Bellevue Downtown Association turns 40

At a crossroads between continuing suburban life or promoting greater economic vitality, the city of Bellevue was looking for direction in 1974 as it worked toward a comprehensive plan for the future.

“That included, what do we want to be when we grow up,” said David Schooler, “and as far as the downtown goes, what do we want that to be?”

Fred Herman, Bellevue’s first city planner, wanted to settle the oddly mixed downtown, said Schooler.

“He thought there should be a downtown organization,” he said. “There was at that time a chamber of commerce.”

Enter the Bellevue Downtown Development Board, formed by Herman and property owners to advocate for and support the progress of downtown. Its early membership included Kemper Freeman Sr., who developed Bellevue Square back in 1946. The board ultimately assisted the City Council in 1974 with adopting the “wedding cake” development theme still lauded today, which steps down densities – starting with downtown as the topper.

“It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t fun,” said Stu Vander Hoek, whose father, Paul, was a founding member of the BDDB. “A lot of conflict and a lot of people taking positions.” The vision included a strong retail core, parks and recreational opportunities, libraries and highlighting the city’s strong cultural background. “The common goal was not easy to come to.”

Known today as the Bellevue Downtown Association, the nonprofit celebrates its 40th at the Meydenbauer Center on Feb. 6.

In its 40 years, the BDA has continued playing roles both behind the scenes and out in front related to promoting downtown development and livability, including once again weighing in on a comprehensive plan in 1979. The BDA spearheaded zoning amendments put in place in 1981, which included a downtown rezone to prevent sprawl by allowing buildings to be constructed closer together.

“We live and breathe advocacy on behalf of downtown daily,” said BDA president Patrick Bannon.

Land use is still very important to the BDA, said Schooler, a former BDA chairman, but the association has branched out over the years to take up business development, public relations and celebrated local events, such as producing several weeks of wintertime festivities known as Magic Season.

Board Chairman Ross Jacobson said the BDA worked hard to bring a young Bill Gates and his Microsoft company to Bellevue in the early ‘80s, at a time when tech companies hadn’t yet realized the Eastside’s potential for incubating such business.

Though Microsoft moved from Northup Way to Redmond, the current influx of tech companies into Bellevue has led to low office vacancy, high rental rates downtown and a rush to develop more high-rises to meet future demand.

The BDA is now focused on a downtown transportation plan being developed by the city and the Downtown Livability initiative, said Bannon, which will be adopted this year and incorporate elements from the transportation plan. Vander Hoek, who has been a member of the BDA for more than 30 years, said the association is an effective partner in this, considering since 1986 its transportation management association, TransManage, has been advocating downtown traffic improvements and assisting employers with making smart decisions about parking.

Jacobson said the association is now working harder to reach out to downtown residents, a population that had only been about 400 just 15 years ago. The city now reports a downtown population of 10,500 and is working to establish a residents association there. Vander Hoek, a developer, said affordable housing also remains an issue, and something that will need to be addressed through reforms in building regulations.

Whatever the issues, members of the BDA are looking decades ahead at what could be and decades back at how far the association and downtown Bellevue has come.

“How many downtowns get an opportunity like we’ve had?” said Vander Hoek.


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