In the 1970s, downtown Bellevue was an asphalt expanse. Then a group of businesspeople, led by a dedicated city planner, stepped in to change the city’s course.
Fred Herman couldn’t help but think about the future when he sat down for lunch at Clark’s Crabapple in March 1973. Although Herman was 62 and nearing retirement, he wasn’t thinking about the long days he would be spending on his Sinclair Island property. Instead, he was envisioning the future of his city and a plan that could cement his legacy.
Tall and bespectacled, Herman was a professorial type known to break his normally calm demeanor when talk turned to urban renewal or the city of Bellevue, the growth of which he had overseen for the previous two decades as city planner. Herman’s city was the topic of that March lunch meeting. He was aiming to create a long-term plan for downtown, one that would outlive him and transform the city center from an asphalt-covered expanse into a thriving urban village. Herman had eight allies in tow; their goal was simple yet significant: Convince the three most powerful businessmen in town to champion the creation of a dense city core.
Herman was hired when Bellevue incorporated in 1953. His first two decades on the job were spent paving streets, burying utilities, and orchestrating the other standard tasks that come with incorporation. But to Herman, an artist at heart, these were just chores, the metaphorical gesso priming his blacktop canvas for the gleaming city he envisioned. America had seen plenty of cities spring from the ground in a haphazard fashion. Herman wasn’t about to let Bellevue become one of them.
In the two years leading up to the lunch, Herman, seven private-sector workers, and City Councilman Mel Vanik had met regularly to study urban renewal. Herman force-fed this brain trust more than 300 pages of documents, stories, and studies about revitalized downtowns. Together, the men conjured a thoughtful growth plan for Bellevue that would preempt the renewal phase older cities were undergoing, but to execute it they needed support from people with commercial interest in the project. So Herman gathered his team and met the city’s most powerful businessmen at the Crabapple.
Herman called them “The Three Moguls.” Collectively, they had the sway to shape the city. They were Kemper Freeman, who had built Bellevue Square 27 years earlier; Fred Danz, who had inherited Sterling Recreation Organization’s theater and bowling alley empire; and Bob Evans, who managed Puget Power’s landholdings.
The downtown Bellevue enjoys today — the skyscrapers, the employment base, the diversity, and the dense, urban living — was only an idea four decades ago. Its realization is a byproduct of Herman’s vision, the dedication and resources of Bellevue’s early landowners, and long-range plans put forth by those landowners and the city. But before the high-rises, plans, and public-private partnership could come to fruition, Herman had to make his pitch. And the Moguls had to approve it.
So at the Crabapple, Herman’s crew preached. They spoke of a city fit for the future, one with multimodal transportation, public plazas, and dense, multi-use development. Their presentation, Herman wrote a week before the lunch, was to “anchor the idea in the minds of our three gentlemen.”
“Then,” he wrote, “we can pray.”
It was time for Bellevue to grow up.
In 1953, the city consisted of about 6,000 people and strawberry fields forever. By the early 1970s, annexes and a pair of floating bridges over Lake Washington had swelled the population to more than 60,000, and the strawberry fields were being paved over for housing tracts and parking lots.
In response, Herman convened Bellevue’s chamber of commerce and its city council. The pitch: Create a 50-year comprehensive plan for the business districts. The verdict: Get to work.
Forming a group of private-sector citizens to lead the charge was of paramount importance to Herman. Creating such a plan required a great deal of creative foresight and city planning expertise, both of which Herman possessed. But ensuring its implementation required buy-in from downtown property owners. “Commitment to the (project),” Herman wrote in a memo to the city council, “must be mind, mouth, time and pocketbook.”
Herman’s courting of business owners proved valuable.
“He was the best that I can remember who could go out and meet with property owners and explain the long-term benefits of doing it right,” says Kemper Freeman Jr., whose father was one of The Three Moguls. “He met and talked with business people, not scaring the crap out of them, but saying this is what we need to do.”
Before Herman could make an appeal to property owners, he created his eight-person brain trust, later called the Bellevue Future Committee. It consisted of experts in the fields of management, government, architecture, law, banking, and property assessment. Herman bombarded this crew with articles and studies about urban renewal in Pittsburgh, San Francisco, San Antonio, Hartford, and Anaheim. Research trips were taken to Minneapolis, Baltimore, Cincinnati, and Philadelphia. Even Walt Disney World became a case study for the brain trust to mull.
They weren’t just looking at these places to see what was done correctly. One of the greatest planning mistakes, Herman felt, was that some cities “just happened” — they expanded as quickly as needed to support whatever industry sparked their existence. Seattle, for example, was built atop mounds of sawdust along the waterfront — far from a sound long-term plan, but that expansion allowed workers to continue cutting and shipping logs. Herman studied cities not just to see how they were revamping their downtowns, but also to learn why revamping was necessary in the first place. From this emerged the idea for a “superior city.”
Herman’s superior city looked a lot like the current brand of urbanism. Today, celebrated downtowns combine mixed-use density, walkability, transit, and cultural diversity to produce vibrancy for residents, workers, and visitors. That’s what Herman was shooting for in the 1970s.
Many of today’s workers are eschewing the traditional suburban home-ownership model in favor of buying condos or renting apartments in dense urban areas. That mixed-use density was a hallmark of Herman’s push to create what he called “a place for people.” When he first laid out the specifics of his superior city to the city council in 1971, mixed-use zoning was a critical component. He called for enough housing to accommodate 20,000 people in and around the city’s business centers, and multifamily units were a requisite. He felt the commingling of homes, work, retail, and public amenities — a foreign blend in 1970s suburbs — would create a symbiotic urban village.
A side effect of density is fundamentally changing the culture of cities. Beginning in the mid-2000s, automobile use declined in the U.S. for the first time since the 1940s. Fewer teenagers are getting driver’s licenses than in decades past, and working adults are increasingly embracing the car-free lifestyle.
Cities are being forced to adapt. Denver, for example, is undergoing a $7.8 billion construction spree that will add 121 miles of passenger rail and 18 miles of dedicated rapid-transit bus lines. Passengers will load and unload at 57 new stations, the largest of which will be integrated into pedestrian- and bike-friendly urban centers.
Herman was advocating for a Denver-style system for Bellevue. “Most of the problems of downtown Bellevue stem from one condition,” he wrote to his brain trust in 1972. “The City cores are almost exclusively auto oriented.” He cited a hazardous walking landscape, saying the pedestrian was a “pipsqueak” and that people in wheelchairs or with children in tow shouldn’t even bother crossing the traffic-choked streets.
The barren pedestrian landscape Herman bemoaned was, ironically, his own doing. Older cities, he noted in a 1990 oral history, were built to accommodate the horse and carriage. But Bellevue “had lots of cars, so we said, ‘Maybe we should try to design blocks that fit the car.’” The result was the superblock — 600-foot-wide city blocks that are twice as long as Seattle’s and three times Portland’s. The five-lane streets and fewer intersections empower drivers, but pedestrians still feel like, well, pipsqueaks.
Herman’s studies and, later, the 1970s oil crises, changed his mind about the car’s role in urban centers. After seeing some cities, his included, succumb to the auto, he felt downtown needed to be a dense, pedestrian-friendly area with amenities for people of all cultures to enjoy. He requested downtown be laid out with parades in mind, and said public amphitheaters should be implemented in gathering spaces. Herman foresaw the ethnic diversity Bellevue enjoys today, and felt the city should embrace that in its aesthetic design. Trees and flags of many nations, he felt, “should be designed into the (central business district) complex in shops, restaurants, art, color, and materials.”
The vision was grand, the foresight impeccable. Consider the state of the suburb at the time: Following World War II, families grew and there was an auto in every carport. Assisted by the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, cities nationwide began building bigger roads. Driving was the easiest — and coolest — mode of transportation. Sprawl, a venomous word in today’s urban lexicon, was pervasive and it cultivated urban segregation. Race, property use, household income — all of it fell along common lines. This pattern made for pretty yards and huge homes filled with white residents in the suburbs, while minority residents lived in languishing downtowns.
“The late ’70s in a lot of ways was not a great time for urban planning,” says Tim Trohimovich, director of planning for Futurewise, an organization promoting equitable urban growth in Washington. “One of the mistakes that planners were making … was building these self-contained developments that would keep the ‘riffraff’ out, by almost building walls or moats around them” in the form of wide streets or other barriers.
Herman, despite the practices of his colleagues in other cities, was able to look at a homogenous, sprawling suburb and see fertile ground for urbanism.
“Fred was a visionary,” says Freeman Jr. “Today, there’s a whole planning department. But back then, it was one person. To me, it’s amazing how solid his ideas were.”
Diversity was paramount: of people, of recreation, of housing, of transportation, of things to do. But in the early ’70s, such variety didn’t exist. That’s one reason Herman courted The Three Moguls at the Crabapple — even if he wanted to go elsewhere, there weren’t many other options in amenity-starved Bellevue.
Freeman, Danz, and Evans were enjoying success in the young city of Bellevue, so it wouldn’t have been a surprise if they shrugged off the fanciful suggestions put forth by Herman and his cohort. But Bellevue was a city on the rise, and residents were ready to be guided. Herman later detailed the 1973 meeting in a memo to the city council:
“Lo and behold, the three prime movers never questioned the concept. It was accepted — lock, stock and barrel. Their only questions were how to get the show on the road, what kind of organization is needed, (and) when can we get started.”
Commitment from The Three Moguls put into motion the most critical leg of Herman’s plan. In a memo to his brain trust, Herman noted that “in the typical city, years and years of citizen group studies and debates aimed at ‘doing something about the city’ accomplished nothing, until the downtown businessmen got organized — harnessed all the horses, picked up the reins, whipped all the rumps and moved the whole damn city.”
Herman sold many property owners on the concept and was finally able to build a group with enough clout and money to enact change. The Bellevue Downtown Development Board signed its articles of incorporation on June 19, 1974. Herman wasn’t a member of the organization at that point because he was still employed by the city, but he attended meetings and continued to serve as the group’s unofficial leader.
When Herman needed the board to be prodded in a more aggressive fashion, he turned to Paul Vander Hoek. The Eastside Paint and Glass owner quickly took charge and helped keep things in order.
“(Dad) felt pretty strongly that people who were invested in downtown should be at the table and take ownership in the decision making,” says Stu Vander Hoek, Paul’s son and president of the Vander Hoek Corporation. “If you didn’t show up, or do your homework or raise money, that’s where Dad would crack the whip.”
Equally pointed but less gruff was Fred Danz, another of Herman’s Three Moguls. Danz was a reserved man who was thrifty with time and words — he was known to set a timer at meetings and leave when it sounded, regardless of the meeting’s progress — but had a reputation as one of the most charitable people on the Eastside. He was one of the more committed figures on the board, once attending a Saturday meeting a day before undergoing heart surgery.
“He was one of the smartest people I’ve ever met,” says David Schooler, who was hired by Danz in 1979 and is now president of Sterling Realty Organization. “He was tough, tough on himself. He was demanding on the people who worked for him, but no more demanding than he was on himself.”
Together, Danz and Paul Vander Hoek served as de facto ringleaders while the group formulated its plan for downtown. Strong personalities both, they sometimes clashed, only to reunite and keep the board in order.
The board members had plenty of determination and cash to come up with a plan, but they needed someone who could sell the concept to the city council. After Jeff Holland, a city planner from Arizona, served a stint as executive director, then-chairman Robert Wallace pegged an unlikely successor that could help the board achieve that goal: Nancy Rising.
Rising was Bellevue’s first female city council member and didn’t subscribe to the business-first mores of some board members.
“And worse yet, she was a Democrat,” says Wallace, president of Wallace Properties. “The realization was that we needed to move from the planning stage to the implementation stage. We needed someone with experience with the city, and respect with the city’s council and management, and was a bit of an ass-kicker to help push this thing through.”
Rising helped broaden the board’s scope of downtown, and played a critical role in fostering compromise between board members and the council when it was time to formalize a plan.
“My thought was to work with these people and get them to see another side of commerce,” says Rising, now retired and living in Kirkland. “That means contributing to the arts, not just opening your door and taking people’s money.”
Vander Hoek, Danz, and Rising formed the board’s backbone, but the heart of the organization was Kemper Freeman. He wasn’t the most vocal or active member, and he had fraught relationships with some board members. But he and his Bellevue Square mall were unwittingly thrust into a conflict that every downtown business owner had a stake in.
In 1976, Bellevue Square was an open-air skeleton of its current self but nonetheless Bellevue’s unquestioned anchor. That year, the board hired Coldwell Banker to gauge downtown’s economic potential, and analyst Saul Rabin delivered the results. Rabin’s message: If Bellevue Square doubles in size, downtown will be fine; if it doesn’t, the city is in trouble.
The reason was Evergreen East, a huge five-anchor mall that was proposed for present-day Redmond by Ohio developer Edward J. DeBartolo. According to Rabin, DeBartolo’s mall would be a death knell to the vibrant downtown the board was gunning for.
“You can look at almost any town in America where some guy has come along and gone out into the pastureland and built a regional mall; it sucks the lifeblood out of a downtown,” Wallace says. “In almost every case, the town dwindles. The pastureland mall is a killer of hundreds of downtowns.”
DeBartolo was a developer with unmatched clout. The corporation that shared his name was on its way to amassing more than 2 billion square feet of retail space nationwide, and a common belief at the time was that a DeBartolo proposal had never been turned down. He was in the top 50 on Forbes’ inaugural list of richest Americans in 1983, and his family eventually purchased the San Francisco 49ers and the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Eastside had never dealt with an individual of DeBartolo’s status.
Eastsiders had welcomed the idea of Evergreen East when it was first proposed in the late 1960s. DeBartolo had a good track record, and development of any kind was welcome at the time. Furthermore, the Bon Marche had signed on as an anchor tenant — one Bellevue Square couldn’t match at the time. But a groundswell against DeBartolo arose over time. At first, it was a few voices — Herman and Rising among them — who warned of the implications that were later made clear by Rabin.
“(Rabin said) there’s enough market to support doubling the size of Bellevue Square or Evergreen East. There’s not enough market to support them both. He said unequivocally one of these isn’t going to happen,” says Freeman Jr. “Dad had never heard that. I had never heard that. Nobody had ever explained that phenomenon to us.”
Guided by Herman, Vander Hoek and Danz, and with the threat of Evergreen East looming, the Downtown Development Board got to work formulating a downtown plan. One of the first items to address was what Rabin said was the greatest barrier to downtown growth: parking.
“My wife and I drove into town in August of 1976,” recalls Schooler, who came to Bellevue from Denver for a job in Herman’s planning department. “We went to Benjamin’s to get something to eat, and we looked down and there were all these parking lots. There was all this asphalt, and it just wasn’t very interesting.”
Parking lots were so pervasive — they covered 56.5 percent of downtown in 1975 — because land-use code inherited from pre-incorporation days mandated that businesses provide five parking stalls per 1,000 square feet of floor space.
“There was no other (building) restriction,” says Freeman Jr. “You could have built the Empire State Building if you wanted to,” but you’d need the land for 13,500 surface parking spaces — 1,000 more than all of downtown had in 1975.
But if the board was to eliminate the parking lot problem, regulating building heights was necessary. The tiered wedding-cake system, in which building height is greatest in the center of downtown and gradually decreases toward the edges, was eventually agreed upon, but not without misgivings from some members who felt the limits were too strict, particularly on the fringe of downtown. The group also had to fend off a coalition of community members, led by soon-to-be-councilwoman Maria Cain, who vehemently opposed skyscrapers. An integral motivator for the board to amend parking and increase density in the 400-acre downtown was to preserve the residential areas outside the central business district. But residents of communities such as Vuecrest didn’t see it that way at the time, citing the “looming effect” of tall buildings they felt would harm property values.
In November 1977, the board submitted to the city council its plan to govern downtown growth. That plan was the source of many of downtown’s defining characteristics, including the strict boundaries of downtown, off-street parking, the tiered height limits, and mixed-use zoning. A commitment to multimodal transportation and pedestrian-friendly building interfaces was included at Herman’s behest. To sweeten the deal for developers, an amenity system was suggested that would allow larger buildings in exchange for public art, pedestrian-friendly features, and plazas.
The council embraced the plan and formed a committee to get it on the books. The 14-person committee featured four board members, including Danz and Rising.
The framework plan had strong support from the council and much of the business community. On Nov. 13, 1979, the city council unanimously approved the Central Business District Subarea Plan produced by the action committee. The plan was a byproduct of Herman’s doggedness and the board’s goal for a vibrant downtown that would protect surrounding neighborhoods from commercial sprawl. Two years later, zoning very similar to the board’s framework suggestions was ratified by the city council, with Cain casting the lone “nay” vote.
That’s when the growth began.
Lyndsey Patterson is a testament to the Downtown Development Board’s success. The 33-year-old lives and works in downtown Bellevue, frequents happy hours with friends and coworkers, patronizes the farmers market, and organizes bike rides. She has spent the past five years with Concur Technologies, a company that moved from Redmond to downtown Bellevue in 2013. A year later, the lifelong Seattle resident herself bolted for Bellevue.
“I wake up every morning, and it takes me about eight minutes to get to work,” Patterson says. “My grocery store is in the building where I live. All the personal services I need are within a block.”
That commute was the catalyst for Patterson’s move, but she has discovered other perks to living in downtown Bellevue. She found the “Blahvue” reputation isn’t anchored in reality — the dining and nightlife scenes have impressed her, and she appreciates the safety and cleanliness of downtown.
The ultimate goal of Fred Herman and his board was to get residents like Patterson and companies like Concur to relocate downtown. Patterson is one of about 11,000 people living there. The city’s high-rises are replete with corporations, its restaurant scene is blossoming, and buildings now mesh with sidewalks instead of parking lots. Pedestrians are met with retail, seating, and other attractions at building interfaces.
There are other signs of downtown’s health. Bellevue Square has expanded, and mall developer DeBartolo was driven out by a mix of Bellevue litigation and public dissent (the Evergreen East grounds in Redmond became the Microsoft campus). Residents flock to Downtown Park, a junior high campus back in the board days, for festivals, concerts, and the like. Developers have built plazas, and the skyscrapers in Bellevue are by and large aesthetically pleasing. Transit runs through the city, and soon a train will, too. All characteristics of great downtowns, all sparked by one lunch meeting in 1973.
“(Building downtown) involved a very significant amount of risk,” says Patrick Bannon, president of the Bellevue Downtown Association, the present-day iteration of the development board. “Risk for the private property owners … and risk for the city to say we’re going to put resources and our own economic future on the line in building what amounted to a new downtown for the city.”
Herman, who died in 1997, would find many of his goals achieved in today’s downtown, but his superior city hasn’t fully taken shape. For one, the desired harmony between automobile and pedestrian hasn’t been realized. More pedestrians walk Bellevue’s streets than in the 1970s, but an increase in volume doesn’t inherently make downtown pedestrian-friendly. Couple that with the regional issue of mass transportation and highway improvements, and Bellevue remains a city that is wrestling with its connection to the car.
“We have a legacy 1950s situation,” says Dan Stroh, Bellevue’s planning director. “Back in those days, people thought the superblock was the way to go. So we have these 600-foot blocks that are pretty big. … If you’re a pedestrian having to go 600 feet one way and then 600 feet another as opposed to using (shorter blocks), that’s a problem.”
One win for walkers was supposed to be the pedestrian corridor that runs down Northeast Sixth Street. It was envisioned by the board as an enclosed mall, but that idea was molded with the city into a walkway that was meant to be saturated with art, sculptures, and other interactive features. Developers are responsible for building sections adjacent to their property, a move designed to financially and functionally tie buildings and the walkway. But
that strategy has resulted in a disjointed path through prime pedestrian real estate.
“That was the idea, that each building would do its part,” says Stroh. “But over 30 years, there are still a lot of unbuilt parts of the corridor. … The piecemeal development that’s taken 30 years and is still a work in progress doesn’t provide a continuity of the experience. There aren’t enough things happening as you go down the corridor.”
According to Bannon, the pedestrian corridor is a potentially defining characteristic for downtown that deserves more attention. “The fact that a light-rail station is going to be coming in near City Hall and that there will be more development along the corridor, it is high time for the city and property owners to look at the vision for that corridor and create an opportunity for greater pedestrian mobility downtown,” he says.
Affordability is another issue, one that Herman and the board didn’t consider in the 1970s. Downtown property is expensive today, and developers say there aren’t enough incentives to convince them to offer cheap retail, offices, or housing. The result is a dearth of affordable units, especially housing. Of the 1,957 residential units under construction at press time, only 91 are designated for low-income residents.
“There needs to be more provisions for a mix of incomes downtown,” says Futurewise’s Trohimovich. “I think they tried to do that with greater density, but they provided for high-rises instead of mid-rises, which tend to be more affordable.”
There is just reason to address these issues with haste. Bellevue is competing with Denver, Austin, the Bay Area, and Seattle for tech companies and talent that require an amenity-filled, diverse downtown that’s easy to navigate.
In response, a downtown livability committee was organized in 2012. It will submit to the city council in 2015 recommendations on how Bellevue can make downtown a better place to live and work for the 9,000 additional people expected to move there by 2030.
“Downtown leaders and the city council understand we are in a competition for jobs and investment with other thriving areas,” says Bannon, a member of the committee. “The very things that help make people stick downtown are going to be the places we need to focus on. … Talent is looking to be in close proximity to one another. They want amenities around to support employees. And they need transportation options.”
Some of the committee’s suggestions echo the principles Herman touted 40 years ago, while others touch on elements he missed. Among them: an expanded pedestrian corridor with more weather protection, open spaces in each of downtown’s seven neighborhoods, more gathering spaces, building height increasesup to 600 feet, and affordable housing incentives.
Once the council receives the recommendations, it will spend months weighing them and soliciting stakeholder input.
Bellevue has plenty of work to do, but it’s still a city in its infancy.
“Cities take hundreds of years to build, and in the 35 years since the CBD plan, it’s astonishing how much has happened,” says Sterling Realty Organization’s Schooler. “Do we have everything we should have? No. You can tick off cultural issues, street-life issues, transit, parks. Many people are impatient, but if you think about springing forward another 35 years, I think we will have a lot of those things.”
That’s the thing about downtown — the growing pains aren’t over, and none of the goals for it are out of reach. It can attract more residents and shops. It can beat San Francisco and Austin in the competition for tech companies. It can even become conducive to walking, biking, and driving. These goals are all attainable, and many adhere to the tenets Fred Herman pitched to The Three Moguls in 1973.