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Bellevue's Downtown Nightlife

Written in 1995

Or Lack There Of
By Shannon Love
As I contacted the many resources for this story, (e.g., city officials, business owners, Bellevue residents) I received exactly the same response each time. First a boisterous laugh, then a beaming smile, and with a chuckle, each of them stated, "Nightlife... WHAT NIGHTLIFE?!?",

With a lot of talk circulating around town about the City of Bellevue's night life, or should I say non-existent life after dark, one has to wonder why. In the late 1960's & early 1970's, before disco arrived, Bellevue had a pretty hopping live music scene. As a youth growing up, Bellevue's Lakehills Roller rink was the "happening" place. Bands such as Heart started there, as well as other well-knowns in the music business. With all the live music venues scattered throughout Redmond, Bellevue and Kirkland, there were no reasons to go elsewhere. In fact, the eastside was a destination haven for live entertainment.

By the late 70's & early 80's the live music scene began to play itself out on the Eastside. Ironically, areas such as Pioneer Square were just becoming well known for their live music clubs. The Square had just escaped extinction coming out of the 60's. The Square was to be leveled for a parking lot, but was saved by Seattle's Historian, Bill Spiedel, and was later named an historical district. Along with the renovation of the Pioneer Square, and the first Fat Tuesday celebration of 1973, a new era had begun for Pioneer Square and its live music fans.

If you were to talk to bar or restaurant owners, they would tell you that the decline in the sale of spirits over the years has made it hard to continue a live musical performance format. There has always been an unwritten rule that musicians are expected to be liquor salespeople for the club owners when they play in their clubs. That's just the nature of the business on how a club turns a profit. But now, with the decrease in alcohol consumption, due to public awareness and pressure of the legal consequences, club owners are turning to alternative ways of making a profit. Some say, with the decline in the sale of alcohol, restaurant and bar owners have turned to an increase in food prices to turn a profit, to offset the decreased alcohol sales. Some club owners have turned to a DJ format, some, to sports or conversation bars, some have gone out of business, but worse yet, some club owners invite bands to play for little or no wages, which, in turn, attracts a novice or "garage" quality band.

Some owners have turned to admittance charges, or have co-op'd with other restaurants or bars to pool advertising dollars to enhance profit and cut initial costs. This form of collaboration provokes and maintains a higher level of entertainment which the customer today demands. If there is a door charge for admittance, this lessens the burden of the club to depend on liquor sales to pay the cost of the bands that perform on a nightly basis.

But it seems that, in Bellevue, the thought of paying a cover charge is unheard of. Patrons of Eastside clubs don't see value, and feel it's unjustifiable to incur one. From the words of Papagayo's Cantina club owner, William Stefan, "You don't let someone into a movie free just so they can buy the popcorn."

There's a lot of frustration, I believe, on the minds of everyone these days on what direction the city of Bellevue is headed. Granted, we now have the Meydenbauer Arts Center, Downtown Park, and a new Barnes and Noble book store, accompanied with a Starbucks coffee shop, and the Good Guys, (which the city feels will be a popular addition to the nightlife). And with the annual Arts and Craft show, the Downtown park Fourth of July event, Seafair parade, and the Eastside Community Street Fair, we certainly have seen tremendous growth and support in our city. Still, during the day, Bellevue is considered only a nine hour city.

But what happens after dark? Developer, Kemper Freeman Jr., is seeking to build a new movie theater complex in the downtown area on the Wallace & Wheeler property. At least four other downtown sites, including the Safeway store site on Bellevue Way, are being eyed by a half-dozen or so theater companies, according to City Hall and real-estate sources. City officials and business leaders are trying to find ways to bring energy and excitement into the nightlife of our city's commercial district after the sun sets and the hour strikes 9:00 P.M. when Bellevue becomes a ghost town. Radford & Co. is also seeking to bring a theater to downtown, possibly with high-tech attractions such as seatbelts and "motion simulation" to create a "virtual reality" effect. Well, it would seem there is a race to the finish line of which business group will finish first in bringing a high-tech movie theater to downtown.

In retrospect, the City of Bellevue currently does not exude a destination entertainment mecca, such as other visible cities of present. Each city has its own make-up, and if you lived in Bellevue for any length of time, you would know the city spends a lot of time in studies before any major decisions are made. Bellevue has been an example to many other cities around the country on its rigorous planing. The results are, as you see them today, a well-planned city with beauty, direction and hope (unlike the billboard-ridden "strip-city", Highway 99).

So why is there no night-life in downtown Bellevue? Why is downtown Kirkland booming with life? And what about Seattle's Pioneer Square historical district? Why are they all considered a destination point for night-life? Quite simply put, people go, where people are -- just like Pavlov's dogs. As explained by Russian psychologist, Ivan Pavlov, we (humans) are like dogs. We are trained to react and respond to certain situations. And as it is now, Bellevue has no nightlife to speak of. So our natural response is to seek out the locations where we know the nightlife does in fact exist.

Speaking with Susan Wineke, Media Coordinator, for the City of Bellevue, Susan wanted to point out the City of Bellevue is concerned with the development of downtown; and in fact, does encourage activity in the vain of arts and entertainment in its downtown core. She reminded me of the building of Meydenbauer Center, Downtown Park, the Transit Center and the Pedestrian Corridor that runs along N.E. 6th Street, from Bellevue Square, up the hill through the Transit Center and ending at Meydenbauer Center (still in the development stage), all of which were million dollar ventures that were constructed to enhance the City's appeal to new and existing businesses. And all were built with long-term vision in mind. Susan says, "With the Pedestrian Corridor, the city has recently infused the long time dream and idea of a very pedestrian friendly, user friendly entertainment ambiance -- come and kill a few hours with a friend and have a good time."

On the short-term it would appear Bellevue's nightlife is non-existent at the present time. However, Daniel's Broiler on 8th Street has been providing live music successfully for some years now, more in the jazz vain. As well, on Old Main Street, Caffe Fresco has been bringing in acoustical shows accompanied with art showings of local artists. And just off of Old Main, Azalea's Fountain Court presents piano and a stand-up bass to enjoy and accompany your evening meal. Now if you were to go across the freeway on 116th, you would find The Hunan Chef Lounge, featuring more of an "Oldies" live music format, providing a good size dance floor which attracts a large following of dance groups (that, quite frankly, still enjoy the art of dancing). (As a side note, the Hunan Chef was previously being viewed by outside investors as a location for adult other words, a "nude dancing" club. However, Hunan Chef just signed another year contract to continue their format. It seems the "four-foot" rule brought some question as to the profit of this location in the city of Bellevue. The thought of nude dancing in Bellevue has been strongly opposed by Bellevue residents and city officials.)

The second location that provides dancing is Ground Zero, across from the downtown park on 100th Avenue, an all ages format that features live music on weekends that is growing in popularity. And the third would be the Red Lion on 112th. They feature disco formatted top 40 and Karaoke entertainment. (Some consider Karaoke live entertainment.) Now, that's just a handful of locations that feature some sort of live entertainment in our downtown core; so what's on the horizon for downtown in the near future?

A new location called the "VENUE" will be opening soon, on N.E. 8th in the old Griffin College building, featuring a lunch, dinner, billiards and dance format. Music and dancing four nights a week, and always a late night bite to eat, this will be an upscale decor attracting a twenty five to fifty age group, featuring a DJ format sort of a techno-pop sound as well as other popular dance music. Investor Ken Fisher said, "There's never been anything like it on the eastside before". I asked Ken if live music was something the "VENUE" was considering. Ken said, "We're looking into it as a possibility down the road." And can they compete on the Eastside, what has come to be known as the "Dead Zone". Ken said, "I think people in Bellevue have been screaming for something over here, we did an informal survey in the 'Belltown clubs', and found out that over 50% of them lived on the Eastside., So yes, I think it will do fine. As well, we have a good working relationship with the city and the Chamber. We want to be an asset to the community, a good neighbor."

Alex Hairs of community development for the City of Bellevue stated, " Something that we see happening that we think will have an impact on nightlife is more and more housing being developed in the downtown, which is something the City has advocated for a long time, with the new library being built on 10th street, along with two new condominium projects that are now completed, and two more that are in the building process on Old Main. With the third over on 6th street just north of the Payless store. We feel adding all those up, both the projects that are either built or under construction and other projects that are planed will have a very significant impact on the number of people who live in downtown. And that in turn will add vitality to the downtown business climate at night." All of which are sure to stimulate more foot traffic in downtown that plays right into the Pedestrian Corridor, with the plan being lined with trees and shrubs featuring outside tables and benches along the corridor, and with interesting shops and boutiques and restaurants, again adding to the foot traffic of the City

Caroline Robertson of the Bellevue Downtown Association (DBA), believes that our city is being molded for the future. But also points out that Bellevue's main strengths today, are the restaurants and shopping that the City provides. Bellevue Square, has been rated in the top five of malls across the country year after year. And with over 30 full service restaurants, that range from Persian, Thai, Mexican, Italian, American, Greek, Mediterranean, Russian, Japanese and more, truly this is quite unique to this area featuring an international representation of fine dining. And this will be the focus of the B.D.A. for 1995, to promote dining in Bellevue. To date, there has not been a lot of focus toward promoting Bellevue as a destination City of choice, outside of what Bellevue Square has done.

Caroline says, the B.D.A. will take full responsibility for the lack of promotion for the downtown and plans an exciting media print campaign with the cooperation of the B.D.A. and the business owners to expose and educate the public to the City's excellent endless international dining choices. And then they will see what direction to move in; this move will open up other possibilities for our downtown. If live music is in the pulse or presence that the public seeks, then that's the direction that we will move toward. But for right now the B.D.A. will play to their strengths, and that's the many restaurants the city has to offer.

Dick Armstrong, President of the Bellevue Chamber of Commence, stated, "I believe what makes a city more viable in the evenings is more people living in the downtown area, and that's happing. There has been a lot of progress. Now, it hasn't happened yet, but it's in process. So I think from a year from now you'll see more people out and about." Armstrong points out Bellevue has come a long way in the last five years with the new development and additions. Armstrong says, "There is another aspect, which is one of our biggest assets, also it's a liability and that is, that we're spread out. We still have vacant spaces, and for people walking around... well, it's not like walking around the streets in Kirkland -- now that's an asset in the long run because that means those spaces can be filled out."

If you were to look at any City that exemplifies a successful and thriving night life, that indeed is prosperous for the business owners, and user friendly for its citizens. There is one thing in common that you will find. Activity -- the one common denominator. And to achieve activity you must have interest with visuals. A waterfront is good or an old historical town, but if you don't have the stereotypical backdrop to build your town from, you revitalize and work with what you've got. Most will say Bellevue is new and has no character to it; some say it's too yuppyish and not down-to-earth. But Bellevue is the fourth largest city in the State, and sits in the middle of 1.6 million people in surrounding and outlying areas. Bellevue, in my opinion, probably is the most misunderstood city in the state. And most of the animosity boils down to money -- the city of the rich. Well, just tell them it ain't so, Joe. In the 1940's Seattlelites coined the phrase, "Bedroom City" when referring to Bellevue, and this was not an endearing term. To be blunt, this was a form of prejudice and jealousy that has passed down from generation to generation. No longer is Bellevue considered a bedroom city. It has been replaced by the term "Yuppies-ville." Bellevue is just like any other city -- the difference that people see is in the planning. To answer why the terms such as "bedroom city", and "yuppy" came about, you have to look to the past. When Bellevue became a city, it had broken free from Seattle, you might say. Bellevue was truly on the cutting edge. Bellevue had completely cut off any growth possibilities for Seattle when it incorporated. Bellevue had vision, fresh ideas and disregarded Seattle's way of civic prerequisites. Bellevue created a free thinking, innovative city government, that in the third year of conception, received national attention for its efforts. This has never set well with Seattle, which was in the beginning of a long process of belittling the city of Bellevue, that unfairly was passed down through the generations, and most today, don't even know why, or how it all started.

In the early 50's the City of Bellevue's "First Fathers", (The City Council ) decided that our City would have strict guidelines on the future growth and build for tomorrow and not for the short term. Bellevue's early development years were comprised of citizens who lived in a small community of 5,900 that cared deeply about the future of their soon to be City. Following the week of March 24th, 1953, after the first election of council members, (serving the first year as an interim year) and Bellevue being voted into annexation, Lawyer and newly elected Councilman, Melvin V. Love, and other council members had traveled to Olympia to file the resolution with the Secretary of State the following Monday. But when they arrived in Olympia, no one had thought about the fee, so Love wrote a personal check so Bellevue could officially complete its destiny. At that moment Bellevue officially became a City. The council's first order of business was to form a Planning Commission, a group of citizens was selected, and met on Old Main Street in an office for its first meeting, and the question was asked, "Now what do we do?" "We plan a city", was the answer!

In 1954 the City held its second election of the City Council and out of those elections came the first elected full term Mayor, Melvin V. Love, who polled 2,000 votes more then his nearest opponent in the City Council election. Love strongly advocated a comprehensive zoning plan, and emphasized the importance of "active, intelligent citizen participation in City government." The zoning plan was one of the primary aims of the supporters for incorporation of Bellevue and was the subject of public hearings by the Planing Commission, the City Council and the man on the street. The plan divided the City of Bellevue into 33 areas, with each area classified as to the use of the land there, to ensure orderly development of the City. Bellevue's City Council (1954) discarded the old Standing Committee's system in favor of special committees to be appointed as necessary to deal with problems needing additional study. In the previous year, all matters coming before the Council requiring a committee report, had been referred to a permanent committee. Special committees were then set up to enlist expert assistance from citizens of the community.

Bovee, The former Mayor, who served on an interim basis, was defeated dramatically in the city's first full term election in 1954. Bovee's, statement for re-election to the City Council was, "Favors recreational areas and supports existing city government." Bovee, a very domineering man, liked matters to go his way, and did not support decision making matters left up to a special committee of the citizens. The voters came out in force to show support for a more democratic process.

Citizen volunteer, Fred Herman, who was on the original Panning Commission Board of 1953 was named "Planner", later to be given the prestigious title of "City Planner", and was hired by the City because of his tenacious ability to look to the future.

Fred Herman and businessman Sam Boddy, Jr., presented their sales pitch to the National Municipal League and the editors of Look Magazine, utilizing a slide and verbal presentation of the City's plans for the future. So in 1955, Bellevue was named All-American City. The award was based on its citizens' effective handling of school, sewer, water and incorporation problems during the community's rapid growth of the past few years. The All-America jury pointed out :

"Bellevue citizens are honored for long-range plans to meet problems of phenomenal population growth...after bond issues had been voted to take care of primary necessities, the citizens turned to governmental problems. Looking to the future, the city now has adopted a comprehensive plan which has won national recognition."

Today we see the results of those special committees that helped shape our City. It should also be noted, that those guidelines that were implemented in the early formable years, are still in practice today, some 40 years later.

The Parents/Teachers/Association, (P.T.A.) had a large impact on City government as well. In the past, Bellevue was always a family community first, and the P.T.A. served as a forum, a town meeting, debating the city's most controversial issues at hand. Today, Bellevue is governed with the same principle in mind, a family community first.

The last census of Bellevue was done in 1990 showing a population of 87,000 people, with Belleuve employing over 82,000 workers with over 71% of those workers coming from outside the Bellevue City limits. Now compare that with a 1980's census report, a population of 74,000, with a work force of 41,000, and 60% of that work force coming from outside Bellevue's city limits. From 1980 to 1990 the work force has doubled, while the population only increased by 13%. This certainly explains our traffic problems of today. A mass exodus out of our city, gives new meaning to why Bellevue is only considered a nine hour city.

Bellevue's downtown is in many ways untapped. It is fun to speculate on its future direction. With the cooperation of a developer, along with the city supporting the presentation of bringing in, for instance, a "Hard Rock Cafe" to Bellevue's downtown, there would be a tremendous impact on the city's extended night life, and would surely create an anchor for other businesses to follow and rally behind. Add to this a light rail system that would be built with an historic theme, and would move passengers to and from retail and night life destinations, or even from Bellevue to Kirkland's downtown. Fred Herman suggested that City Hall be relocated to downtown, across from where the Meydenbauer Convention Center is now located. The city is in its second year of a three year option on the property. Herman stated that a building should be constructed, and erected so tall, so distinctly it should become a landmark for Bellevue (like the Space Needle for Seattle), where people could come and view Mount Rainier or the Sound and Seattle's city scape, from a glass conservatory from the top of the building (as in the Empire State Building). And on the ground level, an arts and entertainment performance center, in the same vain as the Paramount in downtown Seattle, could be built. With City Hall sandwiched in the middle, the rest of the building could be leased out for office space, with a renegotiable lease term to allow for expansion of City Hall as growth occurs.

The City of Bellevue has implemented some very large stepping stones to build from. There is a new generation evolving and it is demanding a cultural and visual arts and entertainment city. Although the City of Bellevue might not scream the exciting night life at present, the future is so bright, you might just have to wear shades.  

ęCopyright 1995 Jet City Blues Review

ęCopyright 1996 -- 2008 Jet City Blues Review 

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