September 26, 2002
Bellevue faces its next stage of evolution
By ARLAN COLLINS and MATT TERRY
Special to the Journal
What is Bellevue?
Just 50 years ago, Bellevue was a city with a population of less than 6,000. Its downtown was a small cluster of buildings along Main Street and Bellevue Square’s signature tenant was a small Frederick & Nelson branch store.
Only 30 years after this modest beginning, Bellevue is now the fifth largest city in the state with a population of more than 110,000. It ranks second in the state in both retail sales and property value and is home to seven of the top 25 fastest growing companies statewide.
Bellevue’s rapid evolution, tempered by careful planning and the harnessed energies of committed citizens, created a city focused on its need to be a viable place to live and work.
Downtown Bellevue’s collective efforts over the past three decades have focused primarily on the maintenance of this viable city, concentrating on the development of its regional assets, such as Bellevue Square, Meydenbauer Center, the Downtown Park and the Access Downtown transportation system.
Faced with growth projections through 2020 for downtown Bellevue that will quadruple the number of people living downtown and increase the number of downtown jobs by almost 35,000, Bellevue is now at a crossroads between the viable city it is and the livable city it must become.
All cities, including Bellevue and Seattle, evolve through a dynamic process in which they are viable, livable or memorable during different stages of their growth. It is a constantly changing response to a variety of influences.
Growing cities, such as Issaquah or Bothell, strive to become economically viable. Viability is about establishing ease and convenience, infrastructure and creating critical mass.
Viability is achieved through large-scale, single-action projects and efforts such as freeway exchanges, regional shopping, high-rise zoning and jobs. Viability is constantly challenged as a city’s infrastructure grows and changes.
Once viability is reached, evolving cities must next strive to be livable.
Livability is about quality. It is about weaving an urban fabric rich in resources and quality of life. For downtown Bellevue, livability means becoming pedestrian-friendly and easily walkable; it means adding places to eat and socialize downtown — especially in the evening; it means making downtown easily accessible for driving and parking and the careful integration of downtown’s many thriving neighborhoods, such as Ashwood, as well as maximizing its natural connection to Meydenbauer Bay.
Fifty years ago, Bellevue’s first planning director, Fred Herman, designed Bellevue with the idea of “designing blocks that fit the car.” The result is what you see today: 600-by-600-foot “super blocks” along a grid of four- to six-lane streets.
In percentage terms, the super block layout provides roughly half the public right of way cities such as Seattle (38 percent) and Portland (42 percent) allow. Only 20 percent of downtown Bellevue is streets, alleys and sidewalks.
It’s a concrete problem — literally — that must be addressed if downtown Bellevue is to remain competitive in the next generation.
Recent feedback from more than 500 residents that live in the mix of neighborhoods surrounding downtown Bellevue strongly reiterated that the timing is right for Bellevue to solve these livability issues.
Of the more than 400 comments from residents, 297 (68 percent) addressed livability concerns. For the future, more neighborhood stores and services, open spaces, schools, housing options, and a better pedestrian experience will be critical in securing downtown Bellevue as a great place to live.
The concept of moving from viability to livability is not just conversation or far-fetched aspirations — its already happening.
It is an exciting time in Bellevue’s lifecycle — a time where civic partnerships, action and realization are taking the place of the short-term economic bumps and bruises.
After two years of hard work and dedication, a citizen’s advisory committee, comprised of more than 45 Bellevue residents, business owners and civic leaders approved the urban design portion of Bellevue’s Downtown Implementation Plan in early August 2002. The urban design portion of the plan provides the framework necessary that will allow downtown Bellevue to effectively manage the growth and change it faces over the next 20 years.
This fall, the advisory committee will reconvene and begin work on the details of this urban design plan that will bring to life livability solutions that residents, workers and visitors to downtown Bellevue could see happen in the next two to three years.
Ideas such as mid-block street crossings that allow pedestrians to cross the street at a designated mid-point in Bellevue’s super blocks, or a “park once” strategy that could meet downtown Bellevue’s parking issues as it relates to short-term parking, on-street off-peak parking and accessibility of parking could become reality in only a few years.
So again we ask, what is Bellevue?
Bellevue is a dynamic city that was developed by its founding fathers to be “built the way its people wanted it to be ... (with) better parks, stronger schools, cleaner industry, a modern downtown, space to live and space to play.”
More than 50 years later, Bellevue is still a reflection of the vision of its founding fathers and is on its way to becoming a truly livable city and the heart of the Eastside region.
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