Bellevue, WA: A Brief Introduction

Bellevue is a unique city that is located near Seattle in western Washington State in the U.S. Pacific Northwest.

Although it is only the fifth largest city in Washington in terms of population (currently approximately 117,000), it has the second largest downtown in the state (and the third largest downtown in the entire northwestern part of the U.S.), and it has an influence that is increasingly extending throughout the U.S. and far beyond.

Brief History

The region was sculpted by the massive glaciers that covered it during the last ice age. Evidence of that era is clearly visible today in the form of the numerous lakes of all sizes that dot the area (including some that are scarcely known even to locals). After the ice retreated, the land became thickly carpeted with evergreen forests whose remnants are still visible today even in highly urbanized areas.

Towering evergreen tree
Bellevue's first human inhabitants probably arrived at least 12,000 years ago. They lived in longhouses that were constructed from large planks and were often located near the mouths of rivers. The area provided plentiful foodstuffs, including abundant supplies of berries, wapato (an edible root native to the region), fish and birds.

The first recorded visit by a person of European descent to Lake Washington (which is just to the west of Bellevue) occurred in the summer of 1850. The first such settlers in what is now Bellevue began constructing log cabins in the late 1860s or early 1870s, and the area became a popular location for the summer homes of residents of nearby Seattle.

Sadly, most of the original inhabitants were decimated by a smallpox epidemic in the 1770s, and most of the survivors had already been moved to reservations by the time the first people of European descent began settling the area.

The towering evergreens gradually gave way to agriculture, and throughout the first half of the 20th century Bellevue was dominated by farms that were best known for their strawberries and blueberries.

The completion of the first floating bridge across Lake Washington in 1940 set the stage for further change by greatly reducing the time required to reach Seattle. It opened the floodgates to a suburban life style that dominated the area through the next four decades. Bellevue was officially incorporated as a city in 1953, by which time it had acquired a population of 5,940.

Outstanding Combination of Factors

Today Bellevue is much more than just another sleepy suburban bedroom community; it has metamorphosed into a large and increasingly cosmopolitan commercial, retail and residential powerhouse that is the core of the region to the east of Lake Washington that is referred to locally as the Eastside. This is the result of a number of factors that have converged to make Bellevue not just a unique place but also an outstanding one in which to live, work, visit, run a business and even retire. A key to these factors is its excellent location.

For example, the region is blessed with a generally pleasant climate, due in part to the moderating effects of Lake Washington and Puget Sound. Winters are relatively mild with only occasional snowfall (except in the nearby mountain ranges) and few severe storms. Summers are warm and sunny, and only a few days each year are hot enough to make people want air conditioning.

Moreover, the region is surrounded by vast (and largely protected) wilderness areas, including the rugged Cascade mountains a short distance to the east and the Olympic mountains further to the west. These unspoiled open spaces provide outstanding recreational opportunities and pleasant views from much of Bellevue. The Cascades also provide an ample (in most years) supply of high quality drinking water.

Bellevue also features proximity to three of the cities widely considered to be among the best places to live in all of North America. It is only about 15 or 20 minutes to the east of Seattle, the largest city in the U.S. northwest, just a few hours north of Portland, Oregon, and just a few hours south of Vancouver, B.C., the biggest city in Western Canada.

Despite its relative youth, Bellevue has a vigorous and growing cultural scene. Among the most popular of city's numerous cultural facilities is the Bellevue Regional Library, which is the flagship branch of the King County library system, one of the largest public library systems in the U.S.

Bellevue Arts Museum
Bellevue's unique art museum.
Downtown also contains several major bookstores, including Barnes & Noble Downtown Bellevue, which is one of the largest in the Pacific Northwest, and University Bookstore, which is associated with the prestigious University of Washington. Meydenbauer Center is a full-service convention center and theater on the eastern edge of downtown. Right in the center of downtown is the new and distinctive Bellevue Arts Museum, which, despite some initial teething problems, promises to become a major regional cultural resource. The downtown core also contains several movie theaters and art galleries.

Bellevue also has its own symphony orchestra and an opera company. Moreover, it is home to the annual summer Pacific Northwest Arts and Crafts Festival, one of the largest outdoor events of its type and one which attracts participants and visitors from many other states and Canada. Bellevue's cultural life will be further boosted by a major center for the performing arts, construction of which is expected to begin in the near future.

Bellevue also boasts outstanding shopping facilities that cater to every taste and income level. For example, downtown is home to Bellevue Square, which is consistently rated as one of the finest shopping centers in the U.S. and one of the top visitor destinations in the Pacific Northwest.

Downtown Bellevue park
Looking east from the award-winning Downtown Park.
Bellevue also boasts an extensive and well-maintained park system that rivals any in the Northwest. For example, a major feature of downtown is the appropriately named Downtown Bellevue Park, a large (20 acres) and elegant green space dominated by a half-mile long circular promenade that is a popular place for jogging, walking and socializing. A parallel canal ends in a waterfall and a large pond that reflects the evergreens and skyscrapers in the distance.

Parks, trails and other protected areas account for 14 percent of the city's total area. This figure does not include the more than 50 miles of free-running streams in the city, some of which are used by salmon for their migrations to and from the Pacific Ocean. For this reason Bellevue is sometimes referred to as a city within a park.

Bellevue is also proud of its education system, as its schools rank among some of the best in the U.S. For example, Bellevue Community College (BCC) is consistently rated as one of the top institutions of its kind, and it draws its large and growing student body from throughout the world. BCC is particularly strong in the computer and bioinformatics fields, and there are increasing indications that it will eventually be transformed into a four year institution. More than 50 percent of the population of Bellevue has at least a bachelor's degree, as compared with approximately 40 percent for King County (which includes both Bellevue and Seattle) as a whole and about 25 percent for the U.S. as a whole.

The city also has excellent medical facilities. For example, Overlake Hospital, the core of the medical district on the eastern edge of downtown, has grown into one of the largest and highest rated medical complexes in the northwestern U.S. and it is currently embarking on another major expansion project.

Old Main Street
Main Street preserves some of the charm of old Bellevue.
All of this is helping Bellevue to become a city with a livable downtown (which is still unusual in much of the U.S.). In fact, the number of downtown residents has been expanding in recent years and it is even becoming somewhat of a retirement destination because of its unique combination of convenience (including the ability to walk to a wide and growing array of shopping, restaurants and cultural facilities), safety, good climate and excellent medical facilities.

A High Tech Center

Not only is Bellevue a leader in life style, but it has also become an economic powerhouse and a center for corporate headquarters. As home to dozens of high-tech companies, the city's skyline is no longer composed of just towering evergreens but also of an increasing number of glass-clad skyscrapers. This is due not only to the high quality of life, but also to such factors as the high level of education in the area and the strength of the increasingly diversified local economy.

Another important factor has been the presence of software giant Microsoft Corporation. Although that company is technically no longer headquartered in Bellevue, it remains just a stone's throw beyond city limits on the edge of adjacent Redmond, and it retains facilities in Bellevue. Many of Microsoft's employees and its highly entrepreneurial alumnae call Bellevue home, and its founder, and the world's richest man, lives just a short distance from Bellevue in nearby Medina.

But Bellevue is far more than just a one-company town. It is also home to a whole host of other computer and high-tech companies, many of which are the pioneering and most innovative firms in their fields. Several major old time companies are also headquartered in Bellevue, including Paccar Inc., one of the world's largest manufacturers of heavy duty trucks, and Puget Sound Energy, Washington state's largest energy utility.

Despite this increasingly big-city ambiance, Bellevue still retains somewhat of a small town feel, including many of the advantages that smaller communities can offer. This is in part a result of a deliberate policy of smart growth, which attempts to direct growth of population and businesses into the downtown core while preserving the city's numerous and diverse residential neighborhoods and their relaxed lifestyles.

Big Future

Although there are many good things that can be said about Bellevue, the city is far from perfect. For example, like most American cities, the downtown is still blighted by numerous ugly parking lots and strip malls, and the quality of the urban experience, although improving, pales in comparison to most cities in Europe and in comparison to large American cities such as New York, San Francisco and even Seattle.

The air is occasionally visibly polluted, and on some days there is excessive aircraft noise. Moreover, in contrast to other West Coast cities including Portland and Vancouver B.C., which are steadily expanding their already first-class rail transit systems, Bellevue continues to rely on an automobile-dominated transportation system, one which worked well for a low density suburb in the mid-twentieth century but which is entirely unsuited for the major metropolis that Bellevue is on its way to becoming in the twenty-first century.

Yet, in spite of these defects, Bellevue already has far more going for it than most U.S. cities of comparable size and even many larger ones. Moreover, it is still very young as a city, and it is only a matter of time until problems such as the primitive transportation system and the lack of a world-class urban experience are largely overcome.

Downtown Bellevue construction boom
Unprecedented construction boom.
As an example of this continuing transformation from a bedroom suburb of Seattle into a leading city in its own right, the largest mixed use project in the U.S. is is nearing completion in downtown. Moreover, construction is proceeding on numerous additional high rise office and residential structures in the urban core. In addition, there is growing interest in finally doing something about the transportation problem1.

As these projects develop, a portion of Bellevue Way, downtown's principal street, could eventually come to resemble such great urban thoroughfares as North Michigan Avenue in Chicago or even Fifth Avenue in New York City. In fact, it has been speculated that Bellevue might be on its way to becoming a twin (although one with a very different personality) to Seattle and increasingly sharing the role as the major metropolis of the Pacific Northwest.

1For a more complete list, please visit the page Major Corporations With Headquarters in Bellevue, Washington

2Sound Transit has begun working on plans to extend its light rail line from Seattle to Bellevue, although any start of construction is still years away. Also, a citizen's movement, Eastside Rail Now!, has sprung up to preserve the existing, but threatened, railroad through Bellevue and use it as the core for an Eastside regional rail transit system.

Created February 20, 2005. Last updated February 14, 2007.
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