In 1988, when developer Ron Sher took over the faded Crossroads Shopping Center, a quarter of it stood empty. One arm of its 1962-vintage concourse was called “Death Valley” because nine of its 10 stores were vacant. Surrounding Crossroads was a hardscrabble neighborhood of low-rent apartments, where immigrants from Latin America and Southeast Asia had begun settling in the 1970s and ’80s. The City of Bellevue was not prepared to provide the services they needed, and crime and gangs started to plague the neighborhood—a nasty shock to longtime residents of adjacent subdivisions. Young people gravitated to what had been the only gathering place in the Crossroads neighborhood: the mall, where some tagged the buildings and drag-raced in the parking lot.
The neighborhood was “going downhill fast,” recalls Nan Campbell, who was Bellevue’s mayor when Sher bought Crossroads. “The mall owner had not reinvested and had not done anything to stimulate the economy there, and the concentration of the City’s attention was on [downtown], after they passed the central business district plan in 1981.” Bellevue Square’s developer, Kemper Freeman Jr., remembers eyebrows rising in local real estate circles when Sher proposed to turn Crossroads around: “When he bought the center, experts said, ‘Gosh, what’s he ever going to do to make that center work?’”
Sher, a lanky, bearded 66-year-old with a gently professorial manner, was no starry-eyed neophyte; he had already made plenty of money running the largest retail leasing brokerage in the country with his siblings. And he could see that the prospects were not encouraging. “Crossroads was not by a freeway,” he says, ticking off its disadvantages. “It was in what some people considered the questionable area of Bellevue, where most of the multifamily [housing] was. It wasn’t a regional mall, but it was somewhat large for a neighborhood center”—500,000 square feet. “So it was really hard to attract tenants, and we knew we had to do something to distinguish ourselves.”
That something proved to be a little social experimentation. Sher, a committed environmentalist with a PhD in agricultural economics from Washington State University, wondered: What if, rather than attempting to sort shoppers according to purchasing power, Crossroads simply welcomed all comers, from the prosperous to those with little or nothing to spend? Rather than beginning with the retail and letting everything else grow up around it, Sher decided to start with the idea of community.
As he went along, he drew further inspiration from the ideas of the urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg, whose book The Great Good Place argues the importance of the “third place,” a public space outside work and home—the pub, the market, the café—where people gather to rub elbows with those outside their social groups. That was it: He would recast the mall as a public space, leveraging the ethnic melting pot that East Bellevue had become and turning a seeming liability into an asset.