Bellevue’s citizens, businesses, and government have been financially shaken by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the city was jarred by downtown rioting and looting on May 31, but the city’s foundation is solid and Bellevue is positioned to emerge stronger from 2020’s challenges and remain a beacon for others, two City leaders said Thursday.
“I’ve never been more bullish about Bellevue,” Deputy Mayor Jared Nieuwenhuis said during an hour-long State of the City webinar during which he and Mayor Lynne Robinson fielded questions from Patrick Bannon, president of the Bellevue Downtown Association (BDA).
Nieuwenhuis is confident the city will emerge stronger and better after the pandemic.
“We still are that shining city on a hill because of the makeup of our residents, quite frankly — residents that value and ensure a strong sense of community, a commitment to public safety, excellent schools, world-class parks, and a business climate that, quite frankly, is the envy of cities all over the country. So Bellevue is still that place that you want to be,” he said.
Robinson acknowledged the difficulty facing the community and businesses during the pandemic, “but from what I hear regionally and federally, and locally, our city is better positioned than any other city to get through this and we’ll get through it together,” she said. “We have to continue helping each other.”
If people feel like they’re not receiving the help they need, she encouraged them to contact the City or email her directly. Often, the need simply needs to be connected to resources, Robinson said.
A big need she hears is rental assistance for businesses and individual households. She lauded Bellevue’s approach to put “hundreds of thousands of dollars into rental assistance” to ease rent burdens.
Robinson and Nieuwenhuis highlighted some of the City’s responses to the pandemic, including from the BDA and Bellevue Chamber, such as posting critical information on websites, distributing personal protection equipment, navigating loan programs, deferring local small-business taxes, suspending water shutoffs, permitting expanded outdoor dining, and distributing postcards and flyers with key information in multiple languages.
Robinson cited small businesses helping one another and mentioned Poulsbo-based Liberty Bank as an example. The bank did an “amazing job” of providing 300 PPP loans to businesses amounting to $50 million, she said, citing a bank-wide number. The bank opened an office in Bellevue in February to serve King County and its president and chief lending officer, Alan Fulp, heads the local office and sits on BDA’s board.
About 30 percent of those PPP loans were made in Bellevue, Fulp said in a follow-up interview. Robinson and Fulp noted everyone who applied for a PPP loan through Liberty Bank got one.
Overall, city businesses received 4,000 PPP loans preserving 35,000 jobs, Robinson said.
Addressing a question from Bannon about workforce trends, Nieuwenhuis earlier this year had talked about the importance of a diverse economy in Bellevue. Ironically, he said, the city’s tech-heavy economy has worked to its advantage during the pandemic, with many employees easily working from home.
“That’s been very helpful for our economy for sure,” he said.
The retail, lodging, and restaurant industries haven’t been so fortunate. With unemployment rates of about 48 percent in the hotel and food services industries, 26 percent in retail trade, and 22 percent in arts/entertainment/recreation — all disproportionately affecting the bottom of the income scale, he said, citing the City’s desire to help.
There are “glimmers of hope,” though, for those industries, with hotel occupancy doubling since April, to about 20 percent; traffic volumes into the city rising by more than 50 percent; and pedestrian use of crosswalks up 70 percent to 80 percent, “so there are more people that are out, about, hopefully, shopping, going to restaurants or coffee, or you name it.”
Biking is up, too, hitting all-time highs, he said.
The City will monitor the work-from-home trend to see how it affects the tech landscape, Nieuwenhuis said, calling the situation fluid.
Asked about affordable housing, Robinson said housing supply and affordability is no longer considered optional for Bellevue.
“Now we realize that it’s really essential for economic vitality and for that high livability that we all want — and frankly, right now we do not have a full spectrum of housing affordabilities,” she said, adding that less than 10 percent of Bellevue’s housing is affordable to a family of four earning $100,000 per year.
The City is focused on the issue, she said, examining rezoning properties in growth areas to accommodate affordable housing, for example. It decreased parking requirements in transit-oriented development zones for affordable housing, added incentives for market-rate housing to include affordable housing, and is partnering with companies like Microsoft to retain affordable housing already in Bellevue.
The City’s goal three years ago was to create 2,500 affordable units in 10 years. It already has created 500 affordable units and has 900 more in the pipeline, she said.
Like other cities, the pandemic is hurting Bellevue’s budget, which is expected to face a $12 million to $16 million shortfall, Nieuwenhuis said. Pandemic recovery could take two to three years, he said, hopeful Bellevue can recover quicker. Budget deliberations begin in September, he said, encouraging business and resident input.
Asked if Bellevue would consider a payroll tax to address revenue challenges, as Seattle has, Nieuwenhuis cited a council colleague in not wanting to kill the goose that laid the golden egg.
“I think this is perhaps apropos to the payroll tax,” Nieuwenhuis said. “I don’t think there is any appetite to move anything like that forward in the city of Bellevue. … Businesses want to be here in Bellevue and that’s primarily because they see where we see as a City … the business community as a partner,” he said, noting 45-plus corporate headquarters in the city, 100 international companies and 150,000 jobs.
Robinson hopes to see more people living in Bellevue who work in Bellevue. Only about 10 percent of people living in Bellevue work there, which heavily affects transportation, she said, excited by the East Link light rail extension coming in 2023, which she said continues ahead of schedule and under budget. She also looks forward to the Eastrail bike-pedestrian route getting connected, providing a safe throughway north and south of the city.
Nieuwenhuis referenced the rioting and looting May 31, calling it a painful lesson.
“I think Bellevue lost a little bit of its innocence that day,” he said. “That was something that was always somewhere else, that something like that could not happen to Bellevue, but it did.”
The City has arrested 23 people from that incident so far, with more coming, and the City is pressuring county prosecutors to prosecute to the fullest extent of the law, he said. The City also is working to ensure such an incident doesn’t recur and to be more prepared if one appears possible.
Nieuwenhuis praised City police for their response and overall quality, ranking among six percent of U.S. forces nationally accredited. A nationally accredited police department has never ended up under a federal consent decree for a pattern of excessive force. Accreditation requires meeting 400-plus standards on best policing practices, including promoting community building, accountability, diversity training, and de-escalation — so Bellevue police already are doing what many are asking of police, but City police are open to continuous improvement, he said.
Asked about national issues of systemic racism, equity, and inclusion, he noted the city’s growing minority population — 41 percent in 2010, 51 percent in 2018 — and said the City overall has taken diversity seriously for years, listing staff and community efforts focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Asked about inspiring moments in recent weeks, Nieuwenhuis was inspired to see businesses and residents meet to clean up downtown the morning after the riots. While the damage was traumatic, businesses remained positive about Bellevue and wanted to be part of the solution, he said.
“But the most inspiring moment for me was when we showed up at 10 o’clock at the downtown park to start cleanup, the Bellevue High School students had already been there since 6 a.m. and had done most of the work in the downtown park — and I’ve never seen high school students get up that early,” she said. “And I was just so impressed and I wish I could thank them personally.”
To watch the State of the City event, visit the City’s YouTube channel.