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From behind the bar at the trendy Bellevue night spot Lot No. 3, bartender Chris Faber can see the early-winter sunset reflected in the city’s gleaming downtown high-rises, including his own apartment building a block away.

Faber, 29, who grew up in Woodinville, is one of a growing number of young professionals choosing to live and work in the increasingly lively and international downtown of a city that not long ago was known mainly for its mall.

So many young people have moved to the new apartments and condos rising on the city skyline over the past 15 years that the median age in downtown Bellevue has fallen from 57 in 2000 to 34 today. And the growing number of families with young children spurred the Bellevue School District in the fall to approve construction of an elementary school set to open in 2016 just east of downtown.

With the economy rebounding and many businesses including Microsoft, Expedia, Eddie Bauer and the gaming companies Bungie and Valve locating offices here, city planners say the downtown population is expected to keep growing, from about 11,000 today to 19,000 in 2030.

Longtime residents say they see the change in the increasing number of young professionals on the streets and in the grocery stores, in the formation last year of a neighborhood association for downtown residents, and in the nascent restaurant and bar scene that’s breaking out of the national-chain mode.

Faber honed his bartending skills on the Eastside and said he wants to bring to his evermore discerning Bellevue customers the creativity and passion for craft cocktails he’s found in the best bars across the lake.

“This town’s got the blueprint to make its own culture and identity and not be a suburb of Seattle,” said Faber, who is bar director for Lot No. 3 and two sister restaurants in Bellevue.

Dramatic shift

City leaders adopted a plan for a taller, denser downtown back in 1979, but it wasn’t until 1996 that residential development really began to take off, said Bellevue planning director Dan Stroh.

At first, Stroh said, the urban pioneers were mostly seniors and empty-nesters who wanted to downsize while remaining close to family and the familiar environs of the Eastside. People 65 and older made up 44 percent of the downtown population of about 2,600 in 2000, but just 16 percent today, according to city data.

Stroh said he noticed more young professionals in the restaurants at lunch, and saw that yellow school buses started making stops along downtown arterials. Still, when he saw the 2010 Census numbers showing the median age had plunged by 23 years and the number of children downtown had jumped from 125 to 544 — 335 percent over the previous decade — “that was a shock to me,” he said.

Bellevue school officials say they saw a similar trend — almost two decades of relatively flat enrollment followed by a surge over the past few years.

In October, the School Board approved building a new elementary just east of Interstate 405 on property it owns near its administrative offices at Northeast First Street, said Melissa deVita, deputy superintendent. The school will help relieve crowding at Enatai and Clyde Hill elementaries, the closest schools to downtown today.

DeVita said there’s a synergy between the schools and the city, with the quality of one feeding the attractiveness of the other.

“The school district plays a role in the growth of the city. We have a strong reputation. People want to be here when they move to the area,” she said.

Many of the new downtown residents say they tried living in Seattle because of the livelier scene for young people but discovered that Bellevue offered a growing number of distinctive restaurants and bars, new apartments with modern amenities, an easier commute and a safer downtown.

Bellevue’s crime rate, a ratio of total crimes to population, is half of Seattle’s, according to FBI statistics. In a city survey last year, 94 percent of respondents said they felt safe or very safe walking in downtown Bellevue alone at night.

“City has grown up”

Brittany Barker, 31, grew up in Bellevue and now lives above Lot No. 3 in the Bellevue Towers condominium. The building has a rooftop garden, dog park, an outdoor barbecue area, a fitness center, a great room for parties for up to 150 people and a movie room that residents can reserve.

The Bellevue farmers market sets up in the plaza outside her building. She’s two blocks from the shopping at Bellevue Square and about six blocks from her job with her family’s property-development firm.

After college and traveling, Barker said, she lived in Seattle so she could go to plays, movies, opera and the ballet.

“There was nothing in Bellevue for a young person,” Barker said. But in the last few years, she said, “the city has grown up so much.”

And, she said, she can walk home alone from a late movie or the grocery store and not worry about sketchy characters on the street.

“I think safety and security are big draws for a lot of people,” she said.

John Allen, 31, moved here for a job at Microsoft in 2008. He grew up in a Houston suburb and said he felt more at home in Bellevue than he did in his first apartment in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood. He couldn’t find parking for his half-ton pickup in downtown Seattle, he said, or easily get to a grocery store. He was commuting more than 20 miles to Microsoft’s Sammamish campus.

Now he and his wife, Ana, and their year-old girl live in a three-story town house on the north edge of downtown Bellevue. He works as a corporate accounts manager in one of Microsoft’s downtown Bellevue offices, just blocks from his home.

Allen said he and his colleagues debate whether it’s better to live in Seattle or Bellevue. Those who prefer Seattle tell him Bellevue is like the setting for the Stepford Wives — sterile, manicured to the nth degree, and everyone in it eerily similar.

Allen disagrees.

“I love Bellevue. I like everything nice and neat and in its place. I love the access to the freeways. You don’t have to spend money for private schools because the schools here are so good. There are several good restaurants within a couple blocks of here, and the food and culture of Seattle is just 15 minutes away.”

The new Downtown Bellevue Residents Association was organized last March to boost the sense of community and provide feedback to the city as it plans for more growth.

The first president, Heidi Pickard, said the membership is divided between young professionals, many with families, and seniors, who prefer the meetings on civic issues to the meet-and-greets at local bars.

“What’s fascinating is there’s almost no middle. The middle-aged people are out in the suburbs.” She said the membership also reflects the increasingly international downtown, where almost 42 percent of residents are foreign-born.

Pickard, 47, is another Bellevue native who now lives in an apartment close to her downtown banking job. She said she moved back about six years ago from the Juanita neighborhood of Kirkland when her teenage daughter complained there was nothing to do in the suburbs.

Pickard remains skeptical that Bellevue will ever seriously compete for nightlife with Seattle. She said young people tell her “the city still rolls up at 10:30 p.m. They finish the night in Seattle.” And she said it can be hard for families with children to walk around the supersized downtown blocks or find places to safely ride bikes.

But she said that on balance, Bellevue has planned well for its growing downtown and preserved its quality of life even as it has welcomed thousands of new residents.

“We’re cleaner, prettier, shiny and new compared to a lot of cities,” Pickard said. “I appreciate that Bellevue is looking forward. They’re planning for growth and for the most part, they’ve done it right.”

News researchers Gene Balk and Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report. Lynn Thompson: lthompson@seattletimes.com or 206-464-8305