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Originally published Sunday, March 16, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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James Vesely / Times editorial page editor

Nightlife in Bellevue? Preposterous!

No one is more surprised than yours truly over the astounding breakthrough of Bellevue as a city of independent means. I used to sit at...

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Community, trade and economic development: www.cted.wa.gov/growth

No one is more surprised than yours truly over the astounding breakthrough of Bellevue as a city of independent means.

I used to sit at the picnic bench under the trees by the old Dairy Queen, listen to the rumble of traffic on Interstate 405 and lament the slow pace of a suburb without much of a soul. On the other hand, Bellevue had great neighborhoods, from Bridle Trails to Lake Hills, with enough difference in housing costs to attract middle incomes, the wealthy and immigrants. I used to also write about the chicken-coop parking — patches of asphalt hemmed in by fencing and sometimes patrolled by store employees to keep you from parking in their spots and walking to another store.

The latest data on the changing silhouette of Bellevue came in Seattle Times reporter Ashley Bach's piece of March 11, describing the urban, youthful attractions of Bellevue. No, it is no longer the Dairy Queen.

People living downtown is the answer. It's the answer for Seattle, for Tacoma, for Everett and for Bellevue, where the downtown population soon is expected to hit 19,000.

We know Bellevue is a place of landowners and adventurous entrepreneurs. The Kemper Freeman family, senior and junior, the early, hard-nosed days of James S. Ditty, and the barren months when the region was in recession. Bellevue was without building cranes for a very long time, and the bane of the city was considered the "super blocks" designed for an automotive downtown rather than a walk-able, urban center.

One turning point for Bellevue came not downtown but at Crossroads, where a shabby shopping mall was converted into an eclectic experience. I wrote about the large chessboard on the floor of Crossroads mall and a descendant of the Ditty family called to ask why I thought that was bringing people through the door.

How quaint were the early years of the 1990s, when a view from a tall building showed acres of asphalt spotted with mature trees, growing next to Bellevue sidewalks since the 1920s.

A $566,000 condo on 106th Avenue Northeast, or studios going for $1,125 a month, or some of the finest dining in the region, all seemed preposterous then, but each is cited in The Times' story about nightlife in Bellevue.

By 2007, 88 percent of all new development has occurred in urban areas instead of rural places. That's an increase from 77 percent just since 1995, according to Growth Management Services, an agency of the state. That increasing urban density is not limited to King County but includes five other Washington counties.

The arrival of an estimated 2 million more state residents by 2025 might be a heck of a way to improve everyone's nightlife, or it could mean the swamping of our cities under a hail of newcomers surging toward attractive, coastal regions.

That's why the skyline of Bellevue is also the bar graph of our future. Certainly, Seattle neighborhoods will have higher populations and the places between cities will fill in with taller buildings. But vivid cities are validated by a 24-hour downtown, an urban island of neon and, finally, even in Bellevue, the sound of music in the night.

James F. Vesely's column appears Sunday on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is: jvesely@seattletimes.com; for a podcast Q&A with the author, go to Opinion at seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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