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September 10, 2009

Downtown Bellevue looks to cement its successes

  • Managing traffic congestion a key to attracting and keeping big employers.
    Bellevue Downtown Association



    Changes to downtown Bellevue’s skyline and cityscape have been nothing short of extraordinary.

    In the past four years, the city has welcomed 2 million square feet of high-rise office space, 1,000 new hotel rooms, close to 1 million square feet of retail, 4,000 housing units and more than 30 restaurants. Microsoft, Symetra Financial, Expedia and Eddie Bauer have moved in thousands of employees.

    It has been a giant leap for an urban center of any size, let alone Bellevue’s 400-acre downtown. What is the recipe for this success?

    A shared vision

    Civic leaders 40 years ago decided that downtown Bellevue would be a priority in building a healthy community. The term “urban center” was new in the 1970s, but fortunately city planners and property owners alike stuck to that vision as the local and national economy cycled up and down over those four decades.

    Fueling the most recent boom was a blend of a lucky location and careful planning. Downtown Bellevue is home to a solid base of world-class businesses and a talented workforce. But it took that shared vision of concentrating growth, attracting private investment and focusing on the benefits of a healthy economic engine to produce the city we see today.

    Considerable work remains to cement downtown Bellevue’s evolution as a great place with livable spaces, strong business environment, and the basic infrastructure to support our local and regional growth strategy. What are the main areas of emphasis going forward?

    Improving transportation

    Transportation is, of course, front and center. There is a strong call for fresh thinking among city and regional leaders to create long-term, sustainable plans for basic infrastructure.

    Key improvements, primarily on the corridors (state Route 520, interstates 90 and 405), must connect urban centers like Bellevue with the region and neighborhoods. Urban arterials are just as important, as these keep workers, residents and visitors moving.

    Voters supported bringing light rail to the Eastside. In the coming years, we will have a one-time chance to build the best system for downtown Bellevue and the region. Other regional and local transportation investments identified for key corridors must move forward — not just for downtown Bellevue’s sake, but for the region’s ability to meet new travel demands and thrive as an accessible place. Bold plans and visions are great, but it’s the marketplace that will decide our ultimate success.

    In downtown Bellevue, we must also pay close attention to keeping and attracting major employers like Microsoft, Symetra Financial, Paccar, Eddie Bauer, Puget Sound Energy, and Expedia. They form the magnetic base of support for a range of innovative businesses large and small. But the market will only continue to deliver these wins if we effectively manage congestion.

    Livable downtowns

    Beyond transportation, we must remain intensely focused on the livability of downtowns, their ability to offer a suitable and sustainable environment for new development and absorb growth while protecting and enhancing neighborhoods outside of the core. Clean, safe and accessible may strike some as dull, but these attributes are absolutely essential to keeping and attracting jobs and customers, enhancing quality of life, and sustaining our communities and natural environments.

    We will take a fresh look at the built environment and ramp up promotion of downtown as an attractive destination for residents and visitors alike. We will continue to focus on livability and quality of life measures, mid-block connections, and more parks and open green space. Building codes can be sharpened to reduce building costs while inspiring great architecture and public spaces.

    Last but not least, arts and cultural attractions should take precedence and thrive, including a major performing arts center, along with a continued infusion of support for a diverse range of music, art and cultural institutions.

    Challenges ahead

    So, it’s the right time to ask where we’re headed as a city and region. How will we keep it growing in the right direction? History shows that it will take bold leadership at all levels to nurture strong downtowns to the benefit the region as a whole.

    We know downtown Bellevue and the Eastside will play an increasingly critical role in our region’s future. The Puget Sound Regional Council’s Vision 2040 plan will ask urban centers to absorb the bulk of new population and jobs over the next 30 years. Downtowns in the region’s five metropolitan cities, Seattle, Bellevue, Everett, Tacoma and Bremerton, will take on the task of attracting jobs, providing housing and nurturing plans for vibrant city centers.

    Here on the Eastside, job centers, core services, transit and roads are finally catching up to the people and places that sprouted up over the past four decades. Eastside cities continue to focus new energy and plans on their downtowns.

    As the nation and region recover from the recession, downtowns will be stabilizing forces for cities and regions. They will provide new jobs, homes and more places to enjoy, create and relax. Our urban centers are where some of the greatest efforts emerge in tackling new challenges and nurturing innovation.

    We are faced with the challenge of building a great downtown for the future, one that creates economic momentum and provides a tax base that strengthens our communities and preserves quality of life in this dynamic region. It’s a set of challenges and opportunities worth our enthusiastic embrace.

    Jill Ostrem is a vice president for Group Health Cooperative and serves as chair for the Bellevue Downtown Association. Leslie Lloyd is BDA president and serves on the board of directors for the International Downtown Association.

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