From the wide windows in his office, Dan Meyers is watching the city of Bellevue grow up. Over the past eight years he has seen a sophisticated city emerge from the footings of a sleepy suburb.
As vice president of design and construction for Kemper Development, Meyers has been in the thick of Bellevue’s changes. The 41-year-old Washington State University alumnus has already had a hand in more major projects than most architects ever hope for. It’s a good fit for someone who knew he wanted to be an architect since the ninth grade.
Meyers’s biggest project to date stands just across the street from his office: a multi-use, gleaming glass tower containing a hotel and condominiums, and beneath it, a shopping center. The $360-million Lincoln Square is the most ambitious project ever undertaken in the suburb-city of 100,000.
But in 2003, when Meyers and a team of architects at Sclater Partners inherited the project, it was nothing more than a gaping hole on the upper end of Bellevue Way, a rebar- and concrete-lined eyesore in the core of downtown.
The development, conceived in 1997, was to cover two downtown blocks and hold a theater, restaurants, and million-dollar residences with spectacular views of the Cascades, Lake Washington, downtown Seattle, and the Olympic mountain range. It promised to lead Bellevue out of suburbia and into a new life as a major Northwest city.
But it seemed the project couldn’t get past the parking garage.
In 2000 it had been sold to a Canadian developer, who broke ground for the mixed-use highrise, but had to stop when the dot-com bubble burst and emptied out Bellevue’s office market, costing the project more than just tenants.
When the first developer couldn’t make it work, a second bought in. But that effort failed, as well.
So the Lincoln Square project went looking for developers again. This time more than 60 proposals made the rounds. The offers boiled down to Meyers’s employer, Kemper, Bellevue’s biggest developer, owned by third-generation Bellevue native Kemper Freeman Jr., and really the only company with the money and the guts to do it.
The developer and a team of architects from Sclater Partners had combed over the project details for months prior to the purchase. “We were there when the padlocks were cut off the construction trailers,” says Sclater’s Scott Kunnanz ’91. Kunnanz and three co-workers, all graduates of WSU, discovered reams of documents and drawings left behind when the project was abandoned.
They donned helmets and mining lanterns and trudged down the five levels of the 12-acre parking garage to the bottom floor to find standing water and no electricity. “It was like an abandoned mineshaft, or an Egyptian tomb,” says Kunnanz, who had done similar spelunking in WSU’s steam tunnels 15 years earlier.
A lanky guy who seems anything but in a hurry, Kunnanz had the urgent task of taking stock of the garage, figuring out where it went wrong, and righting it so the rest of the project could continue.
The garage was so poorly configured, it would have taken 15 to 20 minutes just to drive through on a normal business day. Every one of the stairs was out of compliance. It needed new ramps, relocated ventilation, and larger parking spots.
“And it had to be fast,” says Kunnanz. “We were operating under existing permits that were about to expire.”
Moving fast has never been one of Bellevue’s strengths. The pioneer town was born out of a densely wooded wilderness that for decades sat quiet while Seattle frothed into a lively port city. In 1869, a Seattle baker named William Meydenbauer rowed the three miles across the deep blue waters of Lake Washington and staked a claim on land that curved around a charming bay.
By 1900, 100 people had settled along Meydenbauer Bay, and another 300 were living close by. They came for the abundant timber, land, and wildlife. But jobs were scarce in Bellevue, so folk worked in Seattle to pay for improvements to their east-side land. And as late as 1909, they were shipping their children across the lake to high schools in the city.
Over the next few years fields were cleared for strawberries, forage for milk cows, and produce that the pioneers trucked in to Seattle to sell. In the 1910s, a Japanese community moved in, bringing families who worked small tracts of land and pooled their resources to build a large packing house and a thriving agricultural community. Theirs is one of Bellevue’s sadder histories. Fifty-five Japanese families from Bellevue, about 300 people, were interned at camps in California and Idaho during the Second World War. Few ever returned.
The war changed the community in other ways. Workers flocked to the area for jobs in nearby shipyards and at Boeing in Renton, where they made B-29s. But Bellevue didn’t have enough stores, schools, or services to meet their needs.
Kemper Freeman Sr. seized the opportunity, and in 1946 opened Bellevue Square, with the Bel-Vue Theater, Frederick & Nelson as the anchor store, and restaurants like the Kandi Kane offering places for friends to meet. Freeman’s son Kemper Jr. was a toddler when Bel-Square first opened its doors. He would inherit the business, his family’s legacy of building community, and much of downtown.
By the early 1950s, Bellevue’s population was surging. An attractive suburb, with architect-designed homes sprouting on subdivided farms, it had golf courses, shopping, schools, and spectacular water and mountain views to lure families across the floating bridge from Seattle. Realizing the need for a general plan and government, the citizens voted in 1953 to incorporate as a city, trailing Seattle by 88 years and its east-side sister, Kirkland, by 48.
Charles LeWarne, a Washington State historian who grew up in Bellevue, recalls the days when his family lived in a bungalow on Northeast Fourth Street and ran a 10-cent store downtown. LeWarne describes four very different Bellevues: the pioneer settlement, the small Norman Rockwell-type town of the 20s and 30s, the burgeoning suburb of Seattle from the 40s on, and today’s metropolitan city. “I find the story of Bellevue fascinating,” says the 75-year-old scholar. “My parents could have never imagined what has happened with the high-rise buildings and offices.”
From the 50s until just recently, Bellevue was stuck in its identity as Seattle’s bedroom community. “It was thought of as this sort of lily-white suburban neighborhood,” says Bellevue’s deputy mayor, John Chelminiak (’75 Comm.). It was a place with super-wide streets and super-sized blocks (600 feet, rather than the 200 feet in most cities), a place where you didn’t go too far without a car.
In the 1980s, a few office buildings stretched into the sky-the pink-hued Skyline Office Tower, the blue-toned glass Symetra Financial Center (also known as the Rainier Plaza), and the 27-story rose-colored City Center Bellevue building. But for food, arts, culture, music, and even work, residents still piled into their cars and drove to Seattle.
Then Microsoft and other technology companies settled nearby, and Bellevue began to change. Firms like Onyx, Western Wireless, and Expedia stirred new development downtown, luring major chain restaurants and stimulating more local housing.
City planners had a vision of pedestrian corridors breaking up the long blocks, public spaces and parks scattered throughout, a farmers market, an artists’ community. But then, “In 2001 we had a real serious downturn in the economy,” says Chelminiak. Tech stocks dropped, layoffs came. And the construction crews drove off.
Coming of age
It’s an early spring morning, and the Lincoln Square architects are already busy at their desks at Sclater Partners. The small firm, tucked on an upper floor of a vintage Seattle building on Olive Way, has close ties with Kemper Development, often refining and executing the developer’s plans for Bellevue’s center. Sclater’s architects are experts in designing for retail and parkin
g, and in recent years have branched out to all types of projects, including housing, schools, and hotels. Thanks to their work, Bellevue may have permanently lost its label as a sleepy suburb.
Architect Brad Smith ’88 pushes aside a half-eaten muffin to collect papers for a meeting 20 minutes away in Bellevue. Like his classmate Dan Meyers, he watched Lincoln Square’s early troubles from a close perch. His view was the Bellevue Arts Museum just next door, where he was the local project architect for New York architect Steven Holl, who designed the building. He loved the initial look of Lincoln Square, which he describes as much more modern than what was ultimately built, but was sick to see how slowly the project was progressing. “It was a real drag to go down and see that right across from the art museum. It just felt blah.”
When Kemper bought in, Sclater quickly carved up the project. Kunnanz got the garage. Michael Chaplin ’90 was assigned the ground level and retail areas. And the hotel and condominiums, which didn’t require total overhauls, but needed serious fine tuning, went to Smith. Rick Deno ’71, the senior statesman of the group, won the task of creating features like the atrium waterfall and the elegant and airy sky bridges that would connect the project with the rest of the neighborhood. On this morning, Deno stands at his work table, refining the design for a second, more complicated bridge.
Chaplin, who is nearly swallowed by the stacks of plans that surround his desk, says the task of reconfiguring the retail portion and connecting it to the street outside was a fun challenge. He had to raise the theater ceilings to accommodate larger screens, and redesign the project in a way that welcomed pedestrians in from the street. Since all the steel for the project was already fabricated and sitting in a yard, he was limited to the materials on hand. “It’s like you had all these tinker toy parts and you had to play with them so you’re not throwing them out.”
Chaplin’s experience is a metaphor for the whole project: the team had the plans and ideas; they just needed to rearrange a little-or a lot-to make it work.
Many in the city, including sometime detractors of Kemper Development’s domination downtown, are grateful the project was revived. It broke Bellevue out of its rut. At the time the first tower was erected, it was the second-largest multi-use project under construction in the country.
“I don’t think I talked to anyone who wasn’t excited to see the job start up again,” says Dave Harrison, vice president of Skanska USA, the building contractor on the project. The 1983 WSU construction management graduate oversaw the 25 contractors on the project. Smith and Chaplin were on site practically every day. It was just the two of them, and they were able to keep up with all 25 Skanska people, says Harrison.
The team built Lincoln Square in just 21 months.
The success of this project has spurred investors to put more condominiums and more buildings throughout downtown Bellevue.
“Lincoln Square was the tipping point in becoming a true downtown,” says deputy mayor Chelminiak. “Now you have a feel there in those blocks, a vibrancy. The restaurants, the theater.” And high above it all, the serene condo units with spectacular views. “Our downtown is filling up with 20- and 30-somethings and 50- and 60-somethings” seeking the life only a city can offer, one with great public spaces like the 20-acre city park, and great stores and restaurants, he says.
The city has big plans to balance its building with livability. Officials would like to connect downtown with the waterfront by creating a green corridor, or recreation trail, from downtown’s core through a neighborhood to Meydenbauer Bay. They also plan to add a Performing Arts Center to Bellevue’s already lauded cultural offerings like the Bellevue Arts Museum and the Meydenbauer Theater.
To top it off, Bellevue has shed its “lily-white” reputation, says Chelminiak. “Twenty-five percent of our population is foreign born. We are an extremely diverse community now.”
“It’s a very exciting time to be here,” says Chelminiak. “In roughly 70 years, we have gone from strawberry patches and pea patches to this metropolitan city.”
With satisfaction, Meyers strolls through the new Lincoln Square condos as workers wearing blue shoe covers put the finishing touches on the wood floors, the balcony doors, and the marble fireplaces. Starting at $400,000 and featuring creamy carpets and floor-to-ceiling windows, these gems can cost as much as $6 million. The tenants have waited years for their new homes. Most are trading a large house and quiet neighborhood for a luxury condo downtown with Nordstrom next door and world-class cuisine just an elevator ride away.
Meyers looks to the north, where by 2007 the last piece of the project, an office tower which will house Eddie Bauer’s corporate headquarters, will be completed. “I think the perspective of what is suburb and what is urban is beginning to change,” he says. “If you want to take a new palate and create a new architecture, Bellevue is the place to do it.”