Spotlight on Bellevue: The Suburb That's a City

The one-time bedroom community has put the ‘urban’ in ‘suburban’
The Bellevue Collection, along Bellevue Way and NE Eight Street, with shopping, entertainment and restaurant options, has helped fill downtown Bellevue sidewalks with pedestrians

This article appears in print in the March 2018 issue, as part of the "Best of the Burbs" cover story. Click here for the rest of the story.

Driving east on the Interstate 90 bridge from Seattle, Bellevue’s twinkling skyline is easily visible, a testament to its changed status. Originally a farming turned bedroom community for Seattle, it’s now more urban than suburban, a city of more than 140,000; that population swells to more than 230,000 during the day, thanks to a robust employment base centered around technology, retail and business.

The downtown core has exploded skyward in the past decade, with more than two dozen high-rise buildings completed or in development in 2017. Those skyscrapers are providing employers such as Microsoft, Expedia and Symetra with office space, and more than 14,000 urban dwellers with some 9,000 apartments and condos (with 3,000 more in development), along with nearby retail, hotel and entertainment venues. 

“The building frenzy has brought a much-needed population boom to Bellevue, giving it the critical mass necessary for adding shops and restaurants that so many of us are able to enjoy,” says Nicole Mangina, a real estate agent with Windermere. Enjoying a lifestyle with urban conveniences wouldn’t have been possible a few decades ago, but it’s what Noel Scott, a chef for Joey restaurant in downtown Bellevue, likes about Bellevue today. “Everything is walkable—the gym, work, the grocery store, restaurants, movie theaters,” says Scott, who lives and works downtown.

Nowhere is Bellevue’s downtown growth more apparent than in the recent expansion of The Bellevue Collection (the large retail/office/hotel/condo complex at Bellevue Way and NE Eighth Street) into Lincoln Square South, which boasts the W Bellevue hotel, 26 floors of condos and an abundance of new restaurants. Bellevue snagged its first James Beard Award–winning chef when Jason Wilson (Crush, Miller’s Guild) opened The Lakehouse as part of this expansion last summer, signaling a growing trend in the city beyond non-chain restaurants. 

Nearby, The Shops at The Bravern continue to be heavily weighted with luxury retailers, such as Neiman Marcus, Prada and Jimmy Choo, drawing Chinese investors and shoppers. And a plethora of downtown bars and clubs, such as W Living Room and Central Bar, support a high-end version of nightlife for which the dress code—in a departure from “Seattle casual”—is more likely to include designer threads, shoes and jewels. And thanks to Bellevue-based Zadart, which offers by-the-hour rentals of luxury cars, date night could include a Ferrari or Bentley.

Outside the city center, Bellevue—like Seattle—has clearly defined individual neighborhoods, including Crossroads, with its own well-developed retail center (where many of the city’s well-known Asian and Indian restaurants are located). 

But most of these neighborhoods have kept their suburban feel, with single-family homes surrounded by sprawling lawns—from “starter neighborhoods” like Crossroads and Lake Hills to Bridle Trails and Somerset, with their “moderately” priced homes in the low $1 million range, to West Bellevue and Enatai, with their luxury estates. These homes are largely populated by families that look different than they did a few decades ago. Once predominantly white, today’s Bellevue residents are a diverse blend, with 34 percent of them Asian, 9 percent Latino, and only about 50 percent white. Forty percent of residents claim languages other than English as their native tongue, nearly twice the national average, with the Chinese leading the pack. 

Unlike many big cities, Bellevue has maintained its reputation as a community with good schools and low crime, enticing families and couples looking to raise children in a safe environment. Daphna Robon, a Berkshire Hathaway real estate agent, says the quality of Bellevue’s public schools is the most important factor for clients looking outside the downtown core. Chinese investors, in particular, gravitate toward the Newcastle area because of the excellent reputation of Newport High School, she says. 

Photographs by Hayley Young. From left to right: Highrises, like these along NE Fourth Street and Bellevue Way, now dominate downtown Bellevue’s skyline; development at the corner of Main Street and Bellevue Way includes new apartments and retail; but some parts of Bellevue, including housing in the Lake Hills neighborhood, remain unchanged

The city’s quality schools and employment opportunities attracted Radhika Kapur, who has previously lived in India, Australia and other U.S. cities. She owns Third Culture Coffee in Old Bellevue’s Main Street corridor. “I opened Third Culture Coffee in Bellevue especially because of the diverse community and the family-friendly options that really stand out as one of the best in the world.”

Increasingly, however, big-city issues are encroaching. The city’s homeless population is growing; human service organizations like Congregations for the Homeless (CFH) and The Sophia Way have expanded their services to meet the increasing need to house the homeless population. The influx of new residents and employees also means more roads, traffic and congestion. And while construction on a tunnel and station for a light rail connection to Seattle is underway across from city hall in downtown Bellevue (with an expected opening date of 2023), public transportation options within the city are less than robust. 

Even with its big-city growing pains, the shine on Bellevue shows no signs of diminishing. Real estate prices are among the highest in the region, and the city was recently ranked number six by Livability as one of the country’s best small cities. “In 2017, the median price for a single-family home in Bellevue was consistently above $1 million, and most homes sold over list price,” says Robon. That’s good news for sellers, but like its big-city sister across the lake, challenging for buyers. 

Bellevue Snapshot
Median household income: $113,877 in 2016
Housing: 53 percent single-family units, 47 percent multifamily units*
Largest growth area by square footage (planned or under construction): downtown Bellevue and the Spring District, a new transit-oriented district 
School rank: Bellevue School District, no. 11 in state
*Washington State Office of Financial Management

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