How car-centric Bellevue is embracing a more pedestrian-friendly future
Bellevue is a city that was built around cars. But the next chapter in Bellevue’s growth could look very different.
During the pandemic, plans have advanced to reorganize Bellevue’s downtown around a pedestrian and bike-friendly route from the shores of Lake Washington – to light rail stations and beyond. That plan is called the "Grand Connection.”
oe Sanderson is a valet. He works from a kiosk just off Main Street, in downtown Bellevue. He takes people’s cars, everything from Hondas to Ferraris and once a McLaren 720 worth half a million dollars, and parks them very carefully in narrow spaces.
“Being able to fit in a spot that’s small – you know, it’s gonna take a lot of effort to do," Sanderson said. "But because we do this every single day, and we are considered, technically, professionals, we can park cars in spots where other people may not feel comfortable.”
The specialized skill of parking cars has become highly valued in Bellevue, where new developments often come with hundreds, or in one case, thousands, of new parking spaces. That’s brought lots of new cars to the area. All those cars are associated with economic activity, which businesses like, especially coming out of the pandemic. But it’s also chaotic.
“It gets a little hectic around here,” Sanderson said.
Main Street itself is a study in the tension between cars and people. On the one hand, the stores here rely on parking spots to draw customers from all over the region.
On the other hand, mom-and-pop shops locate here in part because lots of people enjoy walking on Main Street. There’s sidewalk dining, window displays, and benches to sit on.
Those qualities drew Patricia Markevitch and her mother to locate Alicia Peru, a boutique specializing in alpaca wool sweaters and capes, on Main Street.
“It’s the walkability," Markevitch said. "Because Bellevue’s not really known to be a very walkable downtown core.”
But Markevitch said so many cars are pushing through Main Street these days, that the walkable feeling on this street has changed.
“It becomes kind of a freeway, in a way,” she said.
But this section of Main Street is about to change again. It’ll become one part of a new, pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly route called the Grand Connection that will thread through downtown Bellevue. Clear signs will mark the route. Landscaping buffers will help people feel protected from cars. Traffic signals will prioritize pedestrians.
The pandemic allowed the city to experiment a bit, trading parking spots on the street for outdoor dining. Parking space dining will return again this summer, too.
Kay Fuengarom, an owner of Fern Thai, said she needs places for customers to park and she needs outdoor dining. But if she had to choose one over the other, she'd choose outdoor dining.
Patricia Markevitch would love to see merchants invited to participate too. Perhaps she could set up a stall in a parking spot where her store could sell clothes to passersby? Maybe the street could close down to cars on Saturdays, she suggested, a day when people are more likely to leisurely stroll up and down the street.
The Grand Connection
The Grand Connection designation will set the stage for new experiments like this in future years.
Bellevue City Councilmember Jeremy Barksdale gave me a tour of the route. It starts on the Lake Washington shore, at Meydenbauer Bay Park. We walked out onto a crescent-shaped metal pier.
“There’s a beach front here – actual sand here that you can lay out and enjoy, and go out into the water if you want to, to this floating dock," he said.
From this beach, the path climbs up to Main Street, then winds through the city’s core.
It crosses Downtown Park, skirts the mall, and passes the front doors of tech companies like Unity, Valve, and Microsoft. The route winds past the art museum, bus transit center, future light rail stations and City Hall. Eventually, it’ll extend over Interstate 405. The city is studying whether they can lid the freeway there with a new park.
Barksdale says the Grand Connection is about creating spaces where people can feel comfortable in Bellevue on foot, or on bike. A place where you can wander without having to constantly worry where you’re going to park – or having to move your car as you go from work to lunch to window shopping.
“It just allows you to, I think, thrive, ideally," Barksdale said. "As a city, as a community, it really comes down to, 'How do we draw people in, not because they have to be there for work, but because they want to be there because there’s something there for them?'”
Skepticism and Amazon
These are not new ideas, but they feel revolutionary in Bellevue. For almost half a century, Kemper Freeman’s vision has ruled here. He’s the owner of Bellevue Square, which is also along the Grand Connection. Freeman has long argued that cars should be prioritized in Bellevue. Not for love of cars, he said. Rather, it's about the data.
“I have spent more money, studying how do people move about than any developer I know," he said.
Freeman says those studies have shown him that 75% of his customers arrive by car. He said he wishes it were otherwise, because it costs him a lot to maintain parking stalls for his customers.
“Our goal is to help people get here anyway they want to get here," he said. "I mean, if people want to come by hot air balloons, we’d love it."
For all his skepticism, Freeman's not turning his back on the Grand Connection. New towers being built on his property will feature a grand entrance on the Bellevue Way section of the Grand Connection with views to an interior courtyard topped by an inverted glass funnel unlike anything built in this region, he said. The entrance is scaled to be visible to both pedestrians and cars, he said.
But Freeman grows impatient with claims that light rail, or pedestrian and bike routes like the Grand Connection could fundamentally change how people move around Bellevue. He fears the infrastructure project is overhyped.
“I’ve got to be a realist," he said. "How do people really move, not what the government would like them to do, or not what would people who want to build things want them to do.”
But Freeman's influence on the issue has declined as a new stakeholder has joined the conversation: Amazon.
It’s not that Amazon hates cars. The company will include some parking in its Bellevue projects. But it won’t build nearly enough parking for the 25,000 employees who will soon work in Bellevue.
In a recent interview with the Bellevue Downtown Association, Amazon executive John Schoettler said the company’s proposed tower, the Bellevue 600, will take full advantage of its location on the Grand Connection, which links it to bike trails and mass transit.
“Think about where Bellevue 600 sits," Schoettler said. "It’s sort of, almost a portal, if you will, to the Grand Connection. And we are very excited about being a part of that.”
The city of Bellevue still has a lot of work to do, on this plan. And conversations happening now at the city council will determine how quickly this car-oriented city can change.
This story is part of our series The Main Street Project. It's our way of exploring economic recovery one street at a time.
We're hosting a free and virtual live event to "unpack" this series and learn from a guest expert how the small business districts that make our communities unique can thrive as the pandemic winds down. Find out more here.
Do you know a street where you think we should we go? The street doesn't have to be named "Main Street," it could be any street of importance in your community. Submit your story ideas at KUOW.org/mainstreet.