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March 26, 2015

Retail drives growth in once ‘sleepy’ downtown

  • Staying ahead of retail trends and catering to changing demographics of shoppers will keep the downtown core strong.
    Kemper Development


    As cities around the country strive to revitalize their downtown cores, Bellevue is thriving. This is not by accident, but rather by design.

    Planning that stems back several decades by the city, local residents and the business community created the perfect union of a strong business center, a great place to live, and vital and lively retail. Staying ahead of retail trends and catering to the changing demographics of shoppers will keep the downtown core a central driving force in strengthening our community.

    According to a report by the University of Wisconsin on downtown business developments, “Few, if any, downtowns or Main Street districts can ever create and maintain a retail mix the way a retail mall can. This is especially true for the vast majority of the commercial districts located in small and medium-sized communities.”

    Yet, Bellevue continues to strengthen its retail offerings, restaurants and nightlife centering around The Bellevue Collection and spreading outward to the benefit of small retailers, Main Street restaurants and shops, and other retail developments. With the expansion of Lincoln Square and Bellevue Square bringing 375,000 square feet of new retail, dining and entertainment along the city’s main retail street Bellevue Way in fall 2016, the power of retail in downtown Bellevue will continue to grow.

    Image from Kemper Development [enlarge]
    The expansion of Lincoln Square, shown here, and Bellevue Square will bring 375,000 square feet of new retail, dining and entertainment by fall 2016.

    Studies show that great retail is the catalyst for growth within cities and the core of a successful downtown.

    Jobs in downtown Bellevue have quadrupled since 2008 as businesses like Microsoft, Expedia and Eddie Bauer have expanded and newer companies like Bungie and Valve have moved in. That growth is reintroducing downtown to diverse workforces and changing its past reputation as a sleepy community to its rightful place as a premier urban center.

    Recent articles cite young professionals choosing to live and work downtown in part because of the thriving nightlife and access to diverse retail and dining options.

    A relevant and thriving retail core also helps stave off the challenge presented by online retail powerhouses that increasingly capture sales from traditional brick and mortar stores. Even during the tough economic downturn in 2009—10, sales at Bellevue Square grew every month and new retail continued to expand throughout the downtown business district.

    Keeping our eye on the changing needs of the community is critical for retail to continue to be the powerhouse that it is today in downtown. Apple, Microsoft, Tesla and Leica represent retailers that infuse new life to retail settings where customers can experience technology-rich products from knowledgeable salespeople.

    Street-front shopping has created a healthy walking community in Bellevue, linking shopping communities from Main Street to Bellevue Square. Lincoln Square and the expansion of Bellevue Square will continue to stretch the walkability of the downtown core southward, keeping the sidewalks filled with shoppers, workers and families.

    Unique and first-to-market retailers will also draw shoppers. Chef-inspired restaurants, creative stores and boutiques will attract millennials, the 79 million people born from 1985 to 2004 who soon will become the largest population of shoppers.

    Millennials are unlike any other as they have grown up with prosperity and recession, and unheard-of availability of diverse products. They see technology as second nature, yet they are not necessary brand driven. They will drive long-term sales in the future, but don’t sideline the 23 million additional over 55 baby boomers’ buying power, which will translate to overall higher spending and greater influence in retail for the next decade.

    Keeping it fashionable is critical, and Bellevue stores are the envy of many communities, with designer clothes, sleek home furnishings and technology “fashion” from high-end stores like Bose and Leica.

    Keeping it eventful is also critical. People come for Fashion Week at The Bellevue Collection, Snowflake Lane during the holiday season, Bellevue Summer Outdoor Movies and Bellevue Arts Fair. These events attract people that eat, play, shop and stay downtown.

    Keeping Bellevue accessible with free parking is another important element. To shop in Seattle, you pay to park. With street parking free or low cost, 10,000 free parking slots today plus thousands more coming with the expansions at The Bellevue Collection, shopping is easy, safe and accessible in Bellevue.

    Open spaces and gathering places also build communities. The more spaces to meet, talk and interact, the more people will be drawn to Bellevue. Parks, along with the open gathering spaces within The Bellevue Collection, welcome people to make downtown their destination.

    And, don’t ignore green and healthy. While buying green is still a minority option, consumer buying habits are approaching a tipping point. Retailers that cater to a healthy lifestyle and offer products with sustainability in mind will influence a portion of future retail.

    The future of Bellevue retail is stronger than ever and with careful planning will continue to be a driving force in building the downtown community.

    Jim Hill is vice president of Bellevue-based Kemper Development.

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