A towering new identity in Bellevue
Seattle Times Eastside bureau
Source: State Office of Financial Management
Square feet of Class A, or prime, office space in downtown: About 5 million
Number of jobs: 125,000
Number of residential units downtown: 867 in 1995; 3,421 today
Number of people living in downtown: 2,500 in 2000; 4,500 today
Median household income: $62,338
Average household size: 2.37
Source: Bellevue Economic Profile 2005
From the top of Bellevue's newest skyscraper, the Sea-Tac control tower is a toothpick. Mount St. Helens resembles a snowy pimple on the face of the less distant Mount Rainier. Most of the Eastside's houses and buildings are tiny smudges on a blue-and-green landscape. Gaze out from this spot and the world is a peaceful postcard.
On the sidewalk 42 floors below, the perspective is quite different. The building looms over the city's busiest block. Shoppers stroll from store to store with the massive steel frame as their new backdrop, a monolith rising out of the downtown skyline.
Bellevue already has a collection of skyrises, but Lincoln Square — offices, shops, a Westin hotel and 148 condominiums in a two-tower complex — is different: It's about to become a defining symbol for a city in pursuit of the ideal downtown.
When it's complete, the south tower — the first to be built — will be Bellevue's tallest, the first to reach 450 feet since that height limit was put in place about a decade ago.
And this monument to upscale living inside the grid of downtown office buildings will include some of the region's most expensive condos, with many priced in the millions. They'll feature floor-to-ceiling glass walls and interiors more luxurious than many of the Eastside's most swanky waterfront estates.
When it's open, the $500 million building will transform Bellevue Way, casting unfamiliar new shadows below while making the Eastside's retail and business heart more pedestrian-friendly, something the car-centric city is trying hard to do.
It's the first of several major residential, retail, office and high-rise projects in the development pipeline that will dramatically alter the look and feel of the city center.
Ringed by its traditional suburbs, the city's downtown, where residential units have quadrupled since 1995, is adopting a lifestyle more urban and more residential than ever before. Bolstered by the new skyline, city champions are hoping Bellevue will finally shed what they see as its outgrown image as a Seattle suburb.
"This proves that we're there now," said Leslie Lloyd, president of the Bellevue Downtown Association. "There's no question that this is a valid urban center."
Seizing an opportunity
Two years ago, Lincoln Square was nothing more than an ugly, gaping hole in the middle of downtown's most polished block.
The development sat abandoned, concrete half-poured and steel rusting, the victim of Bellevue's worst real-estate downturn in more than a decade.
Then along came Kemper Freeman Jr.
The city's biggest developer, whose company owns Bellevue Square mall to the west and the Bellevue Place office-hotel-retail complex to the north, bought the project for $40 million, changed the floor plans, upped most of the condos' fancy factor and prices, and kick-started construction.
Freeman's timing was perfect: The real-estate market had picked up, necessary zoning was in place, and people were clamoring to live in downtown Bellevue, a place that just a decade ago offered mainly retail and office space.
Since then, other developers have lined up to follow suit. If their planned projects are all built in the next few years, they will add at least 2,500 residential units to Bellevue's compact downtown area, potentially doubling the residential population. "The good news is that the market in Bellevue is maturing," said City Manager Steve Sarkozy.
Despite its jagged start and long delay, Lincoln Square's south tower is set to open beginning in the fall.
A second tower to the north will house office space atop a movie-theater complex, shops and restaurants. The retail portion will open this year, and construction on the offices is "imminent," Freeman said last week.
Despite the project's once-shaky future, most buyers who reserved Lincoln Square condos early on never gave up, and only three units remain unsold, according to the development's sales office.
Upscale central vision
A couple of years from now, this is what the visionaries hope to see: A gleaming two-tower building, with ground-floor shops, restaurants and movie screens beckoning pedestrians. Hotel guests streaming in and out of an elegant lobby, corporate types riding elevators to some of the region's most important meetings.
And of course the residents, standing in their multimillion-dollar penthouses looking out the floor-to-ceiling windows at the tiny spots of humanity below.
No one — not the tower's real-estate agents, developer, builders or even city staffers in the know — will divulge specifics about who is moving in and what they're doing to their pricey new pads.
But some of them will give you dish on Bellevue's new downtown digs: Penthouse buyers who spent $4 million on a bare shell, then another $2 million on interiors. The woman whose cabinetry budget alone is $450,000. The owners who purchased one unit for themselves — and an adjacent one for household staff.
"If there was ever any doubt that there's some wealth in this community, let there be no doubt," said Freeman at a recent Bellevue Chamber of Commerce luncheon.
Not all the units are priced in the millions. A few of the bottom-floor condos — which start on the 20th floor — are priced in the $200,000s for about 700 square feet. Most of the lower units are in the $400,000-$500,000 range.
Some of the condo buyers are young professionals. Many are older empty-nesters — mostly Eastsiders — who want to leave sprawling suburban homes for a more urban, convenient lifestyle without heading to Seattle.
"These people are already here," said Smith. "They belong to the same country clubs. For the most part, they're taking a step down in size — they're simplifying."
But not oversimplifying. Two of the three units left, for example, are 2,600 square feet with wraparound westerly views of Seattle's skyline and beyond. Price tag: Just under $2 million.
Lincoln Square residents will have use of the hotel's upscale health club and pool. And buyers — few, if any, are moving in with children — can rest assured that a discreet "dog-relief area" and the building's concierge will take care of their pets' needs.
They can also get 24-hour room service, hire the hotel's catering team and chef for private dinner parties, sign up for its housekeeping services, and get free use of the concierge.
Along with the luxury, a big draw for downtown living is the opportunity to free oneself from what has long been a mainstay of Eastside living: the car. "Lock and walk," Freeman calls it.
The library, post office and shopping — complete with a skybridge to Bellevue Square — are all within walking distance.
"It's just so convenient," said Mary Geisel, with the sales office. "It's right in the center of everything."
Downtown in transition
The skeleton of Lincoln Square today is as much in transition as the city around it. Complex systems of pipes, wires and steel cables snake through 42 drafty floors, the last of which will be poured this week. Down below, change is coming quickly, too.
A few blocks from the site, Main Street has been for decades an alternative to the chain stores and glossy sameness downtown Bellevue has become known for. City promoters have touted it as a charming historical district, but next year several of its old buildings — including the venerable Bellevue Barber Shop — are slated to be replaced by a $45 million condo-retail project.
Elsewhere on Old Main, one-story buildings are giving way to modern, multistory construction.
Sleek condos, some with "old world" Mediterranean designs, now ring the area around Downtown Park, just behind Bellevue Square.
The edges of downtown, once home mostly to hotels, car lots and office space, are now beginning to look like residential minivillages, with apartments and condos dotting the blocks and more on the way.
The number of people living in downtown Bellevue has more than tripled since 1990 and nearly doubled in just the past five years. The state's Growth Management Act requires cities to find room for projected population growth, and Bellevue has chosen to funnel much of that into its downtown.
The current 4,500 downtown residents are demanding a more walkable neighborhood; the city and developers are trying.
New landscaping, pedestrian seating and public art are among improvements to downtown's Pedestrian Corridor, which stretches several blocks along Northeast Sixth Street from Bellevue Square to the transit center.
Many of those improvements are the result of a tradeoff with Lincoln Square developers — city code allows developers to build past the standard 300-foot height limit only if they make improvements to the corridor or donate public open space.
The pedestrian skybridge, scheduled to be lifted into place later this month, will take people from the mall across Bellevue Way directly into Lincoln Square.
Lincoln Square's street-level floors are designed to appeal to pedestrians, with restaurants, a billiard hall, the cinema complex, home-themed retail and other shops. Just steps from the building's entry plaza, the Bellevue Arts Museum offers a place to gather, hear music and sip coffee.
This will be key when it comes to measuring Lincoln Square's long-term impacts on the block and the neighborhood, said Jeffrey Ochsner, a University of Washington architecture professor who teaches urban design.
"What's really important is how a building meets the ground," Ochsner said. Plazas, multiple doors, restaurants with outside seating and shops that open onto the sidewalk all help increase pedestrian activity and ease the potential cavernous effects of high-rise development, he said.
Though the design seems good, its effects won't be known until the opening of Lincoln Square and perhaps other nearby developments, Ochsner said.
"If all the buildings are done the right way, you get continuity. If not, you can kill the pedestrian life with a single blank wall," he said.
Ochsner and some urban experts would call Bellevue an "edge city" — one that grew out of a major metropolitan center and has become a city in its own right.
Ochsner said downtown Bellevue has the potential to become as dynamic as downtown Seattle, but he issued one caution.
"Some edge cities reach a saturation point with congestion," he said, "and even though they haven't achieved a true urban density, they stop growing and the growth moves elsewhere."
Even though Bellevue planners have focused on street and mass-transit improvements in recent years, to reach its true potential, Bellevue needs a light-rail or other direct system to connect it to Seattle, Ochsner said.
Not many naysayers
So far, the rapid change taking the downtown from urban to uber-urban is something residents, for the most part, seem to crave.
In fact, the harsh criticisms that often come when an old lifestyle gives way to a more modern one seem to be strangely absent in Bellevue. At most, some longtime residents, merchants and even historian types are bittersweet.
"It's been a long time since Bellevue had that small-town feel," said Mike Luis, interim director of the Eastside Heritage Society, which is working to rescue smaller historic buildings — including the barbershop — from demolition. Luis grew up in Bellevue and remembers when, 40 years ago, downtown still had tracts of open land.
"Bellevue was your classic suburban town, and now it's something different," he said. But change is not necessarily bad, he added. "We're putting in these mammoth projects, but it's fun to live in a place where there's a lot going on."
Many residents living in the single-family neighborhoods next to downtown are pleased with the recent urbanization.
"We actually have views now — of downtown," said Mark Mecham, treasurer of the Vuecrest Community Association, representing residents in single-family homes just west of central downtown. "Some people get mad about others parking in our neighborhood, but it's so worth it. We live next door to this great, vibrant downtown, and it's just getting better and better."
Though downtown has been quietly morphing for a few years now, the striking presence of Lincoln Square is what's suddenly calling attention to the changing character of the city.
Leaders, planners and many residents say that the arrival of the building proves what they already know: "Bellevue has matured as a stand-alone city," said Sarkozy, the city manager.
There is no guarantee for how Lincoln Square, and other developments like it, could affect downtown's appeal, planners acknowledge. In Seattle, for example, the opening of the city's tallest building, the 76-story Columbia Seafirst Center, in 1984 caused so much uproar that new zoning codes were devised to put a lower lid on building height.
Bellevue has no specific rules to govern shadows cast by buildings or preservation of views, said Matt Terry, Bellevue's director of planning and development. But the city is vigilant about maintaining its desired character and could adjust zoning if necessary, he said.
Whatever happens, Bellevue's goal is not to become Seattle, planners and developers agree.
"These two cities are symbiotic, synergistic. They're not competitive, and they're not twin cities," Kemper Freeman said.
Adds Terry: "This city is really becoming a city, not just a homogenous suburban place. We have the best of both worlds."
Natalie Singer: 206-464-2704 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company