A maturing city tries to court younger residents

Bellevue is kind of like a high school graduate — it’s just hitting its stride and has grand plans for the future. The city is growing both up and out. Its buildings are reaching higher, restaurants are opening, and retailers are angling to find space as rents continue to climb.

In its youth, Bellevue was full of orchards and strawberry fields. In the 1920s, its students were forced to ferry across Lake Washington to attend high school in Seattle.

Now, Bellevue is a high-tech mecca studded with world-class shopping and urban housing. Budding culinary and tourism markets are taking hold. And the city takes pride in its schools — all of which are on the east side of the lake.

Information technology is Bellevue’s largest industry, employing more than 25,000 in 2012. And, despite the looming departure of Expedia, Bellevue continues to be a magnet for high-tech companies looking to relocate.

In 2013, one such company, Concur, moved from Redmond to Bellevue for its high-quality office space and its livability.

“Bellevue was a clear match for what we needed: a beautiful, modern city that would attract top talent; top-of-the-line office space that could accommodate growth, and public amenities like transportation; and culture to support employee satisfaction,” said Sandra Bumstead, Concur’s director of corporate real estate.

Bumstead credits the city for making efforts from both business and cultural standpoints to attract and keep tech talent. An example is the city’s plan to ensure top energy and technology infrastructure, as well as adopting policies that support growth.

“That has established Bellevue as a high-tech hot spot,” Bumstead said.

Jennifer Leavitt, vice president of marketing for Kemper Development Company, sees synergy between IT, retail, restaurant, and urban housing. These factors build on each other, fueling the momentum for each, she said.

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Patrick Bannon, president of the Bellevue Downtown Association, says a growing and diversifying downtown populous will help the city’s economy.

“This is very much related to critical mass — condos, apartments, hotel rooms, and retail coming together,” Leavitt said. “It changes your day. In the old days, when retail shut down, the city shut down. Now, we’re starting to add that 24-7 experience. Offices don’t shut down at 6 (p.m.) anymore. People are working different schedules. They want entertainment.”

Those features attract young employees, many of whom make up the high-tech workforce.

Bellevue’s renowned education system contributes to the city’s appeal as well, said Kemper Freeman, chairman and CEO of Kemper Development Company. Freeman, who graduated from Bellevue High School in 1959, credits the city’s public school system for much of his success.

Now, education is a defining feature of Bellevue, Freeman said, and that fuels economic development.

“We have some of the highest average incomes,” Freeman said. “The best businesses demand the best education. It all compounds on itself.”

Lynne Robinson, Bellevue city council-member, agrees.

“In addition to young workers, we attract mature innovators and people old enough to have families,” Robinson said. “They are experienced, and we attract them because we have a top school district along with parks and open spaces. The quality of living here is really high.”

Downtown Bellevue’s population has exploded in the last five years, according to Patrick Bannon, president of Bellevue Downtown Association. In 2010, the downtown area had 2,000 residents. Today it is close to 12,000. The average age of residents in the downtown district is falling, and its demographics are changing. The 2010 Census put the average age of downtown Bellevue dwellers at 34.1, and a third of the city’s residents were born outside the United States.

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Data sources: 2010 census; Bellevue Downtown Association

Soon, downtown will boast a new full-service Marriott and W hotel, and numerous office projects are in the works. To top it off, Freeman’s 400 Lincoln Square, a 31-story project, will be one of the largest mixed-use developments on the West Coast, Bannon said.

As Bellevue matures, its challenge will be to draw the younger crowd while catering to older employees and residents as well.

Unique retail shops and restaurants, open spaces and parks, and a vibrant nightlife for younger residents can do just that, said Carl Vander Hoek, project manager at Vander Hoek Corporation.

Vander Hoek works with many small businesses and sits on the board of the Old Bellevue Merchants Association. “Small businesses are a key factor in the community,” he said. “They care about the community, and they want to make it better.”

But as Bellevue grows up, small businesses such as those in Old Bellevue could be swallowed by high rent and a lack of parking. Can Old Bellevue thrive in this high-tech, high-rent, modern city?

“I hope so, and it’s in the best interest of this community that it does,” Vander Hoek said.

BusinessofBellevueNumbers2Vander Hoek believes it’s important to preserve the quaint mom-and-pop stores. “In general, the economic development helps the small businesses,” he said. “More eyes, more bodies, more people shopping and living here. The improvements to Meydenbauer Beach Park and Bellevue Downtown Park should help bring more visitors.”

An aging rail corridor may be part of that vision. Bellevue’s city council budgeted $1 million to look into a trail that would connect with the Cross Kirkland Corridor and other city and regional trails.

The proposed Tateuchi Center would solve another piece of the city’s puzzle.

“Cultural art is the soul of the city,” Robinson said. “It attracts employees and employers who value that full experience.”

Meanwhile, Bellevue continues to battle its “boring” image.

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Industry Data Source: City of Bellevue Economic Development Plan

“I don’t wholeheartedly disagree with that,” Vander Hoek said. “There are a lot of hidden gems in Bellevue, but we aren’t a Portland or an Austin. Where can we have concerts? A club? Can we get a university? If we want to keep that younger crowd, we need to have a larger vision.”

Youth attracts those types of businesses, so engaging the younger residents in the civic process is critical, Vander Hoek said.

“There is a city council that they elected that will listen to them,” Vander Hoek said, “but how do you encourage a 20-something to sit through a city council meeting?”

The younger residents have different goals, expectations, and things that they enjoy. But Vander Hoek wonders whether the young adults in Bellevue will stick around if there aren’t services catering to their lifestyles.

“That’s the irony,” Vander Hoek said. “To mature as a city, you have to become a little younger and a little hipper.”

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