A photo of a large modern building with a leafy tree branch in front of it.
A view of Bellevue City Hall. (Credit: Green Plastic Amy, Creative Commons)

Bellevue is continuing the trend of Eastside cities analyzing their retail sectors, and their City Council is doing so without enacting a development moratorium. Additionally, Monday’s City Council meeting featured a discussion on a feasibility report for the long-planned Cross-Cultural Center, as well as a final decision on allowing the remote participation of board and commission members.

Staff to study Bellevue’s retail sector through analysis and outreach

In November 2020, City Council approved an updated draft of the city’s Economic Development Plan, which “guides the city’s continued efforts to strengthen and diversify the Bellevue economy.” A key part of that plan advanced with a vote on Monday, as staff will proceed with a Request for Proposals (RFP) process to select a contractor for a comprehensive study of Bellevue’s retail sector. The analysis will both involve a needs assessment for what retail is present and missing in the city, as well as outreach to business owners big and small region-wide to better understand what barriers there are to locating in Bellevue.

Additionally, staff will investigate how business districts outside of Downtown can be supported (such as through land use planning actions, like upcoming work in Wilburton and BelRed). With automobile sales comprising 16% of Bellevue’s sales tax revenue, the study will also investigate strategies to retain the city’s auto sales capacity while supporting denser land uses. Staff will return to Council with their consultant selection in quarter three, with the final study report likely to be completed by early 2023. Progressive councilmembers will be looking at the retail study’s findings to support initiatives for small businesses and fifteen minute neighborhoods.

Phase III of Cross-Cultural Center work complete, still more to come

Since Bellevue is a minority-majority city, many residents have expressed interest in programming and events that foster connections between different cultures and groups of people within the city. A Cross-Cultural Center, envisioned as a facility that could host performances, gatherings, conversations, and other events that facilitate dialogues between cultures, has long been the goal of some leaders like Councilmember Conrad Lee, who introduced a budget amendment in 2020 to devote $200,000 dollars towards a feasibility study for such a facility.

The study’s findings, presented to Council at Monday’s meeting, foresee a 27,000 square foot facility that would cost around $35 million (excluding site acquisition costs). Annual operating costs were estimated at $1.9 million, with 80% of those costs needing to be recovered through philanthropic donations. To manage the facility, staff recommend the city partner with and help build the capacity of a non-profit organization, who would be tasked with managing the mission, vision, and day-to-day operation of the facility.

Some public testimony at Monday’s meeting could be read as an audition for organizations seeking to be that non-profit partner. Mason Ji, Executive Director of the recently-created Friends of Bellevue Cross-Cultural Center, introduced his background as a member of a United Nations delegation and emphasized the unique opportunity available to Bellevue: “There really is no other parallel cross-cultural center that we can see in the United States or across the world.”

His comments were immediately followed by those of Debbie Lacy, Executive Director of Eastside for All, who urged transparency in the partner selection process. “I encourage the city to make this leadership role an open RFP process where organizations come forward with their proposals, qualifications, resources, and identified community support…. There must be a diverse, representative group led by an organization that has the capacity, experience, and relationships required to convene and facilitate this very important process.” Lacy also encouraged the engagement of community members who “tend to be underrepresented in community engagement processes.”

These community partners will need to wait a while longer before a selection is made, let alone to see if a facility is even built. Council support for cross-cultural programming and capacity-building seems unanimous, but councilmembers seem divided on what that final outcome will look like. To facilitate a rapid process, Mayor Lynne Robinson suggested pursuing a partnership with PACE, an organization working to bring a full-fledged performing arts center to Bellevue.

In contrast, Councilmember John Stokes seemed to question the merits of a single cross-cultural facility, instead emphasizing the importance of integrating cross-cultural practices and programming in all facets of the city’s engagement. “What we really want to have is a community that embraces and really is cross-cultural and multi-cultural in itself and doesn’t have to be done artificially [through a cross-cultural center].”

In the interim, all councilmembers were supportive of short-term steps to support cross-cultural engagement, such as making city spaces more widely available for cross-cultural programming, using grants to support capacity-building, and supporting cross-cultural events through designated funds.

With significant organizational capacity, funding, and staffing still needed before a Cross-Cultural Facility can be built, city leaders expressed support for interim, short-term strategies to drive cross-cultural engagement in Bellevue. (Credit: City of Bellevue)

Most Commissioners and Board members to return in-person for first time in over two years

In their final act of the evening, Council finally agreed to rules for members of boards and commissions to participate remotely in meetings. Initially up for discussion back in March and slated for a vote in April before being removed from the consent calendar by Councilmember Jennifer Robertson, staff returned to Council Monday evening with a proposal only slightly modified from their original version. Up to three board or commission members would still be able to participate remotely in any one meeting, with no limits on the number of times in a given year a commissioner could do so. However, language was added to require a commission’s presiding officer to be physically present for a meeting (or have a new presiding officer be designated) and to state that commissioners should attend in-person “when practicable.”

With all boards and commissions still meeting remotely as recently as this past week, this slate of rules would require most members to return to City Hall for their first time in over two years. Councilmembers praised staff for finding a compromise with the competing interests and priorities expressed at the previous meeting, but all seemed enthusiastic for one year from now, when the body is slated to review the policy for its effectiveness.

Importantly, Monday’s discussion did not include a definition of how the policy’s “effectiveness” will be measured. With the makeup of Council unlikely to change between now and then, we’re likely to see similar dynamics emerge between equitable engagement vs. requiring people to be physically present.

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Chris is a UW Environmental Sciences graduate who moved to Bellevue in 2015. When he's not busy being an urbanist fox on the internet, he's working on the Eastside to support efforts reducing greenhouse gas emissions and going to city council meetings to denounce the hegemony of automobile infrastructure. Follow him on Twitter at @Deutski1.