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Downtown Bellevue springs up, with visions of a Seattle-like urban hub

More than a dozen new apartment projects have risen in downtown Bellevue in the past few years, making it the fastest-growing neighborhood in the city by far — presenting opportunities for economic prosperity and issues like gridlock on the roads.

Downtown Bellevue is transforming into a dense residential neighborhood reminiscent of a mini-Seattle across the lake, with new apartment towers packing more residents into an area that was once just a place where visitors worked and shopped.

After halting just about all construction during the recession and its aftermath, developers have built more than a dozen new apartment projects in downtown Bellevue over the past four years. And city leaders are preparing for a lot more growth downtown, with an eye toward allowing even taller buildings.

The added density is bringing headaches — including added gridlock on the roads and sky-high prices for new housing. But the changes are also creating what officials call a more lively, energetic neighborhood alluring to young people.

Nowhere is the frenzy more evident than at Lincoln Square, where Kemper Development is building a 450-foot-tall apartment building — tied for the city’s tallest structure — on top of a W Hotel.

When residents begin moving into the pricey luxury apartments this fall, they’ll be within walking distance of dozens of restaurants and shops. Jim Melby, president of Kemper Development, said the area “is becoming its own urban core.”

Mara and David Duncan, a young couple living in Bellevue, have already pre-leased an apartment in the project. They see downtown Bellevue as something between an urban jungle and the classic picture of suburbia — saying they can walk everywhere, but people in shops still know their names.

“Seattle has more of a big-city feel — it reminds me of New York,” Mara Duncan said while scoping out the shell of her future apartment, still under construction. “Here, it functions like a town.”

City officials say downtown is now Bellevue’s fastest-growing neighborhood by far — having increased fivefold since 2000 — and residents there are getting younger. Downtown now has about 13,000 residents, or 10 percent of Bellevue’s population.

“A lot of the millennials, they want to be where the action is,” said Mike Brennan, Bellevue’s development services director. “That’s why they’re building this stuff. There’s a market for it. It’s creating a lively, energetic, interesting neighborhood where people want to live.”

And while it doesn’t have the transit or nightlife options of Seattle, downtown Bellevue residents and visitors give the area high marks for safety and cleanliness. According to a city survey, only 2 percent of residents feel unsafe walking downtown alone during the day, and 14 percent feel that way at night.

Construction boom

Overall, construction in Bellevue’s downtown has been brisk.

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