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A new Bellevue: Step by step to a pedestrian-friendly downtown
Seattle Times Eastside bureau
Downtown Bellevue is less than one square mile.
But here's the rub: To a pedestrian, it feels much bigger. The blocks are more than twice the size of those in Seattle, cars zoom along wide streets, and intersections can seem as wide as football fields.
Many buildings are surrounded by parking lots, and much of the development is so generic and set back, pedestrians say, that a walk through one of the region's premier shopping destinations is more a chore than an inviting stroll.
But don't put away your walking shoes just yet.
The city built with cars in mind has new priorities. It's already spent millions of dollars to make downtown more pedestrian-friendly, and much more is in the works.
From tree-lined sidewalks, midblock crossings and skybridges to circulator buses and pathways between high-rises, the city has begun a transformation it hopes will redefine its auto-oriented image.
What do you think Bellevue can do to make its downtown more walkable? Tell us your ideas, whether they be practical or pie-in-the-sky. E-mail us at email@example.com.
A push to create more dense, walkable communities is being played out in big cities and suburbs across the country, but Bellevue -- with its superblocks and intimidating intersections -- faces more challenges than most. Change, city officials acknowledge, will take time.
On a recent afternoon, Valorie Osterman and her daughter, Sharron, stood in Bellevue's Compass Plaza, on the pedestrian corridor that runs along Sixth Street from Bellevue Square to City Hall. The corridor hosts lunchtime concerts and fills with people walking among restaurants, shops, offices and the Bellevue Arts Museum..
The Ostermans come downtown regularly from their Woodinville home to shop and to get haircuts at the Gene Juarez Salon. Getting around on foot isn't bad, they say, but it's not great, either. It's hard to find your way around, and the intersections are too big.
"The crosswalk times are really short," said Valerie Osterman, 42. "If you've got one bag or a kid, that's a challenge."
Looking for a certain restaurant recently led some family members to "end up in rabbit warrens," after a series of wrong turns and dead-ends, Osterman said.
David Jeppesen, a software consultant from Mercer Island, said he parks his car and sticks to the pedestrian corridor to shop. But if he needs to go elsewhere downtown, he'll get back in his car rather than walk.
On foot, "just waiting at the stoplights is far from pleasant," said Jeppesen, 31.
In the early '80s, the city took the first step toward creating a more walkable downtown by approving requirements that encouraged new developments to be built close to the street, with big windows and pathways between buildings.
The results have transformed entire blocks. Throngs of diners linger outside Lincoln Square, where upscale restaurants and stores abound. Apartment dwellers in the nearby Ashwood neighborhood can walk to a ground-level hair salon or coffee shop. Office workers on 108th Avenue Northeast eat lunch in a courtyard with plenty of seating.
Microsoft announced last week that it would increase its Bellevue office space, adding hundreds of workers to the downtown core by the end of 2009.
The city is waiting for developers to create even more pathways and pedestrian-friendly commercial attractions. But it may be 30 years or more before the vision is complete.
"The puzzle is half-finished and there's a lot of missing pieces in between," said city Planning Director Dan Stroh. "We have to be smart about that and understand that it's an evolutionary picture."
In the meantime, the city is pushing ahead on its own projects, such as improvements to the 60-foot-wide pedestrian corridor on Sixth Street. Also in the works are better signage to help people get around and a plan to make sidewalks "softer and greener," with more landscaping and buffers from traffic.
Last month the City Council extended a building moratorium on the area between Downtown Park and Meydenbauer Beach Park so the city can plan a pedestrian connection to the water just a few blocks away.
"The time to do these things is sooner rather than later," said Mayor Grant Degginger.
A changing story
Leslie Lloyd walks through the Bellevue Transit Center, just a block up the hill from Interstate 405 on the east edge of downtown, and proudly points out the 14-foot brick sidewalks, park benches and artistic touches, such as the blueberries and strawberries sculpted into the lampposts.
Lloyd is president of the Bellevue Downtown Association, a business group dedicated to making the district more livable. She walks along 110th Avenue Northeast, noting the wide pathways built by recent developments, but then cringes when she comes to the narrow sidewalks bordering lots that haven't changed in years.
"That tells the story of Bellevue right there," she said, pointing to a small sidewalk across the street from a Neiman Marcus store under construction. A few blocks south, some streets don't even have sidewalks.
Bellevue needs many more useful, distinctive amenities in its downtown core, like grocery stores, that "get people to walk as part of everyday life," said David Levinger, head of Feet First, a Seattle pedestrian-advocacy group.
With the city's wider roads and big intersections, pedestrians are "so much smaller than the area" around them, Levinger said. "The message is you're out of place."
The city's parking problems go hand in hand with its pedestrian woes, according to city planners. There are only 340 public parking spaces downtown, and many business owners chase away those who try to use their spaces to visit other stores.
A lack of shared parking is "tremendously unhelpful for pedestrian activity," Stroh said.
There are 10,000 free spaces for customers at Lincoln Square, Bellevue Square and Bellevue Place, but the lots don't always meet the need, city officials said.
Community leaders are encouraging more distinct neighborhoods to develop, which would make downtown seem less monolithic. Bellevue Way is well on its way to being the shopping corridor, with 108th Avenue as the would-be commercial strip and 106th Avenue the entertainment corridor.
In a dynamic, lively city core, big things can happen, such as a New Year's Eve gathering with closed streets and a dropping ball, city leaders say. But they won't happen right away.
"It can be a long waiting game," Stroh said. "We want to see a really livable, really quality place."
Ashley Bach: 206-464-2567 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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