Updated Saturday, February 8, 2014 at 06:16 PM
WHEN a handful of property owners and business people formed the Bellevue Downtown Association in 1974, the new organization’s name probably reflected wishful thinking more than reality.
Bellevue didn’t have a real downtown back then.
The association’s 40th anniversary celebration this week provides an opportunity to look back on downtown Bellevue’s stunning transformation over the past four decades.
It’s become an intensely urban place, in part because of the association’s efforts. And the whole region is the better for it.
Downtown Bellevue in 1974 was mostly a collection of squat retail and office buildings surrounded by acres of parking lots. The only tall building, a 13-story structure known today as the Paccar Tower, stood out like the last old-growth fir in a clearcut. Bellevue Square was a modest open-air shopping center.
Everyone drove to downtown Bellevue. Almost no one lived there.
The neighborhood’s 400 or so residents mostly lived in single-family houses left over from the 1950s. Pedestrians were so rare that suspicious police would sometimes stop and question them, says former city architect Mark Hinshaw, who spent most of the 1980s working to realize a different vision for Bellevue’s downtown.
That vision was codified by the Bellevue City Council in a controversial 1979 plan that embraced height, density and mixed-use development, limited parking and encouraged more pedestrian-friendly design.
No one called the plan “smart growth” then, but that’s what it was.
Today, downtown Bellevue has real streetscapes, and a real skyline. It boasts at least 25 buildings taller than the Paccar Tower. Some are residential: more than 10,000 people live downtown now. They can walk to work and shops, and to a downtown park, library and transit center that didn’t exist in 1974.
More than 45,000 people work in the neighborhood, seven times as many as 40 years ago. A third of them bus, carpool, bike or walk to their jobs. Greater density warranted better bus service. Light rail is on the way.
Downtown Bellevue isn’t Valhalla. Traffic congestion remains a challenge. The neighborhood’s mammoth “superblocks” — 200 yards from corner to corner, a legacy of the station-wagon age — can discourage walking. Downtown could benefit from more places that delight and surprise.
But downtowns evolve slowly. Downtown Bellevue is an infinitely more interesting and engaging place than it was in 1974. And it already has made important regional contributions.
Without downtown Bellevue, the region probably would have more sprawl and worse traffic. For, if Bellevue’s leaders hadn’t agreed to accommodate growth by building up, it surely would have been accommodated elsewhere — most likely by building out.
Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Lance Dickie, Jonathan Martin, Thanh Tan, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).
Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times
The downtown Bellevue skyline has transformed in the past 40 years.