THIS PAST OCTOBER, the tech industry news website GeekWire published a story headlined: “Bellevue’s boom: City’s tech industry is poised to eat Seattle’s lunch.”
It said technology companies were driving an unprecedented boom in the suburb 12 miles from downtown Seattle.
For example, Amazon plans to hire 25,000 employees there, the same amount as at HQ2 in northern Virginia. SalesForce, eBay and Facebook are also onboard Bellevue. Microsoft’s growing campus is in nearby Redmond.
“And what’s driving the boom?” GeekWire asked. “Tech execs say it’s Bellevue’s low crime rate, business-friendly politics, tent-free sidewalks and vibrant downtown.”
Indeed, the long rivalry between Bellevue and Seattle is back again. Their history and destinies are entwined yet also diverging, not least because of Seattle’s self-inflicted wounds.
Such competition seemed far-fetched a century ago. Bellevue was given a post office in 1886, when the future Eastside was isolated on a branch railroad, mostly tied to logging. The town didn’t incorporate until 1953, with 5,950 residents. Seattle’s population then was around 500,000, and downtown was the Northwest’s unrivaled shopping and business hub. It also was becoming Jet City, thanks to Boeing’s breakthrough with jet airliners.
But Bellevue Square shopping center, the brainchild of Kemper Freeman Sr., already had been open for seven years. This was a sign of things to come, especially as floating bridges connected to Seattle, and Eastside sprawl expanded with new single-family homes, good schools and office parks.
By 1970, Bellevue held more than 61,000 people, helped by white flight from Seattle’s mandatory school desegregation.
Seattle lost 5% of its population in the 1960s and 7% the following decade. At the same time, King County grew by 28% and 24%, respectively. The Eastside scored big with Microsoft’s headquarters in 1986. By the turn of the 21st century, the metropolitan area encompassed Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue.
Kemper Freeman Jr. vastly expanded Bellevue Square in the 1990s and 2000s to accommodate more than 200 stores, including Nordstrom and Macy’s, and developed the surrounding land.
Fast-forward to 2020, and Seattle’s population had been growing at one of the fastest rates in the nation during the previous decade, reaching more than 737,000. Bellevue’s reached nearly 152,000, making it the fifth-most-populous city in the state. But the suburb and the Eastside were losing favor to Seattle in the 2010s, especially with Amazon’s transformation of South Lake Union.
It was a pendulum that is still swinging.
The stakes are serious, especially for Seattle. Although the exodus from cities predicted early in the pandemic never happened, urban scholar Richard Florida sees the end of office-heavy central business districts as remote work continues. Meanwhile, coworking spaces are wagering on the suburbs.
IN 1991, JOEL GARREAU wrote the influential book “Edge City: Life on the New Frontier.”
He described a new urban form distinguished by car-based suburbs with at least 5 million square feet of office space, at least 600,000 square feet of leasable retail space, home to more jobs than bedrooms and not considered a city as recently as 30 years ago. Also, the population there must consider it one place.
“Edge Cities represent the third wave of our lives, pushing into new frontiers in this half century,” he wrote. “First, we moved our homes out past the traditional idea of what constituted a city. This was the suburbanization of America, especially after World War II. Then we wearied of returning downtown for the necessities of life, so we moved our marketplaces out to where we lived. This was the malling of America, especially in the 1960s and 1970s. Today, we have moved our means of creating wealth, the essence of urbanism — our jobs — out to where most of us have lived and shopped for two generations. That has led to the rise of Edge City.”
An Edge City often has its roots in a shopping center, is near freeways and is usually car-dependent. Some famous Edge Cities are Century City in Los Angeles and Tysons Corner, Virginia. But he easily could be describing Bellevue.
Kemper Freeman Jr., Bellevue’s unofficial first citizen and powerful leader, not only expanded shopping and entertainment centers but also began building high-rises to house corporate offices.
Freeman also wielded his political power to undercut regional transit efforts. “Roads over transit” was his slogan in helping defeat a $6.7 billion plan for light rail, regional bus service and commuter rail in 1995. (A $3.9 billion plan was approved in 1996 — unlike the previous initiative, it didn’t serve Bellevue).
Garreau’s book coincided with the nadir of many American downtowns, and for many represented their epitaph.
Unlike many places, Seattle never gave up on its downtown. Such assets as Pike Place Market and the Space Needle remain world-famous destinations.
Every body blow, such as the loss of locally owned big banks, was countered with reinvention. One of the most successful came after the city’s premier department store, Frederick & Nelson, closed in 1992. But the building was saved and turned into the flagship store of Nordstrom, which had grown far beyond its roots as a shoe store, in 1998. Pacific Place, an urban mall, opened around the same time. The Bon Marché, by then Macy’s, also stayed downtown.
Benaroya Hall was built downtown in 1998 at the insistence of Seattle Symphony maestro Gerard Schwarz. The edgy Rem Koolhaas-designed Seattle Central Library opened in 2004.
Also, Seattle kept most of its big-league sports teams, eventually playing in sparkling new stadiums and arenas near downtown. All have the city name rather than something like “Puget Sound” — every Phoenix team except the NBA Suns took the name “Arizona” to appease powerful suburbs. (To be sure, Seattle’s pride and sports scene were wounded when the NBA’s Sonics were sold in 2006 to Oklahoma buyers who moved the team to Oklahoma City in 2008.)
The 1980s and 1990s also saw a flowering of youth culture in Seattle, especially grunge music, with such bands as Green River, Mudhoney, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Nirvana playing at clubs and the Moore Theatre. The Sub Pop record label was founded.
Still, Bellevue was enjoying better performance than downtown Seattle in new offices, as well as retail. Bellevue became home to the headquarters of T-Mobile, Paccar, Expedia, Eddie Bauer and many regional offices. Downtown Bellevue held the second-largest employment center in the state. The premier Edge City of the Northwest seemed unstoppable.
BUT A FUNNY THING happened on the way to the triumph of Edge Cities. It was the “back to the city movement,” which had been percolating for years but bloomed in the 2010s.
Millennials and many empty-nest baby boomers preferred the energy, authenticity and options of cities with good bones and strong downtowns. They didn’t want to be car-burdened. Many companies seeking top talent followed them.
In 2016, McDonald’s moved its headquarters from the suburbs to downtown Chicago, joining a list of other companies (Boeing moved to a fashionable skyscraper there from Seattle in 2001). General Electric shifted from its Fairfield, Connecticut, campus to downtown Boston.
“We are going through a change in our work force, and we wanted to be where we could attract millennials,” Mark Vergnano, chief executive of chemical giant Chemours, told The New York Times.
“This is a group that likes to be in an urban setting, with access to public transportation. They don’t want to be confined to a building with a cafeteria or be next door to a shopping center.”
Seattle, with a lively downtown, inviting urban neighborhoods and a growing light-rail line, was ideally positioned to profit from the sea change.
The two biggest individual drivers were Paul Allen and Jeff Bezos.
Allen, the Microsoft co-founder, operated Vulcan Real Estate, which restored Seattle’s Union Station and built new offices nearby. He bought up land in neglected South Lake Union with plans to remake it into a dense office and innovation district. When voters rejected his idea of a park, Seattle Commons, as the neighborhood’s centerpiece, Allen went ahead developing all of it.
Bezos moved the headquarters of Amazon from the old Pacific Medical Center on Beacon Hill to South Lake Union and the Denny Triangle. And the company took off, moving beyond e-commerce to cloud computing, entertainment and other tech areas. By the end of the 2010s, Amazon had 50,000 employees in South Lake Union, including in three skyscrapers and the signature Spheres.
The district also attracted other technology companies, including Apple, Facebook and Google, along with medical research and biotech operations. It is close to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, all served by the streetcar.
Car-dependent office parks were out of fashion. Expedia abandoned Bellevue for a waterfront campus in Seattle, followed by Weyerhaeuser moving from Federal Way to Pioneer Square. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation placed its futuristic headquarters across the street from Seattle Center.
Although rents rose in the city, it was still more affordable than the Bay Area, while offering the amenities sought by top talent. Hence, Seattle became a Big Tech destination, a major startup scene, construction-crane capital of the nation, one of America’s so-called Superstar Cities.
BUT TROUBLE WAS roiling the Superstar even before the pandemic.
Seattle’s longtime pragmatic liberalism on the city council was replaced by a far-left majority, most focused on social justice issues and hostile to business, especially Amazon. This caused Amazon to find a “full equal” second headquarters in a more “business-friendly” locale. HQ2 went to northern Virginia near Washington, D.C. But Bellevue also benefited from Amazon’s expansion, aided by Seattle’s payroll tax on 800 “big businesses,” which put the city at a competitive disadvantage.
As GeekWire reported, “Longtime Bellevue council member Conrad Lee said he doesn’t understand the Seattle City Council’s apparent indifference, if not hostility, to Amazon and other tech employers. ‘I think they are foolish,’ he said. ‘They are driving away jobs. They are hurting the economy.’ ”
Downtown Seattle’s retail sector began to swoon in the late 2010s, partly propelled by the city’s relaxed attitude toward shoplifting. Macy’s, which lost a million dollars in one year from shoplifting, closed its landmark downtown store in February 2020. Shoplifters sometimes attacked store employees or operated in organized groups.
When the pandemic hit in the spring of that year, offices emptied out, restaurants closed, the cruise season was canceled and hotel occupancy dropped to single digits.
Meanwhile, despite hundreds of millions of dollars spent to address Seattle’s homelessness crisis, the problem grew worse. Tents crowded streets and parks. Derelict RVs and cars appeared in front of residences.
With the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, Seattle saw an eruption of mostly peaceful protests. But these were marred by looting and the city’s surrender of a portion of Capitol Hill for a short period of time, resulting in a condition that verged on lawlessness. Mayor Jenny Durkan said it could be “a summer of love.” It was anything but.
Even as crime rose, the council moved to cut police funding, prompting the resignation of Chief Carmen Best in 2020. This past fall, further cuts were proposed even as interim Chief Adrian Diaz warned they would eliminate 101 officers from a department that already had lost 325 officers to previous cutbacks, resignations and retirements.
BELLEVUE SAW LIMITED protests, including looting of Bellevue Square, but approached the challenges very differently.
Bellevue Police respond to “quality of life” calls that SPD won’t or can’t. Shoplifters are arrested and prosecuted. Tents get immediate attention. Unsheltered people are offered services, then encouraged to move along.
It’s reflective of a fairly homogenous and affluent suburb. Sure, Bellevue is “diverse,” but only ethnically. Not in class. Its median household income at $120,000 compares with $92,263 in Seattle (both well above the national average). Households are “increasingly married, home-owning and educated — traditionally a perfect recipe for white-collar hiring,” GeekWire reported.
And unlike Seattle, Bellevue aggressively seeks to attract and retain business.
While Seattle’s core lost a net 230 street-level businesses, especially retailers, Bellevue Square is open with more than 200 stores.
Still, Bellevue is changing.
Although its downtown is marked by wide streets, sidewalks that suddenly end, and a strange mix of older shopping strips and glittering high-rises, it’s becoming denser and more urban. This is especially happening in the multibillion-dollar Bel-Red corridor across the freeway, focused on transit-oriented, mixed-use development linking Redmond. Major players are Wright Runstad and Vulcan.
It’s become more Democratic, too. Kemper Freeman is 80 years old. And the light rail that he fought so long is already being tested in Bellevue and is scheduled to open to Seattle in 2023.
Betting against Seattle is risky. Recently, the pendulum seems to have swung somewhat from the far-left to the center-left. The November election saw centrist Bruce Harrell triumph as mayor, while Ann Davison, running on a law-and-order platform, won as city attorney.
Meanwhile, tourism has returned, while hotel occupancy has rebounded. Downtown office-space occupancy rose in the second quarter of 2021. Although development slowed because of the pandemic, 46 projects were completed or under construction downtown, with an additional 24 in the pipeline this year. Among the new skyscrapers is the shimmering Rainier Square Tower.
Bellevue, however, doesn’t need to be a Superstar big city to continue its success. In an ideal world, it and the Eastside complement Seattle. In the real world, they are competitors, too.