City leaders talk economic outlook, police reform and more with Bellevue Downtown Association

The annual State of the City with the BDA was held as a virtual fireside chat, livestreamed Thursday, July 30

For Bellevue Mayor Lynne Robinson and Deputy Mayor Jared Nieuwenhuis, the most inspiring day this year was not the day a large protest occurred in downtown over the death of George Floyd, defunding the police and social change, which simultaneously saw property destruction and looting at Bellevue Square Collection, but the day after: June 1.

Residents, Bellevue High School students and business owners were out the next morning cleaning up any graffiti and broken glass in downtown. Nieuwenhuis said he was amazed by everyone’s positive attitude, and Robinson said she was inspired by the students there at 6 a.m. who took care of much of the cleanup.

“I have every confidence Bellevue will emerge stronger and better than it is today once we shed this pandemic. We still are that shining city on the hill because of the makeup of our residents,” Nieuwenhuis said. “Residents that value and ensure a strong sense of community.”

The Mayor and Deputy Mayor discussed this and more at the annual Bellevue Downtown Association (BDA) State of the City via livestream, Thursday, July 30. BDA President Patrick Bannon asked questions based on input from BDA members to city leadership that ranged from systemic racism to economic development. You can watch the full discussion via Facebook here.

Robinson said Bellevue may be in a better position than most cities to recover following the pandemic, but it’s still a difficult time for the community. She praised businesses and associations, nonprofits, Overlake Hospital for treating COVID-19 patients, residents and even police for what she said was an example of deescalation at the May 31 Bellevue protests.

Nieuwenhuis said that the looting that day showed that police are essential, and that it should be uncontroversial. He said the city is pressuring the King County Prosecutors that the people who are being identified as stealing or destroying property at Bellevue Square and a few neighboring businesses are being punished at the full extent of the law. He also said police are working to keep this form of property destruction from happening again.

He also praised the police department for being nationally accredited, which is something 6% of departments in the nation have.

“We are always open to a continuous improvement in the city of Bellevue, no matter what department it is,” Nieuwenhuis said. “But I’m so proud of our police department proactively doing so many of these things already. At the end of the day, we’ve got a great police department, we always can do better.”

The city council also took a pledge following the protests to review police department use-of-force policies and gather input from the community on public safety.

When asked about systemic racism, Nieuwenhuis discussed several diversity programs and cultural competency training for city employees. Mayor Robinson added that there was always room to do more.

When pivoting to questions about development, Bannon asked city leadership about the vision for downtown and future developments, and how COVID-19 will impact that work. Much of the discussion was optimistic, as Robinson discussed the important bike and pedestrian connections being made through the downtown core, transportation projects continuing through Bellevue during the shutdown as it was deemed essential construction work by Gov. Jay Inslee, larger tech companies supporting Bellevue’s economy, and small to mid sized businesses supporting each other.

In regards to small business, Robinson said they’ve received 4,000 Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans, preserving 35,000 jobs in Bellevue. She said what’s most inspiring is small businesses helping each other. New Liberty Bank helped other local companies get 300 PPP loans, valuing at $50 million.

In the pandemic, tech companies have pivoted more successfully during the pandemic than other businesses, which put Bellevue at an advantage. Still, other industries in the city are sitting with high unemployment rates. Hotel and food service industry is seeing a 48% unemployment rate. But Nieuwenhuis said traffic and pedestrian increase in recent weeks in Bellevue is a good sign the workforce trend will improve and consumers are going out and supporting local business.

Robinson said as Bellevue has received a wave of development growth, balancing amenities can be a challenge. But the city is using planning processes to make sure no one neighborhood has better schools, parks and health access than another.

The biggest need Robinson has said she’s hearing is a call for rental assistance for businesses and residents. Bellevue did not put a rental moratorium in place like many other cities during the pandemic. Robinson said instead they’ve put funds into rental assistance so once people get back to earning money, they will not have back pay.

As they discussed housing supply and affordability, Robinson said the city used to believe affordable housing was optional in Bellevue. Now it’s become clear it is essential for economic vitality— less than 10% of housing is affordable to a family of four earning $100,000 a year, and there’s little affordable housing. The council is now looking at incentives to encourage some affordable housing in growth areas, and work to retain the affordable residences they have.

As the city looks forward, recovery is expected to take place in two to three years. Bellevue, with 45 global companies headquartered here, might recover sooner as it maintains a business friendly position.

“I know this is a very challenging time, but from what I hear regionally, federally and locally, our city is better positioned than any other city to get through this, and we’ll get through it together,” Robinson said.

The city is looking for feedback as it discusses the biennial budget, which is expecting a revenue gap of $12-16 million. More information on budget workshops and the two more public hearings are available here.

Those interested in more virtual events from the BDA can visit here.

This story has been updated.