One of the challenges in transforming White Flint into an urban place is that it largely developed after World War II, when car culture really took hold. Not only are there lots of big, fast roads and strip malls that are hard to navigate without a car, but there are fewer examples of how to redesign it. This was less of an issue in the revitalization of places like Bethesda or Silver Spring, which were originally built around walking and transit.
But last month, I got to visit one place that’s dealing with many of the same problems we are: Bellevue, a community just east of Seattle, where I went for the annual Rail~Volution conference. While Bellevue still struggles to make room for people in a place built for cars, it holds a lot of interesting lessons for White Flint as it matures.
Like White Flint, Bellevue was a rural area until after World War II, when the growing demand for housing and a new bridge connecting it to Seattle made it a fast-growing suburb. During the 1970’s, it also became a magnet for commercial development, sprouting a commanding skyline as companies moved to the city.
By 2000, Bellevue had more jobs than residents, making it the downtown for Seattle’s Eastside region. And its perception has changed as well. At the conference, I spoke to an official from the Seattle Department of Transportation who has observed Bellevue from across Lake Washington for years. “Bellevue used to be a suburb,” he said. “But in recent years it’s grown a lot, and now it’s a city in its own right.”
Bellevue gets taller, younger, and more educated
Bellevue has been trying to remake its downtown since the 1970’s. In recent years, downtown Bellevue has exploded with high-end shopping centers, luxury apartments, and 400-foot-tall skyscrapers housing major tech companies like Microsoft, the city’s largest employer. There are also a number of impressive public buildings, including a library, a convention center, Bellevue’s city hall, and a gorgeous downtown park.
Today, there are over 43,000 workers and 10,000 residents in downtown Bellevue, with forecasts predicting 70,000 workers and 19,000 residents by 2030. By comparison, White Flint had about 22,800 workers and about 5,000 residents in 2010, which could grow to about 48,000 workers and 30,000 residents in a few decades under the Sector Plan.
As downtown grew, the city’s mix of urban and suburban amenities drew young, educated professionals from around the world who came to work at nearby tech firms. The median age of downtown residents fell from 57 in 2000 to 34 in 2010, while the percentage of adults with at least a bachelor’s degree increased from 45% to 63%. Both downtown and the city as a whole were at least 80% white in 2000, but are on target to become majority-minority within a few years.
New focus on little details, not just big buildings
Walking around downtown Bellevue, it’s clear that it’s still in transition. Past planning efforts, most recently a 2003 update of the city’s Downtown Plan talked about pedestrian and transit improvements, but were hesitant to recommend anything that would impede car traffic.
The skyscrapers look cool, but they don’t really address the street, creating big blank walls. The streets are massive and spaced far apart, creating large “superblocks” that encourage speeding. They also make it hard, or at least unpleasant, to walk, meaning the sidewalks tend to be empty. And every building still seems to have its own parking lot garage, creating even more incentives to drive.
But the pieces of an urban place are coming together. Turn off of the main streets and you’re on quieter, more intimate streets with small shops and apartment buildings with “real doors.” In the Bravern, a new complex with shops, offices and apartments, there’s a series of nice plazas where people congregate even in the typical overcast Seattle weather.
With that in mind, city and regional leaders are planning for a future built around people, not cars. Bellevue already has good local bus service and one of six Seattle-area “bus rapid transit-lite” corridors. In 10 years, it’ll have light rail as well.
But there’s also a renewed focus on the smaller details that make an urban place interesting and enjoyable. The city’s ongoing Downtown Livability Initiative will look at how to create a sense of place, ranging from promoting better urban design to encouraging food trucks. And a Downtown Transportation Plan in progress will look at ways to break up the superblocks to improve pedestrian and cyclist connections.
Bellevue shows the power of creating suburban downtowns
Walking around Bellevue today, you can see what happens when you try to plan for an urban place while assuming that everyone’s going to drive. You get the worst of both urban and suburban places: lots of traffic and none of the vitality.
People already drive to White Flint today, and will continue to do so in the future. But as White Flint grows and matures, we’ll have to shift our focus from moving lots of cars really quickly to moving people in lots of different ways, and creating places worth lingering in.
The success of Bellevue so far shows the power of creating a downtown in a suburban community that previously lacked one. Downtown Bellevue has not only been an economic boon, but a tool for attracting new residents and creating a more diverse, inclusive community. It may not be finished yet, but Bellevue is a promising sign of where White Flint could go.