The luxury retail model is alive and well in downtown Bellevue, where newly constructed high-rise offices, hotels, and apartments dot an ever-changing skyline. And one can’t overlook all the upscale shopping and dining experiences at the Bellevue Collection and the recently expanded Lincoln Square.

However, a mere 3.3 miles east of that glitz and glamour is a vastly different Bellevue community. While the bustling downtown area reeks of grandeur, the Crossroads neighborhood feels more like a suburban retreat, where tree-lined streets and sidewalks are full of stroller-pushing parents and bike-riding toddlers.

Moreover, while the city of Bellevue boasts overall diversity with a foreign-born population of 39 percent, the Crossroads area is a virtual melting pot with 64 percent of its 14,404 residents born outside the United States. It’s the single-most diverse community in the four-county Puget Sound region. For all its differences, Crossroads mirrors downtown as a (less opulent) cultural focal point for entertainment, shopping, and community services; both areas also are densely populated, as well.

Crossroads packs a lot into its borders. Youth Eastside Services maintains its facility in Crossroads, and directly adjacent is Crossroads Park, which features a nine-hole golf course, playground, and a splash pad for hot summer afternoons. Bellevue’s Youth Theater can be found nearby, often with productions gracing its outdoor amphitheater stage or its indoor theater in the round.

The Mall

Not far from these amenities, at the intersection of 156th Avenue Northeast and Northeast Eighth Street, sits the 40-acre site of the pillar of the Crossroads community, the Crossroads Shopping Center.

Originally built as an open-air shopping center in the 1960s and enclosed as a mall in the late 1970s, Crossroads wasn’t always as idyllic as it might seem today. In 1987, at the height of the golden age of malls (1956–2005), the land was crumbling and decaying.

Crossroads Bellevue

Photos by Joanna Kresge

Then, according to a 1998 case study performed by the Urban Land Institute, affordably priced, yet less-than-desirable apartment buildings surrounded a dilapidated shopping center. Gangs and truant teens loitered the hardscrabble parking lots outside boarded-up storefronts while whispers of parking-lot drag races and drug activity ran rampant, frightening potential customers away.

Internal marketing manager and 40-year Crossroads resident Roz Liming remembers those days. “Good grief, it was just a mess,” she said. “I remember going to the theater — which was right next to where the QFC is now — and there were fleas in the seats. You came here only if you had to.”

Then developer Ron Sher assumed management of the center through its parent company, Terranomics Development. The flea-ridden theater, along with a few other dilapidated commercial buildings, were swiftly demolished and replaced with a new theater, as well as a retail building, which included a 7,000-square-foot Blockbuster Video store as its anchor. From there, both interior and exterior improvements were made incrementally.

However, the real problems with Crossroads couldn’t be fixed with new shingles or a fresh coat of paint. The real conundrum was how to attract businesses and customers.

Sher took a page from Kevin Costner’s character in Field of Dreams and adopted a “build it, and they will come” approach. If he could create a gathering place for the Puget Sound’s greatest melting-pot community, vendors once again would begin to take root at the center.

To facilitate this, Sher wanted to create what he called a “third place,” based on the tenets of The Great Good Place by Ray Oldenburg. Everyone has a first place (home) and a second place (work). But it was that third place that filled the gap so locals could read a newspaper, meet a friend, play chess, or perform on stage that brought Crossroads back from the brink of ruin at a time when many domestic malls were starting to flounder.

“(Malls) either went really huge, or they died,” internal marketing manager Liming said of smaller malls during the late 1980s. “That is why this was so cool, because we didn’t go huge, and we didn’t die — (Sher) had a great vision.”

Community members came with their needlepoint, knitting needles, and once even a large spinning wheel. They played card games, board games, and hand-held video games. Their homeowners associations, English as a Second Language groups, and playdates gathered there. They took lessons there and learned to play the accordion or the guitar. They met their friends and family there. People came, and with them came the vendors and the center’s revitalization.

Most prominent among the new venues was the array of food vendors that lined the food court and halls. Patrons could eat their way around the world, tasting an array of eclectic and varied dishes from places like Korea, Japan, India, Russia, France, Italy, Vietnam, and the Mediterranean.

“Ron did that very intentionally,” said Sue Popma, an independent marketing director for the center. “No big national chains; he really wanted to create opportunities for all kinds of people to start a business and have a place where they could give it a go. A lot of them have been there since the beginning because they got their start with Ron.”

Second to the diverse cuisine, the services the newly revamped center provided to the community proved invaluable. Over time, a branch of the King County Library System appeared at the center, with computer labs and resumé clinics. A police substation in one of the campus’ detached buildings popped up. A vehicle licensing office allowed nearby residents to renew their car tabs while they shopped. There’s even Mini City Hall, a satellite office for the City of Bellevue that caters to the varying demographics in the Crossroads community.

“When you talk about a foreign workforce, people’s experience with government in different countries is very different than here in the United States,” said Mike McCormick Huentelman, neighborhood outreach manager for the Crossroads area. “Having a place that is really putting the face of government out there in a welcoming, friendly way really changes the relationship people have with the government.”

To help facilitate that relationship, staff and volunteers manning the desk at Mini City Hall can offer services in 11 languages (including English) on certain days and times, while more than 100 languages can be translated through a Dual Receiver Language Line. Mini City Hall saw more than 24,000 visitors in 2016 and more than 52,000 processed requests.

The center was sold to the Retail Opportunity Investments Corporation in 2013, but retains Sher’s original vision.

Facilitating Friendships

Ying Carlson knows what it’s like to feel alone in a new city. After moving to Bellevue in 2006, she volunteered to put her Cantonese and Mandarin Chinese skills to good use making new friends and helping non-English speakers at Mini City Hall, and now she’s the facility’s co-manager. Carlson also helped spearhead and run the city’s Cultural Conversations speaker series aimed at women and held at Crossroads.

“Women were coming to us, and they told us that they live in this really diverse neighborhood but they only seem to hang out with the people that look like them and speak the same language,” Carlson said. “We meet every month and we have over 600 people on the mailing list; about 70-80 people come for each session.”

Crossroads BellevueDespite all the business licenses Carlson and her staff are issuing over at Mini City Hall, Bellevue’s economic development director James Henderson said he doesn’t see Crossroads growing too much other than some possible technology growth due to Crossroads’ proximity to the Microsoft campus; some companies like Inspur have already settled in the area.

Henderson said he believes Crossroads will retain the same neighborhood feel that it has today. The community isn’t located in one of the city’s designated growth corridors — like downtown, Bel-Red, and Eastgate are — however, he thinks the Spring District boom in Bel-Red will catalyze an upward trend in foot traffic for the adjacent Crossroads neighborhood.

“I think the Link Light Rail line is going to be a big game-changer for Bellevue because of the connectedness to Seattle,” he said. “That way, folks who wouldn’t normally make the trip across the bridge would come on the light rail and explore the offerings in the Crossroads area.”

However, Henderson said there’s no reason to wait until 2023 for East Link to be up and running. Crossroads is waiting.

“I would encourage people who haven’t been out there in a while to go check out the area and see how much it has changed,” he said. “It would be great for people to explore it and take advantage of it.”