Standing in the shadow of the 27-story City Center Bellevue — a geometric study in glistening, angled bronze-glass panels —...
Standing in the shadow of the 27-story City Center Bellevue — a geometric study in glistening, angled bronze-glass panels — it’s easy to forget the past.
But it’s all around.
Try to tune out the BMWs and Mini Cooper convertibles rushing by and look across 108th Avenue Northeast. No, not at that 22-story mirrored-glass tower, a symbol of Bellevue’s sparkling future when it opened in 1983.
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Look where the people walk, and there it is. Nothing dramatic — just an eyeglass- repair shop housed in a modest one-story building whose days are likely numbered, and the stucco arches of a Las Margaritas franchise that looks vaguely out of place.
More clues lie within a maze of alleys weaving among the city’s three-dozen high-rise buildings: crumbling and lumpy asphalt, the remains of parking lots that once surrounded nondescript strip malls.
They are vestiges of the 1970s, back when Bellevue’s center looked much like present-day downtown Lynnwood.
“If you turn the clock back 20 or 30 years, they’re almost twins,” said Mark Hinshaw, Bellevue’s principal urban designer in the 1980s, when the city dramatically changed its downtown-development rules.
“Virtually every tower [lot] that exists in downtown Bellevue used to have a strip mall on it, surrounded by a parking lot. Or a fast-food place or a gas station.”
Lynnwood business and civic leaders hope to follow Bellevue’s lead by drastically rewriting zoning and design policies to transform their own downtown into a bustling urban community with pedestrian malls, upscale condos and first-class office towers ranging up to 30 stories tall.
Momentum for change is building. The old Alderwood Mall — now simply called Alderwood — is seeking a higher-income clientele with The Village, an upscale outdoor addition that opened in November. Saturday will mark the grand opening of the $34 million Lynnwood Convention Center, already a hit with event planners.
Plan finally approved
After five years of debate and study, the Lynnwood City Council last month approved a plan dividing a 300-acre downtown area into three districts, with towers up to 350 feet tall around a future Town Square just south of 198th Street Southwest. Now the council must decide how to finance the estimated $125 million worth of new streets, sewer lines, parks and other amenities needed to attract private development.
As Lynnwood sets its stage for a dramatically different future, it’s relying heavily upon the advice and experience of five key players in Bellevue’s renaissance.
Hinshaw, who worked for Bellevue from 1982 to 1990, is director of urban design for LMN Architects, which crafted Lynnwood’s city-center concept. Real-estate developers Mark Weed and Jim Granger, who earlier were members of a Bellevue downtown advisory committee, also helped create the South Snohomish County Chamber of Commerce city-center task force in 1999 and then served on Lynnwood’s advisory committee. Colie Hough Beck is a landscape-architecture consultant; Tom Noguchi is a traffic consultant.
Similarities between the two cities are striking. But so are the differences.
Each touts a prime geographic location at a major transportation crossroads. Bellevue, at the nexus of Interstate 405, Interstate 90 and Highway 520, was an obvious hub 20 years ago for Eastside population growth.
Lynnwood lies at the northern juncture of I-5 and I-405. It could, in theory, challenge Everett — the seat of Snohomish County government and home to a major Boeing plant and related industries — to become the county’s long-term economic center.
Malls are a blessing
Though the advent of suburban shopping malls killed downtown business districts across the nation, Bellevue and Lynnwood are blessed with major malls with locations that can enhance, rather than cannibalize, their older retail areas.
Bellevue’s Downtown Business Ordinance, approved by its City Council in 1981, targeted high-rise development for the area immediately east of Bellevue Square, which opened in 1946.
The plan was based on a three-tier “wedding cake” theory, clustering the tallest buildings — generally up to 300 feet — between the mall, 110th Avenue Northeast and Northeast Fourth and Eighth streets. Shorter towers were allowed in the areas immediately north, south and east.
Lynnwood’s plan is based on a two-tier philosophy. As recommended to the council, the cake’s second layer, with buildings up to 140 feet tall, would extend northeast to the edge of Alderwood, which just underwent a $110 million renovation and expansion.
A meandering pedestrian walkway, or promenade, would run throughout the new districts, tying Alderwood to the future commercial center.
Residents of neighborhoods near the mall, however, are upset by the specter of view-blocking towers. The council listened to their worries and delayed making zoning changes to that area, which will undergo further study.
Both cities originally were laid out to serve automobiles, with huge “superblocks” filled with strip malls surrounded by acres of parking lots.
In the 1980s, Bellevue began providing incentives for underground parking garages and created parking provisions that assumed many office-tower workers would car-pool or use mass transit.
With parking requirements loosened, developers could afford to erect buildings up to 10 times larger than before, said Bob Wallace, a prominent Bellevue real-estate investor.
“Bellevue was never destined to have steel plants and assembly plants for Boeing,” said Wallace, who was the chairman of the Bellevue Downtown Association when the downtown plan was created. “The city consciously decided we wanted a downtown office center.”
Differences between Lynnwood and Bellevue include their pre-transformation corporate climates, the general flavor of their populations and the underlying source of the push for change.
In Bellevue, the city’s elected leaders led the charge. When the City Council passed its key legislation, the development community immediately responded.
By 1983, the first two towers were finished: the 24-story Skyline Tower on Northeast Fourth Street and the 22-story One Bellevue Center one block west.
The Lynnwood City Council, in contrast, was persuaded over time by its business leaders to pursue its new course.
Developers say they won’t invest in major construction plans until the council demonstrates its seriousness — perhaps by approving a big-picture spending scheme or committing to build its Town Square or new arterials. The plan includes new streets to divide two mammoth blocks around the square into nine pedestrian-friendly blocks.
“The elected people need to really get behind it, more than they have,” said developer Weed, who was the general manager of Prudential Real Estate when it built Bellevue’s Skyline Tower.
“We need somebody getting out in front saying, ‘We’re open for business.’ ”
Weed also is an established player in Lynnwood. As the president of Fisher Properties, he oversaw development of the city’s tallest buildings: twin six-story structures now called the Alderwood Business Center. They lie just southwest of Alderwood, in the area designated for further study.
Bellevue already had attracted two major corporations — Puget Power (now Puget Sound Energy) and Paccar — before approving its 1981 plan.
That helped reassure developers that their new downtown investments were sound, Weed said.
Lynnwood lacks that “jump-start,” he said, and needs to recruit a major employer to set the new tone. Perhaps an aerospace company might be interested, he suggested, to be near Everett’s Boeing plant as it prepares to produce the 787 Dreamliner.
Wallace said Lynnwood also lacks the “prestige factor” Bellevue enjoyed before its renaissance. Companies often locate where their executives live, he said.
Erasing an image
Although its revamped mall is drawing a higher-income bracket of customers, Lynnwood’s landscape lacks the waterfront charm of Bellevue, a ferry town in the days before bridges crossed Lake Washington.
And it may take a lot of skyscrapers to erase the image perpetuated by the now-defunct Seattle television show “Almost Live,” which frequently satirized Lynnwood as a bastion of big hair and blue eye shadow.
Once, the show asked viewers to vote for “Initiative 352,” which would move Lynnwood to Eastern Washington. Why? It would be cheaper than bulldozing and starting over; big hair was still in vogue east of the Cascades; and it’s their turn to have Lynnwood.
Lynnwood Mayor Mike McKinnon is amused by his city’s stereotypes, but he’s certain change is on the horizon.
“For the last 20 years, the image of Lynnwood has been a shot down 196th, with all the plastic neon signs. We’re bringing in a higher standard of living,” McKinnon said.
“It’s gonna go from big hair to highbrow.”
Seattle Times news researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report. Diane Brooks: 425-745-7802 or firstname.lastname@example.org