Bellevue is no ordinary Edge City, the suburban retail-business centers described by Joel Garreau in his 1991 book of the same name.
Strategically located between Seattle and Microsoft’s Redmond headquarters, it has benefited from the focused passion of developer Kemper Freeman, high-quality schools and some of the country’s most affluent ZIP codes. Its closeness to the corporate action in each direction has enabled it to become a powerful player in the region.
So I was happy to be asked to speak before the city’s Planning Commission on metropolitan economies and what Bellevue faces over the next 10 years.
Here’s some of what I told them, and a little more that I cut to save time:
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• The horse you rode in on won’t be the one that takes you into the future.
In other words, being an automobile suburb of single-family houses, however nice, won’t achieve Bellevue’s ambitions. It is in a competition for talent that can go anywhere, and increasingly wants to live in urban settings where people don’t have to drive.
They would rather work in an innovation district than an office park. Companies understand this, too. Hence, such high-profile moves as Motorola Mobility leaving the Chicago suburbs for downtown and the ascendancy of San Francisco as a world tech center.
This is a metrowide challenge. We lucked out with Boeing and Microsoft, but both are changing. It has been a long time since we created a company that grew big, such as Amazon.
• Don’t be seduced by the desire to measure success merely by population growth. More people also bring additional costs. Increasing population too quickly leaves holes, in everything from infrastructure to quality of life, that can never be filled in.
Better to measure growth by quality: Higher numbers of students completing high school and going on to college, venture capital, wages, Ph.D.s per capita, people moving out of poverty, etc. And, lowering your carbon footprint.
• Don’t be afraid of density. Quality niche urbanism can be your killer app. This is the sweet spot between nothing but single-family houses and downtown Seattle (or Manhattan).
This includes good civic design, mixed-used districts, unique local businesses, a variety of architecture that connects with people at street level, abundant transit and convenient neighborhoods where work, shopping and restaurants are in walking distance.
Quality density is a more efficient use of infrastructure. It enhances environmental sustainability. In a live-work-play setting, it enhances “creative friction,” collaboration and sharing of ideas.
While suburbia is generic, cities are specific. It’s that distinctive, authentic connectivity that is recovering its appeal.
So even though Bellevue doesn’t have the bones of a place that benefited from the City Beautiful Movement at the turn of the 20th century, it can still learn those lessons.
• Pay close attention to best practices. Across the country, one-time car-centric suburbs or Edge Cities have become something more through quality urbanism. You don’t have to copy them, but pick and choose, adapt to your circumstances and goals.
Read everything Jane Jacobs ever wrote on cities. Also carry around James Howard Kunstler’s “The Geography of Nowhere” and “Home From Nowhere.” These two books examine how America lost its great civic design to a “tragic sprawlscape” and how to move on to better placemaking.
Encourage council members and citizens to read these, too.
• Understand the competition. The rivalry between Bellevue and Seattle and other parts of the Puget Sound region is natural. It can be healthy, keeping everybody at the top of their game.
But it can also be toxic if one city’s prosperity comes at the expense of another. Regional cooperation to grow the pie is more important than fighting over crumbs, especially in a nation growing slowly.
The real competition is between metropolitan areas, and the field is national and global. Other places would love to take our assets or best us in creating new ones. Singapore could care less whether it beats Bellevue or Belltown.
• Don’t be one flavor. I learned that 34 percent of Bellevue residents are foreign born. That’s a good start.
Diversity, tolerance and openness draw the creative class. Offering more than single-family-housing suburbia attracts young professionals.
An outward-looking ethic is essential for being competitive in the world economy.
• Light rail is your friend. “Those people” can already get there. They drive.
Light rail offers the most reliable way to give residents transportation options for the future. If anything, Bellevue should push for a much earlier completion date than 2023. Build light rail on the Eastside between Bellevue and Redmond ahead of the I-90 bridge segment.
• Price in the externalities. One example: Freeways aren’t free. In addition to not paying for themselves, contrary to public perception, they bring heavy environmental costs that usually aren’t in the typical analyses. A social rate of return is as important as more conventional measures.
• Be prepared for disruptions. The Great Recession was not a one-off. As the global economy becomes more complex and interconnected, it grows more fragile. No community can insulate itself, but it can make policy that takes into account the need for resilience.
The Edge City was a product of a moment in history that is mostly gone: cheap energy, abundant capital, sprawl development, hollowing out traditional downtowns and a willingness to travel long distances in single-occupancy car trips.
That’s not where Bellevue’s future lies.
Interestingly, I was followed by Greg Johnson, of Wright Runstad, which is developing the mixed-use, light-rail focused Spring District in the Bel-Red Corridor. He made many of the same points.
They are not urbanist idealism, but what his clients are demanding.
|Eastside’s biggest city has benefited from being situated between Seattle and Microsoft in Redmond.|
|Source: city of Bellevue; U.S. census.|
You may reach Jon Talton at firstname.lastname@example.org