Bellevue was still a town of fields, forests and gravel roads when it incorporated in 1953. It was also a city vibrating with a sense of destiny. Here a small group of men...

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Bellevue was still a town of fields, forests and gravel roads when it incorporated in 1953. It was also a city vibrating with a sense of destiny.

Here a small group of men — and one in particular — believed it could create the city of the future, a model of “gracious” homes and bustling commerce that would polish the suburban dream to brilliance.

That it had a population of only 6,000 did nothing to diminish an enthusiasm for growth and a future that bordered on audacious.

–> Seattle was king, but on the east side of Lake Washington, people promised better parks, stronger schools, cleaner industry, a modern downtown and “a city with space for spreading out your house and yard, space to live and space to play.”

In the two decades that followed cityhood, Bellevue became something of a self-fulfilled prophecy. But not, as many had hoped, a panacea for the urban ills that drove the post-World War II generation from the old cities.

Suburbia’s promise

During those early years, few other cities embraced the promise of suburbia with Bellevue’s vigor.

That vision may seem naive, even fantastic now. But at the time Bellevue was ringed by enough land to inspire developers and convince officials they really could create a better city.

The land had always been there, but it was other factors that lifted Bellevue out of the backwaters of the Mercer Slough and set it on course to become the hub of the Eastside.

Before the first floating bridge opened in 1940, Bellevue was famous for its annual Strawberry Festival and little else. Settled by a handful of pioneers in the late 1800s, it grew slowly into a community huddled around a few shops on Main Street.

The bridge, however, changed everything. The long trip around the lake was now a 20-minute dash across it. When the tolls were lifted in 1949, there was nothing between a generation of families — the parents of the baby boomers — and their new homes in the suburbs.

Planning for a boom

By the early 1950s, the mushrooming population already strained sewer and water systems. A study for the school district predicted 100,000 people would eventually settle in Bellevue, a realization that shocked the community into action.

–> Worried that King County oversight wasn’t enough to manage the boom, Bellevue incorporated in 1953, with $500 in credit from a local bank and a rented “city hall” on the second floor of the Veterans of Foreign Wars hall.

It is a testament to just how concerned Bellevue was about growth that the City Council’s first act was to create a planning commission, not a police department, to bring order and form to the new city.

One of the first commissioners was the late Fred Herman, a young architect whose enthusiasm for the task of creating a city — an instant city some called it — led to his appointment as Bellevue’s first planning director.

“(It) was darn near a clean slate to start with,” he said in a 1990 interview. “There were a few things around, but nothing really in terms of looking forward to the city we envisioned happening.”

Instant city

That city, the commission agreed, would be neat, orderly, efficient, spacious; everything older U.S. cities weren’t. Neighborhoods would be separated from commercial and industrial areas. Downtown would be built for automobiles, not the pedestrians and streetcars that had shaped other cities.

In his cramped office, Herman unrolled sheets of plastic over a map of Bellevue. He drew the different zones, streets, parks and schools that didn’t exist.

By 1954, the city had passed a comprehensive development plan that received national attention. Two years after incorporation, voters had approved a $1.3 million bond measure to build new schools and $1 million more for a new water system.

‘The good life’

In early 1956, Bellevue was named one of 11 “All American” cities by Look magazine because of the way it was dealing with a growth rate that had nearly doubled the population in three years.

Growth became a selling point for Bellevue, which began to market the good suburban life under the slogan “over the bridge to gracious living.”

A 92-page book pitching Bellevue and its businesses breathlessly proclaimed:

“A new and different kind of city, Bellevue — built the way its people wanted it to be. And building yet, growing yet, with much expansion yet to come. … No more jammed-together apartment buildings full of cubicles, the cramped-together houses, the look-alikes without space to live and breathe and roam. No more the houses without yards.”

While massive subdivisions began to spread, Herman and others focused on creating the new downtown.

Cars are king

Even before the city was incorporated, businesses were being designed to cater to the car. In 1946, Kemper Freeman, son of a wealthy publishing family, began building one of the nation’s first planned suburban shopping centers, Bellevue Square.

Herman and others saw the potential of the automobile to change the nature of downtown. They laid out huge blocks — “superblocks” they called them — along a grid of four- and six-lane streets.

“We had lots of cars, not an awful lot of them, but quite a few cars,” Herman recalled. “And so we looked at the speed of a car as opposed to the speed of a pedestrian … and the dollar value of land, which at that time was relatively cheap in terms of its use. So we said, ‘Maybe we should try to design blocks that fit the car.’ “

They did. Buildings were set back from the street and landscaped to give downtown an open feel. Businesses were required to provide parking because the streets were for moving cars, not storing them.

Six-lane statement

One of the first major projects was rebuilding 104th Avenue Northeast (now Bellevue Way Northeast) and transforming a two-lane roadway with open gutters into a gateway for the city.

“Immediately,” Herman said, “it completely changed the look of Bellevue, it gave a different impression because here was a six-lane street in the middle of no place, almost.

“All the rest of the streets were oiled, dirt or gravel. … But that made such an impression that the concept of continuing to develop this city became accepted.”

By 1956, the city had wooed Puget Sound Power & Light (now Puget Sound Energy) to move its headquarters from Seattle to Bellevue, leading Freeman to announce prophetically, but prematurely, “We’re no longer a bedroom community for Seattle; we are a job center.”

Over the next decade, Bellevue filled in much the way Herman had envisioned. Fifteen years after incorporation, the city had grown to nearly 30,000. In another five years, it more than doubled to 63,000.

By the early 1970s, Herman and his Planning Commission were peering still further in the future, building a model that showed a downtown of double-decked streets that would whisk cars to self-contained blocks of high-rises.

By then, much of Bellevue had been filled in. While the perception of the city as a bedroom community lingered, Bellevue had become one of the state’s largest cities.

This story is reprinted from “A Hidden Past: An Exploration of Eastside History,” published by The Seattle Times in December 2002.