The Sledgehammer – Version 2.0

May 29, 2011

Could You Live in Downtown Bellevue Without Ever Leaving Downtown? A Thought Experiement

Filed under: Bellevue — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 11:13 pm

Contrary to what seems to be popular belief around these parts, there actually are some parts of Bellevue that are not Downtown.  in fact, there’s quite a bit of Bellevue that isn’t downtown, and it’s rumored that if you look carefully, you can actually see some of them from here.  Well OK, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but I suspect that there are some residents of this area (not necessarily residents of Downtown Bellevue) for whom Bellevue consists entirely of the roughly two-thirds of a square mile between I-405 and NE 100th on the east and west, and NE 12th and Main on the North and South, and anything beyond that is Here Be Dragons territory until you reach Seattle.  And speaking of Seattle, I suspect that by the same token there’s plenty of people  who think Seattle consists entirely of the stuff that happens to be between Safeco Field and the Space Needle.  In reality, there’s quite a bit more to both cities, but especially if you live in one of the surrounding areas and the only reason you ever come into Bellevue is to go to the mall, or if you only ever go into Seattle for Mariners games or the occasional visit to the Pike Place Market, it can be easy to conveniently forget that the rest of these cities even exist. 

Over the years, much has been said about the ability of major freeways to act as something of an artificial barrier that seems to limit the growth of urban areas.  As I’ve lived in Downtown Bellevue for what is now getting close to a year (and, at least for the time being, intending to remain here for as long as my circumstances warrant it,) I’ve noticed that not only does 405 seem to act as a barrier to the growth of the Downtown area, but at the same time, it seems to act as a bit of a psychological barrier as well.  During times when the weather is nice enough to allow it, I find that I have no problem walking to anywhere within the Downtown area, be it Bellevue Square, one of the two grocery stores in Downtown, even out to Old Bellevue or Meydenbauer Beach Park on the rare occasions that I find a reason to go there.  Yet at the same time, if I ever have a reason that I need to go to anywhere on the opposite side of 405, I always seem to think it’s necessary to drive, even though several of the places are even closer than the ones in Downtown.  Granted, even within the Downtown area on days when I’m feeling a bit lazy or when the weather isn’t particularly cooperative I might drive out to Bellevue Square or to the grocery store (it’s a bit less than 3/4 mile from my apartment to the QFC or the Macy’s entrance at Bellevue Square, and a bit less than a mile from here to the Safeway,) but at the same time the walking distance to the Best Buy and Home Depot stores out on the other side of 405  is just about the same (a bit less than a mile,) and yet if I was going to one of the two I’d most likely end up driving no matter what the weather was like.  Even on the (very rare) occasions I might go to the Whole Foods Market just on the opposite side of 405 from here, I’d probably be far more likely to drive than to walk, if for no other reason than the fact that it’s on the other side of 405. 

As I’ve considered just why it is that one side of the freeway seems to be car territory while the other side seems to be walking territory even with distances being roughly equal, it has brought up an interesting, if only tangentially related question in my mind:  Would it be possible for someone living in Downtown Bellevue to be able to meet all their basic needs without ever physically leaving the Downtown area?  To be perfectly honest I don’t think I’d ever want to actually try this (if for no other reason than the fact that I’m pretty sure I’d go stir crazy after two weeks of trying it) but the more I think about this, the more I start to wonder if someone could truly do this if they set out to do so.  Let’s just say that they don’t own a car (I do know some people who live here without a car,) but because of this somewhat irrational psychological barrier that I’ve been encountering, they just can’t ever cross 405, or even really go anywhere else into “car” territory.

As such, I am going to make a bit of a thought experiment out of this question, just to get some idea of the viability of doing just this.  Let’s say we have someone living in the following conditions:

  • They live in a Downtown Bellevue apartment;
  • They work in Downtown Bellevue, and thus would not need to leave the Downtown area for their job;
  • They do not own a car.  In fact, as noted above, they would rarely be venturing outside of the Downtown area for any reason (yet at the same time, for most items we’ll also consider what the effect of blurring the boundaries a bit would be, and allowing occasional trips outside of Downtown to other nearby areas);
  • When they move into Downtown, they wouldn’t be bringing a whole lot of stuff with them, so they would need to be able to get quite a few different things within the Downtown area they are limited to;
  • “Downtown” is defined as outlined at the beginning of this post; basically the roughly 36-block area between 405 and 100th Ave NE on the East and West, and NE 12th and Main on the North and South.  Some of the definitions of Downtown that I’ve seen do fudge on the boundaries by a block or two, but for most purposes, this seems to be how the Downtown area is defined.

So given these parameters, would it be possible for someone to live entirely in Downtown Bellevue without needing to leave to meet any of their basic needs?  In this post, we’ll take a look at a number of factors that would affect someone trying to live under these circumstances, and try to get an idea of just how possible this would be.  You’ll find this after the jump.

Food: 

There are two grocery stores (QFC and Safeway) within the defined Downtown area, so basic grocery shopping would be covered, although it might be a bit on the expensive side.  The two stores we have here do abide by the advertised specials that are in the weekly circulars, and most staple items aren’t far off from the prices you’ll find at other stores of the same chain, but they do have to make up for what I’d presume to be higher rents and operating expenses somewhere, and based on my observations during the time I’ve lived here,  I suspect it’s mostly in the produce department.  There’s also the fact that Safeway and QFC tend to price items higher in the first place.  Either way, you can meet any food needs you’d have here, but don’t expect it to be cheap. 

If you permit our theoretical Bellevue city-dweller the occasional trip outside the defined Downtown area there’s also the Whole Foods on the opposite side of 405 for more exotic fare, but again, don’t expect it be cheap (there’s a reason the term “Whole Paycheck” tends to get used in reference to the place.)  A longer walk or a bus ride would also get you some additional shopping options like the Overlake Fred Meyer, but a warehouse club like a Costco or a Sam’s Club would most likely be impractical due to lack of transportation and space constraints (unless you’re really loaded the apartment options you have here tend to be a bit on the small side.)

Oh, and there’s also plenty of restaurants in Downtown for when you don’t feel like cooking, but don’t expect a lot of those to be cheap either (although there are a few  exceptions.)  Your options for a not-so-fancy meal are definitely limited here, and late night options on a weekday are practically nonexistent.  And I can’t say I’ve been all that impressed with the teriyaki options here in Downtown either (but the place is packed with sushi bars if that’s your thing.)

Clothing:

There’s no shortage of clothing in Downtown Bellevue, so I suspect as long as you’ve got the bank account to handle a shopping spree at Bellevue Square (or the trust fund to handle a shopping spree at the Bravern) you’ll have no trouble finding something to wear.  If you’re not looking to spend a whole lot, your options are pretty much limited to JCPenney, Macy’s and watching some of the more mainstream places at the mall (like Gap, Eddie Bauer, PacSun and other similar places) for sales or the occasional item on the clearance rack that isn’t completely hideous.   Then again, there’s always the option of ordering stuff online too, which could probably save you a decent amount of money over Downtown Bellevue prices for clothes as long as you don’t need them right away.  In short, you’re pretty well covered here.

Household Goods:

This would be one of the trickier areas to deal with.  Most household staples like cleaning products and paper products could be taken care of at the grocery stores, but if you need stuff like kitchen and bath supplies, you’re going to have a bit tougher time with that.  There’s a Container Store over at Lincoln Square that would cover some of this, but you’d still have stuff you couldn’t find there.  One of the biggest limitations you’d be dealing with is the lack of access to a store like a Target, a Walmart or a Bed Bath and Beyond, and some of these items just aren’t carried by anyone in town.  It seems that Crate and Barrel does carry at least some of this stuff, but once again, you’re going to be paying premium prices for it.  Ultimately, I suspect that you’d have to rely on the Internet for a lot of these. 

On the other hand, you shouldn’t have too much trouble finding linens, bedding and other items like that, but within the Downtown area you’ll probably find the cheapest option to be the Macy’s home store or JCPenney, which isn’t exactly what I’d call cheap, but they do have relatively inexpensive options as well, and you can usually manage to catch a sale every so often as well.  The same goes for kitchenware and dishes, which would be coming mostly from the same sources, but there are also several high-end kitchen stores in the area (Sur La Table and Williams-Sonoma, among others) if you’re looking for something a bit fancier.  Home improvement supplies, on the other hand, would be challenging at best, as there really aren’t any hardware stores or other similar places within the Downtown.  Sure there’s a Home Depot on the other side of 405, but we’re not going there, right?  Then again, an apartment dweller probably will have their landlord taking care of maintenance issues so isn’t going to be a lot of need for this stuff, and even if they did need it they’d probably need to get it delivered since they have no car in the first place.

Durable Goods (Furniture, Electronics, Etc.):

Here’s the part where things start getting a little bit tricky.  If we’re strict about  only being able to get things from within Downtown Bellevue, there are quite a few things you wouldn’t be able to get without ordering off the Internet.  In particular, there’s a lot of electronics you’d be hard pressed to find in Downtown, at least not at any sort of reasonable price.  Small electronics actually wouldn’t be too bad, as there are a number of camera shops and several places to get video game stuff or computers (although unless you’re a Mac user you’d have limited choices for those.)  It’s the bigger stuff that would be hard to get. 

For example, if you want a TV, your choices are pretty much limited to whatever happens to be at the Office Depot store out on Main (which, if anything, would probably be limited to off-brands in small sizes) or you’d have to spring for a hideously expensive TV from the Bose store at Bellevue Square.  As of the time I’m writing this, they want $5,349 for a 47″ TV, which would be a perfectly acceptable price for that if we all still happened to be living in 2003.   For most people (even around here, I imagine) that’s about $4,349 than they’d ever consider paying for a TV of that size these days, but unless you want to try to finagle something from the Microsoft or Apple stores at the mall (neither of which sounds like a particularly cheap solution to the problem,) that’s about what you’ve got for choices.  Of course, if we’re not necessarily limiting ourselves to the Downtown core there’s a Best Buy less than a mile away, but since this is mostly a hypothetical situation anyway we’ll just assume that it’s mocking us from afar.

Furniture would be a lot easier to find than large electronics, as there are actually quite a few furniture stores here.  But as is the case with a number of the other items we’ve discussed already, you’ll need to bring along the credit card.  When you consider furniture stores in Downtown, you’re starting with Crate and Barrel (which isn’t exactly the cheapest place in the world to buy furniture, but then again half the stuff in my apartment still comes from Ikea) and from there you don’t have much anywhere to go but into luxury territory (Thomasville, Henredon, Pottery Barn, etc.)  For a couple of somewhat cheaper options there’s Cost Plus World Market and Pier 1, but a lot of their stuff is, a bit of an acquired taste.  Then again, when the alternatives all seem to come with way too many four-figure price tags, you might find it an easier taste to acquire than you think.

Cars:

I know that our theoretical Downtown apartment dweller isn’t supposed to have a car, but I thought it would be interesting to discuss the subject anyway.  To put it simply, under the restriction of having to do everything within the Downtown core, owning a car is going to be a tricky proposition.  For one thing, even though there’s a load of car dealerships over on the opposite side of 405 covering everything from Fords and Chevys to Porsches and Mercedes, when you look within Downtown itself, you haven’t got much more than one or two slightly dodgy used car lots off of 106th to choose from.  Previously you used to have had a Lexus dealership at the southeast corner of  Downtown, but they moved to a much larger facility just on the opposite side of 405 a few years ago. And even if you do have a car, there’s a good chance you’re going to end up paying for parking, but that’s no surprise to anyone around here.  Gas and maintenance are tricky though, as you would have only one single gas station (the Chevron out at 100th and Main, and even that’s pushing it since it’s theoretically on the wrong side of our dividing line), one Jiffy Lube (also on Main) and a small repair shop hidden off Main to take care of maintenance and repairs (I think the Chevron also still has a garage, but I could be wrong on that one too.)  Then again, if you truly are limiting yourself to staying within the Downtown core for everything, you probably wouldn’t really need a car anyway, since pretty much everything is in walking distance.

Medical Care:

Here’s another tricky one.  Downtown Bellevue boasts one of the largest medical complexes in the area in Overlake Medical Center and the Group Health hospital, and there are hundreds of doctors covering just about any specialty you might be looking for in the surrounding area, but once again, the problem is that they’re all just on the opposite side of the line.  Within Downtown itself you do have some Primary Care physicians and a handful of specialists, but good luck finding much more than that.  Nonetheless, if we’re not too picky about the boundaries, even the non car-owning Downtown dweller is going to have no problem finding a doctor or a dentist to meet their medical needs.

Children:

This is admittedly a category that I haven’t really paid much attention to in the time that I have lived in Downtown, as I (obviously) do not have any children, nor am I expecting any in the near future.  Nonetheless, it is possible that our theoretical Downtown apartment dweller could have children, so it is definitely something to consider.  Perhaps the biggest issue that we would face if we were strictly following the Downtown boundaries is that the children will have to go outside of the Downtown boundaries for school, no matter what level they’re at.  Actually, if we were fudging a little bit on the boundaries Bellevue High School could just about be considered to be in Downtown, but it’s still a couple blocks south of Main Street.  For Elementary schools, the Downtown area is split between Enatai Elementary and Clyde Hill Elementary (NE 8th Street is the dividing line between the two,) each a couple of miles away from the Downtown area.  Chinook Junior High serves the entire Downtown area (as well much of the surrounding area) but is also some distance away from the Downtown area.  Either way, the kids would most likely be riding the bus to school.

In other child-related matters, there are actually some reasonably priced options for childrens’ clothing available in the area, although as with a lot of other things, your selection would be limited.  Oh, and they would also get a Toys R Us store too, so they hopefully wouldn’t get too bored (unless they’re doing their homework, that is.)  Getting them go outside and play might be a bit tricky, as aside from a couple of parks there aren’t a lot of options to be had here.  For pre-school children, there are a couple of daycares within Downtown, but I suspect that much like many of the other items on the list, they come with Downtown prices. 

Churches:

As far as I am aware, the only church currently located within Downtown Bellevue proper is the Bellevue Congregational Church on the corner of NE 8th and 108th.  There are quite a few churches in the surrounding area within walking distance though (the one I attend is roughly a mile away from my apartment on NE 20th) so I suspect our theoretical Downtown apartment dweller isn’t going to have a problem worshiping in their accustomed manner, even if it does take a bit of fudging on the boundaries.

Things to do:

I suspect that for most people, finding things to do in Downtown Bellevue isn’t going to provide much of a challenge.  Over the past decade, Bellevue Square and Lincoln Square have positioned themselves to become an entertainment destination of sorts, and as a result there are now plenty of restaurants, bars and nightclubs to be found in this area, as well as a handful of others scattered throughout the rest of downtown.  There’s also a 15-screen cinema, a bowling alley, a video arcade (sort of) and an art museum right in that same area as well.  For the people who prefer to get outside there’s Downtown Park, as well as a number of smaller parks in the surrounding area (although some are just on the opposite side of our dividing line.)  For the curious among us, there’s the library (not exactly some people’s idea of entertainment, but then again I’ve never been big on art museums myself.)  Over the course of the year a decent amount of live music finds its way into Downtown (a notable example of this is the Bellevue Jazz Festival, which just happens to be coming up next week,) and perhaps the biggest weekend of the year in Downtown comes in late July, when no less than three different arts festivals come to Bellevue on the same weekend, filling the streets with artists from all over the country selling their wares.  Even if you’re limiting yourself to just the Downtown area, you shouldn’t be getting too bored anytime soon.

Other factors to consider:

  • Even lacking a car, if someone is sticking mostly to the Downtown area to meet as many of their day-to-day needs as possible, you are probably going to be able to do just fine getting around on foot, but there’s a good chance that someone in this situation is going to end up getting a bike, which would really make getting around a lot easier.  Some parts of Downtown can be a bit hilly (especially the South end of our Downtown area) but it shouldn’t be anything too difficult to deal with.  There’s even a full-service bike shop here in Downtown that could get you a bike and help take care of it for you.  Although there are plenty of buses to be found in Downtown thanks to the Transit Center, if you are trying to get from one place to another in Downtown it’s most likely going to be quicker to just walk than to try to find a bus from one place to another.
  • One thing that I didn’t mention in the Entertainment section above is home entertainment, which would in many cases be a separate category since in some ways it’s not nearly as location-dependent  as some things, but at the same time if you were looking to buy a particular DVD/Blu-Ray movie in Downtown, you might have some trouble finding it.  Both grocery stores offer video rentals (Safeway still has an actual video rental department, while QFC and the 7-Eleven on Main both have Redbox kiosks,) but the video rental stores that used to be have all gradually disappeared, as have the music and movie stores that used to be at Bellevue Square.  You may be able to find a small selection of movies for purchase at the grocery stores or at Toys R Us, but most movies would probably need to be ordered online, or watched via Netflix or Comcast OnDemand.  Video games, on the other hand, would be a lot easier to find as there are several stores in Downtown that sell these.  There are also a couple of bookstores that might be able to take care of some of this, but lately it seems like physical bookstores have begun to fall by the proverbial wayside in many places, so you may not necessarily be able to count on this one in the long term.
  • There are a couple of health clubs found within Downtown right now (LA Fitness at the Bellevue Galleria and David Barton Gym at the Bravern,) but based on what I’ve heard about them, neither seems to be in the greatest of financial shape right now.  A Downtown apartment dweller would probably have access to equipment in their apartment complex though.  In some cases they may even have a pool, but this seems to be more the exception than the rule in this area.

So in conclusion, just how possible would it be for a Downtown Bellevue apartment dweller to meet all their physical needs if they were to live, work, and do all of their shopping in Downtown Bellevue?  Well, it really all depends on just how strict you’re being about the “never leaving Downtown” part of the deal.  If we’re truly being strict about the strange and exotic lands beyond Main Street or 405 being Terra Incognito, then there are going to be some significant stumbling blocks to deal with.  Although someone in these circumstances would have little difficulty finding most of whatever they might want from Downtown stores or ordering it online from somewhere (or even getting it delivered from outside the Downtown area,) they would most likely find that a lot of things here are going to be more expensive than they would be found elsewhere, and in some cases significantly more expensive.  And if someone was truly never planning to leave Downtown for any reason whatsoever, things like schools, churches, and medical care would become significant challenges to deal with.  On the other hand, these challenges are eliminated almost completely by making some allowances for places that aren’t within the defined Downtown area, but which can be reached without too much trouble from here.  Granted, even if the boundaries of this thought experiment are extended this way there would still be some challenges in living here, but these would fall more into the category of inconveniences than true obstacles, and could certainly be worked around. 

But all things considered, could you actually do this?  Under the right circumstances I think someone could.  I’m just not quite sure what those circumstances would be, and what someone would actually try something like this.  And I certainly have no intention of trying this out anytime soon.  Or ever, for that matter.  Downtown Bellevue is a nice place to live, but not nice enough that I’d never want to leave it.  After all, there’s a whole world out there, why not try using some of it every once in a while?

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5 Comments »

  1. Very well thought through, although, I, personally, would go slightly stark raving mad but that’s just me. (Hey! I used ough in three words in a row!)

    Comment by Linda — May 30, 2011 @ 11:18 am

  2. I love it! It’s definitely think it’s possible. You might have to sacrifice on a thing here and there, but for the most part you are covered with very few sacrifices at all.

    2 Years ago I did something similar. I didn’t drive for a few months and it was MUCH easier than anticipated. Let us know if you actually take action for a week, month, or more!

    Comment by Michael (downtownbellevue.com) — May 31, 2011 @ 1:08 am

    • As I said, I think this depends a lot on just how strictly we’re enforcing the area in which someone is allowed to be in and buy stuff from, but I think as long as you can handle some high pricetags (to put it nicely) for a few items it would be doable, at least to some extent.

      I can’t say that I’m going to be giving up my car anytime soon, but I’ve drastically cut back on my driving since I moved into Downtown, mostly as a result of having an easily walkable commute. I’m buying gas half as often as I used to need to (especially when I was commuting into Seattle from Redmond on a regular basis. I was taking the bus most days, but the 545 from Redmond was so horribly slow I was just driving to the Eastgate Park and Ride and taking the 212 from there instead.) Mostly I drive on the weekends these days, and don’t often go much farther than 10-15 miles from home.

      Comment by Brian Lutz — May 31, 2011 @ 12:57 pm

  3. Other than commuting to work, I spend very little time outside of Downtown Bellevue. If I had a job in Downtown Bellevue, I would have absolutely no problems living without a car. Sure, I would miss a couple of things (the Chinese Buffet comes to mind), but I could definitely deal with it.

    Comment by Vincent — June 1, 2011 @ 1:45 pm

  4. As far as medical care is concerned, Virginia Mason is west of 405…

    Comment by Vincent — June 1, 2011 @ 2:00 pm


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