Few people have witnessed Bellevue’s development over the past three decades quite like the city’s planning director, Dan Stroh. Employment and residential booms downtown, boundary-moving annexations, and increasing demands on transportation and housing — Stroh has dealt with all of it.
That changes today when Stroh, 62, retires after working at Bellevue City Hall for the past 27 years. Michael “Mac” Cummins, a veteran planning manager from the City of Westminster, Colorado, fills the position this month.
“It’s tough to leave, though I never thought I would stay here this long,” said Stroh during an hour-long interview earlier this month at City Hall. “It’s been a great 27 years. I hope I have done good things for the community, and realize that anything that I contributed is mostly due to the contributions of other people here, the city council, and many other parties.”
Stroh’s professional planning career started in 1982 in North Carolina, where he spent five years in community development and urban planning before he moved to the Pacific Northwest and was hired by the City of Kent as a senior planner. He joined the City of Bellevue two years later, first as a senior planner, then as the planning director beginning in 1998.
Stroh recently discussed his interest in urban development, Bellevue’s growth, and his future plans once he leaves City Hall.
425 BUSINESS: How did you get into planning? What were those early years like for you in college? Was it something that you were always interested in?
DAN STROH: I’ve always been fascinated with cities. I studied archaeology and anthropology in college and did an internship with a visiting professor who was an economic historian. We traveled around England and France and looked at the evolution of cities — how they grew and changed over time, how they dealt with issues and opportunities over the centuries — and this became enormously interesting to me.
I was also pulled into this field by wanting to make a difference. Growing up in Central Virginia at that time, I was seeing “galloping growth” that was moving way outside the core city and really impacting some areas that were quite beautiful, and losing some of the character that made them real special. I thought, gosh, is there any way I can intervene in this? I discovered city planning as the ticket both for my interest in cities and a way to help make them better. After my undergraduate work at the College of William and Mary, I went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and (completed) a master’s degree in planning. That’s how I got into it.
425 BUSINESS: Bellevue has seen tremendous growth since you began working at City Hall. What have been the challenges in keeping up with that growth? Have you felt like you have been in the hot seat in terms of planning for and responding to that growth?
STROH: Bellevue had about 87,000 people in 1990, and it’s pushing 140,000 people now. The bigger dynamic has been in job growth. Bellevue was at about 90,000 jobs in 1990 when I came here, and now is well north of 150,000 jobs. Sometimes people compare Bellevue to another community of 140,000 people, but it’s really that combined effect of population plus an incredibly dynamic job engine here, which gives us a daytime population that is much, much higher than the residential population
So, in terms of being in a hot seat, yeah, it’s been a constant series of challenges about how to grow gracefully. That’s the question for a community like this. What we are trying to do with growth management is to focus growth where it should happen, keep it out of places where it shouldn’t happen, and ultimately create a higher quality of life in both places. In a nutshell, that’s what the job of planner is really about.
425 BUSINESS: What is one big challenge still facing Bellevue’s future in terms of planning and development?
STROH: Keeping up with transportation systems is always a big challenge. As we densify and there is more development in the urban area, we reach a level of density where transit can work, but it’s hard to keep up with the needed regional transit system. We’re just now bringing light rail to the Eastside, but it won’t be available until 2023. The growth pains between now and then of keeping pace with transportation systems for transit and for the rest of the regional transportation system have been a continued challenge. In a place as dynamic as Bellevue, that’s not surprising.
It’s interesting how there have been some recent behavioral changes that are particularly heartening for an urban planner. Millennial generations and beyond are embracing urbanism in a way that Baby Boomers did not. What that has meant raises some pretty interesting questions in terms of how our dense urban areas are going to prosper. (Millennials) have embraced urbanism more, they are living in central city areas more, they are tending to have lower rates of car use, car-sharing is much more prevalent, and they are making much higher use of transit. Cities are needing to catch up with some of those behavioral changes. These are basically the consumers and the workforce of the future. Those behavioral trends may prove to be really helpful to urban areas and help us through some of our transportation issues.
425 BUSINESS: What are some misperceptions people might have about Bellevue in terms of planning and development? Are there aspects, demographics, or trends about Bellevue planning that might surprise people?
STROH: I’m constantly surprised how little that people understand the demographics of Bellevue and how this community has changed. There is still a perception out there that Bellevue is a place of predominantly Caucasian families with kids. The reality is that by 2015 Bellevue has become a place where predominantly non-Hispanic whites are in the minority. There is just tremendous ethnic and cultural diversity in this city. People from all over the world come here and become contributing parts of the community, and are welcomed here. I think that level of cultural and ethnic diversity is something that the rest of the region doesn’t understand well about Bellevue. People in Bellevue know that, but people in the rest of the region don’t.
The other misperception is that people see the high-rises downtown and assume that all of Bellevue’s jobs are downtown. In fact, only about one in three Bellevue jobs are downtown. We have several other major job centers: Bel-Red, Eastgate, Factoria, Crossroads, Wilburton. Downtown Bellevue certainly is where the lion’s share of our growth will be, but there are a lot of jobs, including regional jobs, in other parts of Bellevue that are less on people’s radar screens.
425 BUSINESS: Why are you leaving the City of Bellevue? What is next for you?
STROH: I want to take advantage of a lot of other opportunities while I’m still healthy and still relatively young. I want to do some extensive world travel with my family. I feel really fortunate to be able to do that at this point.
There are a lot of things that are working very well for us (at the City of Bellevue), so wanting to leave at a high point (is important). It’s as simple as that. You never want to overstay your welcome. My time in Bellevue has been incredibly rewarding. Bellevue has been a really interesting place to be, where you feel like you can get things done. It’s been dynamic in a way that I get a charge out of. Staying in one place for a long time as a city planner, you actually have a role in getting things implemented and can see the results on the ground. That is rewarding and something that not all planners get to do.