Fifty years ago, Matt Terry would be standing in a blueberry field. Today he looks out over a sea of asphalt and cars, a 34-acre mall a block to his left, a glassy 21-story tower...

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Fifty years ago, Matt Terry would be standing in a blueberry field.

Today he looks out over a sea of asphalt and cars, a 34-acre mall a block to his left, a glassy 21-story tower a block in the other direction.

But when Bellevue’s veteran chief planner sets his eyes on the center of downtown, he sees a skyscraper where a Good Guys electronics store now stands, apartments and shops in place of a parking lot and twin towers rising from an abandoned construction site.

“Cities don’t get built in a decade or two,” he says. “It’ll take 100 years or more to be realized.”

A half-century after incorporation, Bellevue has already been transformed from a country town with dirt roads to a city of more than 110,000.

Yet it’s still a city in the making.

A city fulfilled

In many ways, Bellevue has fulfilled the dreams of city founders. For good and for bad.

As early as 1928, when local businessman James Ditty produced a map for The Seattle Star newspaper, Bellevue was pictured as the Eastside’s commercial hub. The legacy of such thinking underpins much of what paved — literally — the way for the city to become a success.

Bellevue’s history as a city is inextricably bound to the car. Its wide roads and long “superblocks” were designed to be easily traversed by cars. The two bridges leading east from Seattle act as gateways for commuters and businesses. At Bellevue’s 1953 incorporation, the growth spawned by the first bridge, which crossed Mercer Island, was just being felt. Many of the city’s businesses were still clustered around Main Street. The fledgling Bellevue Square shopping center, opened in 1946, sat on the fringe of the business district.

Early city officials claimed the appearance of wide paved roads in an otherwise small town persuaded some companies to locate there. In the past 20 years, the city has acquired a high-rise downtown skyline, sporting 16 buildings more than 10 stories high.

Now the city is home to corporate headquarters for Puget Sound Energy, truckmaker Paccar, tech companies such as T-Mobile and InfoSpace, and real-estate power John L. Scott, among others. Bellevue has nearly half of the Eastside’s estimated 247,000 “covered” jobs, which excludes corporate executives and the self-employed.

Which is not to say the city’s commercial story is without stumbles. As Bellevue’s business fortunes rose with the technology boom of the ’90s, so they cooled with the technology implosion. A crater marks the spot where a 20-story “Technology Tower” was supposed to stand. Twin towers planned across the street from Bellevue Square are now untended concrete skeletons.

‘Gracious living’

The flip side of the car-friendly business district is the meticulous housing developments of green lawns, big lots and cul-de-sacs — what Bellevue’s early promoters called “gracious living.”

Though the motto rings of 1950s corniness, the promise drew tens of thousands. Since its incorporation, the city has grown from 5,940 to more than 110,000. Once 4.7 square miles, it now extends 31.5 square miles, stretching east to the shores of Lake Sammamish, north to Bridle Trails and south to Cougar Mountain.

Bellevue remains, for many, an exemplar of suburban comforts.

Municipal leaders boast of it as a city in a park, with a nationally recognized botanical garden, a downtown park, miles of trails and dozens of other green spaces. Its residents rank among the richest and most educated in the state. The home values are correspondingly high.

At the same time, Bellevue has become increasingly diverse. In the 1990s, immigrant communities grew to 25 percent of city residents. Minorities grew to 29 percent of the population in 2000, up from 15 percent in 1990.

As Bellevue grows, it has begun to flex its political muscle. In a move signaling it should no longer be considered a Seattle satellite, the city in 1999 pulled out of the Suburban Cities Association.

“Bellevue is not a suburb but a regional player,” Mayor Connie Marshall declared last year.

As a city, however, Bellevue has a ways to go.

Aside from a few architectural bright spots — the Bellevue Art Museum and the library — much of downtown rings hollow: flat, glassy and utilitarian.

City leaders have wrestled with ways to make downtown more “memorable,” at one time floating the proposal of a row of towers reminiscent of Seattle’s Space Needle. That quickly sank amid widespread derision.

Underlying that idea is a deeper urge to make downtown a place where people want to live and play, not just work and shop.

A major obstacle is the car-oriented design that fed Bellevue’s success. Long blocks mean daunting distances between crosswalks. A checkerboard of parking lots, each for a different store, force people to drive from place to place.

And walk to where? Downtown’s only movie theater opened in 1999, after a five-year absence of a silver screen. Scattered restaurants have materialized in the past few years. Looking for a place to hear music? Unless it’s a musical at the Meydenbauer Center, there’s not much to be found.

The downtown trend

Still, demographers predict three-quarters of the people who will move to Bellevue by 2020 will call downtown home, boosting its residential population from 4,500 to 14,000. Upscale condominiums have gone up in recent years in the four corners of downtown.

Eventually, says chief planner Terry, more towers will replace the one-story businesses that occupy part of downtown’s center. As more people move downtown, more entertainment venues will appear. Some are already on the drawing board, including a performing-arts center.

“It will become a much cooler place,” he says.

Smaller neighborhood malls are also moving toward a more-urban style. The Factoria Mall recently won a hard-fought campaign to build apartments there.

While some see the moves as a sign of maturity, such plans have elicited protests from neighbors, who fear losing what drew them to Bellevue in the first place.

The pursuit of uncramped “gracious living” can conflict with a push to accommodate more people. Economic development can bring groans about more traffic. Rising property values trigger fears about affordable housing.

As Bellevue marks its first half-century, people are pausing to look back. Some will don poodle skirts or bobby socks, drive vintage cars and re-enact the photo of a fedora-wearing man crossing out the “un” in the 1953 sign listing Bellevue as unincorporated.

Then they will return to the tricky, slow business of making a city.