevue incorporated in 1953. As downtown Bellevue came into its own as a thriving business center in the 1970s and 80s, the city was as a bedroom community for suburbanites traveling across the bridges to work in Seattle. First Bellevue saw single-family homes pop up amongst the strawberry and blueberry fields along the shores of Lake Washington. Then came basic community services and shops to meet the demands of the day.
Automobiles were in their heyday and land and parking were plentiful. It’s no wonder why the built form reflects remnants of surface lots and strip malls.
I remember my first walk around downtown, a rainy April evening. As I wandered the superblocks and took note of the built environment, it was apparent I was in the business district at first, yet I felt drawn to the activity on Bellevue Way.
Come to learn the history of Bellevue Square and how the mall anchored and encouraged future development, it started to make sense how the downtown was built out. I can see the connected and walkable downtown that planners envisioned back in the 1980s.
While I know downtown development has made great advances, it still has a lot of potential to better connect downtown dwellers to shopping, entertainment and their jobs.
That mark of an auto-oriented city may stick around, but the car isn’t the only way people are experiencing downtown. I’m seeing more and more companies view downtown and the greater Eastside as prime access to their employees, housing and a desirable quality of life for families.
As a Kirkland resident who once enjoyed living in Old Bellevue, I appreciate that I was able to access downtown Bellevue by foot, and now by bus, bike or car. That’s what makes it attractive to businesses, techies and newcomers like myself: the element of choice and access to amenities.
Downtown Bellevue is diverse. I’ve heard it called “homogeneous” and “boring,” but those labels just don’t ring true. Last week, I rode my bus from downtown Bellevue to Kirkland and it was standing room only. As I stared out the window, I could hear three different languages spoken around me. Downtown Bellevue is not as homogeneous as it once was or as people still seem to think.
People toss around the fable that “nobody walks in downtown Bellevue,” but I can name numerous colleagues and counterparts who walk to work (not to mention the hundreds who venture out to the food truck pod near Barnes & Noble each day). Just stand at 108th Avenue Northeast and Northeast Fourth Street for 10 minutes over a lunch hour and see how many people flood the streets at lunch time. And take note of the diversity; I would venture to say more and more people feel like they “fit in” downtown, myself included.
As downtown Bellevue continues to grow into an even more mature city, transportation choices will become more abundant and community amenities like farmers markets, street fairs and festivals will continue to pop up, making downtown attractive to all generations.
What I have observed in my first few years here are the early signs of Bellevue’s fastest growing neighborhood. We will continue to see the density around here that resembles a bustling community and less of a business-only district.
Downtown Bellevue is an interesting, fast-paced, thriving economy maturing with each new crane that goes up. It has come a long way I’ve been told, but in my view, we are bound to see an even greater, grittier, vibrant downtown.
I had the chance to sit on the founding board of the downtown residents association in 2014 and was also fortunate to graduate from the city’s inaugural civic leadership class of 2013. Both were fascinating experiences, demonstrating momentum for millennials to get involved as downtown Bellevue continues to evolve.
Augusta DeVries is the transportation program director at the Bellevue Downtown Association. She holds a master’s degree in urban and regional planning from the University of Colorado-Denver and a bachelor’s degree in legal studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.