As more of America is vaccinated and returns to something resembling normal, the “Superstar Cities” of the 2010s are expected to lead the way.
It’s evident around the country. For example, even if more people work from home than before 2020, young professionals are rushing to rent a Manhattan apartment at a (relative) bargain after the pandemic exodus.
It may take time, but most companies are eager for a gradual return to offices, especially in the top-performing cities. As The New York Times put it, “executives believe having employees working side by side improves collaboration, supports the development of younger employees and nurtures the heart and soul of any company — its culture.”
Don’t bet against great cities.
Seattle, though it was definitely one of the Superstars of the past decade, might face a different trajectory.
A majority of the City Council is focused on defunding the police and assorted social-justice initiatives. Seattle’s unsheltered population has ballooned, especially those camping in parks and on sidewalks, including in the heart of downtown. Tents make some sidewalks virtually impassable, including near at least one major bus stop.
The council majority put off $7.8 million in urgent bridge repairs while throwing hundreds of millions at a “homelessness crisis” that has only gotten worse.
Riots, looting, vandalism and arson rocked the city early in 2020, highlighted by a lethal abandonment of a segment of Capitol Hill. Mayor Jenny Durkan proclaimed the so-called CHOP could be “a summer of love” before its sinister consequences were revealed and she pratfell into being a powerless lame duck.
Unfortunately, the troubles continue. In February, display windows — worth $50,000 each — at the flagship Nordstrom were smashed. This month a group of “protesters” attacked police and vandalized businesses in the central core. Some businesses are still boarded up.
“Low-level crimes” are tolerated (low level unless you are a victim) in Seattle. Police response times are hurting and nearly 200 officers left the department in 2020.
Meanwhile, the city on the other side of Lake Washington is experiencing almost none of these problems.
In Bellevue, sidewalk camping isn’t tolerated, the homeless population is small and such crimes as shoplifting usually guarantee a trip to jail.
Almost all City Council members — all at-large — have private-sector experience, unlike the activist-heavy résumés of their Seattle counterparts. Bellevue’s city leadership wants to work with businesses rather than penalizing them.
Not surprisingly, Amazon recently announced it would lease a 25-story office tower there once it’s completed in 2024, adding to the company’s previous commitments. By the following year, Amazon intends to have 25,000 employees in Bellevue.
This could well be a sign of things to come.
What a turnaround.
Soon after I started at The Seattle Times in 2007, we had a wall calendar with a close-up shot of downtown Bellevue with the skyline of Seattle in a long-lens distance. It fed some critics who called us “the Bellevue Times” for, in their eyes, too much Eastside coverage. To be fair, we covered Seattle plenty but the Eastside was booming.
Then came the “back to the city movement” from which Seattle, especially downtown, profited mightily. Young talent wanted to be in the city and companies followed, especially Amazon’s immense corporate headquarters. Expedia left Bellevue for a waterfront campus in Seattle. For years, Seattle was the crane capital of America. It grew 24% in population from 2010 to 2019 (versus 16% for Bellevue).
But that was then.
Antipathy from the council toward the city’s largest private-sector employer, including a jobs tax on nearly 700 “big businesses,” was soon followed by Amazon’s decision to seek a second “equal” headquarters, which is a-building outside Washington, D.C. Among the qualities Amazon sought were “business friendly” policies. And Bellevue looks to be close to an “HQ3,” based on the company’s growth there.
Not only Amazon is propelling demand. More than 50 major commercial and residential projects are underway in Bellevue.
Bellevue doesn’t have to be the regional downtown. With more than 148,000 people in 2019, it is the hub of the largely prosperous Eastside with good schools.
To be sure, it suffers from distinct anti-urban features. For example, it lacks Seattle’s architectural variety and is built around the automobile with wide downtown streets. Once I was walking in downtown Bellevue when the sidewalk simply ended as the block continued with grass and dirt where the sidewalk should be.
Nor does Bellevue have Seattle’s pre-pandemic street-level retail. Its retail is centered on a mall — private property with the ability to toss nonshoppers and arrest shoplifters.
But Bellevue is changing. It’s grown majority Democratic, but Biden Democrats, not the “woke” far left. Importantly, it will get light rail in 2023, connecting it to Seattle and then the urban Bel-Red corridor adjacent to downtown Bellevue, eventually going all the way to Redmond and Microsoft.
This will no longer be the Republican suburban idyll of its longtime prime mover and biggest downtown property owner, Kemper Freeman.
All this makes it a more formidable competitor for Seattle.
In a healthy situation, this doesn’t have to become a zero-sum game. In a healthy situation, the two cities feed off each other to continue the growth of one of America’s most diverse and potent metropolitan economies.
Bellevue won’t ever have the powerful regional downtown, natural deep-water port, highly acclaimed cultural amenities, urban variety and population of Seattle.
But now, as America looks to emerging from the pandemic over the coming year, Seattle is not healthy. And much of the hurt is self-inflicted.
Unless the political situation is corrected, it will take years to repair the damage.
And the advantage won’t just go to Bellevue but to every city that has lusted for Seattle’s treasures.