Is Bellevue the new Vancouver?

The Bellevue skyline, seen from Seattle's Mount Baker district Credit: Joe Wolf

For decades, people have wondered what Bellevue would be when it grew up. Would it simply be an affluent "Greater Seattle" neighborhood? A Twin City, a suburban St. Paul to Seattle's Minneapolis? Would it be the Anaheim of an Eastside Orange County? The San Jose of the Silicon Forest?

In the '90s, it was identified as part of a new entity, the Edge City, where under-the-radar urbanization was shaping a new kind of suburban economic powerhouse. As skyscrapers rose across Lake Washington, they raised vague questions in the minds of Seattleites about the upstart of Pugetopolis: What's happening over there?

It turns out, a great deal. Bellevue set a course to be a grown-up city, and took a huge step by finally approving the route for East Link light rail through downtown, new infrastructure that will expand and re-shape Bellevue dramatically. The city now has a central park, expanded retail and office space, vastly increased density, a huge downtown population of young people. If its downtown still feels somewhat sterile, the overall picture is of a city that is definitely headed for a post-suburban some place.

The most significant change since the 1990s is that the city is now more racially and ethnically diverse than Seattle itself. The population shift is due largely to immigration. As Eric Scigliano reported in his recent story "The Eastside Express Lane to the American Dream," by 2010 "More than 30 percent of Bellevue and Redmond's populations were immigrants, up from 13 percent in 1990–a larger share than Seattle's 17 percent." That near tripling of the foreign immigrants' share of the population is increasing. To give an idea, Bellevue's 98007 zip code, which includes the Crossroads and West Lake Hills, is 43.8 percent foreign born, matching Seattle's south end 98108 zip code (South Beacon Hill, Georgetown) with 44 percent. The immigrants are of all races and such stats certainly put to rest the image of Bellevue as Blandview.

Crosscut and Seattle Magazine recently co-sponsored a panel discussion in downtown Bellevue on Eastside immigration, and one thing that emerged in the discussion was that the reality and vision of Bellevue has gone from  one based mainly on affluence to a future city that is more truly a mixing of peoples from around the world drawn to Bellevue by great schools and high-tech jobs that are transforming the old white-bread culture of the Eastside. As a result, the aspirational models for Bellevue are now higher than a rainy version of Anaheim or suburban echo. If Seattle's first settlers called their city, "New York Alki," meaning "New York, Someday," Bellevueites like Mayor Conrad Lee, a Chinese immigrant himself, can legitimately start thinking in terms of a city evolving towards being a new Vancouver, or even San Francisco, both cities cited during our panel discussion.

Vancouver is closer and perhaps more relevant, though all major West Coast cities are being shaped by Pacific proximity. The Eastside's immigrants, like Vancouver's, include many affluent and well-educated people from Asia. They seem to have brought a kind of entrepreneurial energy that captures the classic spirit of communities determined to improve their lot. This goes beyond the Chinese. One of our panelists, Natasha Savage, founder of the Eastern European American Chamber of Commerce, half-jokingly warned the mayor of Medina, one of the region's wealthiest enclaves, that the Russians would soon be coming to his neighborhood.

The scale of change in Vancouver, however, is even beyond the impressive leaps of the Eastside, and gives a hint at what could be in Bellevue's future. An analysis of Vancouver's demographic course predicts that not only will the metro area's white population be a minority by 2031 but that only one out of four Vancouverites then will even have a grandparent who was born in Canada. Sixty percent of the metro area's population will be non-white, most from China, South Asia, the Philippines, Korea or West Asia. The report is based on trends and birthrates, but the internationalizing of Vancouver that we've witnessed since Expo '86 only seems to be accelerating, and the impact is almost unprecedented in North America, says the Vancouver Sun.

Our Bellevue panelists made the point that the Eastside's new diversity is even more diverse that it looks. Immigrant communities cannot be easily divided into a few arbitrary boxes, like "Asian." Debadutta Dash, who works for the Bellevue Westin and is co-founder of the Washington State and India Trade Relations Action Committee, handed me a 500 rupee note and pointed out that on the back there is a list of 15 different official languages of India. And that's the tip of the linguistic iceberg. The rupee list is one example of the  shades of difference that tend to get glossed over here, though Dash says Microsoft is the only company he knows that supports all of the Indian languages.

Bigger picture: There are over 80 languages spoken in the Bellevue School District and minority students are a majority. The point is that immigration, while it's changing the general demographics of the Eastside, is not a single phenomenon but rather one of complexity and richness in terms of faiths, cuisines, languages, cultural backgrounds.

Different groups, as is not untypical, tend to cluster. The local joke in Vancouver is, "What separates China and India?" The answer: "The Fraser River." That references the split in those immigrant communities between Richmond and Surrey. While areas like South Bellevue have become known as Asian enclaves, our panelists suggested that what united immigrant groups is far stronger than what sets them apart. And that is a focus on making real the classic American dream of progress up the socio-economic ladder.

A critical component of that is public education. Immigrants moved to Bellevue for the same reason so many Seattle families have in the past: better schools. The combination of jobs and schools has made Bellevue a magnet and has given it a competitive advantage.

Mayor Lee also sees immigration as opening more economic opportunity and he would like to see major private and government Chinese investment in Bellevue. The Chinese government has a $500 billion fund for investment abroad, but after a recent trip to an economic forum in Hainan (Bill Gates and Gary Locke were also there), Lee reported the Chinese are reluctant to invest in the U.S. and recently turned down an unspecified opportunity here in Washington state. Lee told the Chinese to "Try again!"; that earned him notice in the Wall Street Journal. Foreign capital, as it has in Vancouver and San Francisco, would be a potential economic boost for the city. As Bellevue and the Eastside grow and become more diverse, Lee at least wants to see globalized investments in Bellevue's future materialize.

If you had asked me about the future of the Eastside 20 years ago when I was founding editor of Eastsideweek, I would have put on my virtual reality goggles and saved my thoughts on a CD-Rom predicting an urbanizing, affluent, high-tech region with a Starbucks on every corner. Back then, the impact of immigration seemed mostly limited to the aptly named Crossroads neighborhood, and talk of Russian car-theft rings. Culture diversity consisted of the booths at the Bellevue Arts & Crafts fair. The British Pantry in Redmond is what passed for an ethnic restaurant, and a foreign investor was a developer from Seattle. I did not see the extent nor the speed with which immigration would alter Eastside demographics. It is shaping a more ambitious, cosmopolitan view of what Bellevue can and will be, one that poses questions for Seattle, such as, what does all that change in Bellevue mean for us?

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