Photograph by Amy Vaughn.

Whirl around enough cul-de-sacs on the Eastside these days and you might just mix up your skylines. Poking above the conifers, shiny office towers and condos glimmer between cranes overlooking a placid mass of water…Seattle, right? But then your brain triangulates. You can’t see a Needle. And while these buildings are tall, they’re not Columbia Center-tall. No, this isn’t Seattle. This is Bellevue.

After decades of development and the arrival of more Big Five tenants, the Eastside hub’s downtown bears at least a passing resemblance to a major metro’s at its highest floors. Increasingly, too, at the ground level. Shops abut an expansive park in the city’s core, and East Link extension construction could bring light rail to the area in 2023, serving the largest majority-minority population in Washington.

But outside of this burgeoning urban center, though, you’ll find traditional markers of suburbia: single-family houses, prim lawns, space. And while you can bet many of these residents belong to the headcounts of tech employers who’ve put down roots on the Eastside, others still commute across Lake Washington to Seattle, a migration pattern more common to a suburb.

Bellevue’s multiple personalities present a larger predicament: What even is a Seattle suburb? Merriam-Webster is little help, defining a suburb as “an outlying part of a city or town” or “a smaller community adjacent to or within commuting distance of a city.” Apparently the estimable dictionary hasn’t considered the lengths to which the people of, say, Port Orchard will stretch the limits of “commuting distance.” Or the many bedroom communities in both Seattle and Tacoma’s orbit. Can you be a suburb of two cities?

Modern life in Bellevue.

For Josh Brown, the Puget Sound Regional Council’s executive director, jobs differentiate metros from suburbs. Take Bellevue, for instance. “Bellevue has parts of the city that are absolutely very suburban, and those neighborhoods want to remain very suburban,” Brown says. “But what we’ve seen in Bellevue, to classify the whole city as a suburb, it’s just not accurate today. It’s a major job center.”

He knows why the perception persists. During presentations, he’ll pull up a grainy black and white photo of Bellevue in 1993. Squint long enough at it and you’ll make out some mid-rises among the trees and, in the distance, a few high-rises that look like mistakes. People might think it’s an old picture of Issaquah, not a “before” shot of a city that has welcomed multiple Amazon tower projects and a Facebook outpost in recent years.

And Bellevue’s not done developing. Brown expects the area between downtown Bellevue and Microsoft’s headquarters—the “Bel-Red” corridor—will experience the region’s strongest job growth over the next decade as light rail further links them to Seattle. “Now Bellevue has its own gravitational pull,” he says.

IDENTITY CRISIS

In 2017 the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development asked 76,000 households across the country if they thought their neighborhoods were rural, urban, or suburban. The department then used machine learning to analyze those results and predict opinions in every census tract. What did they say about the Seattle area? Vashon and Maple Valley can’t figure out if they’re rural or suburban. Some enclaves south of Seattle skew urban. And Bellevue is pretty sure it’s a suburb—except for downtown, where it’s definitely urban.

The city’s commitment to high-density construction began in the 1970s, according to historian Alan Stein. His book about Bellevue traces the nomenclature ascribed to the city over time. It was published in the early 2000s, by which point Bellevue had settled on “edge city”—“a suburb that has developed its own political, economic, and commercial base independent of the central city,” per Merriam-Webster—to distinguish it from suburbs surrounding Seattle. These communities were once their own social and economic realms. They were eventually bound to Seattle through transit advances, including floating bridges, after the start of World War II. “You have this idea of a suburban ring that keeps expanding and expanding,” says Stein.

It’s still growing. Julie Taylor, a Bellevue-based managing broker with Windermere, saw multiple offers on homes in places like Duvall, Snohomish, Orting, and Fall City last year during the depths of quarantine and the onset of remote work. “People want a little bit more breathing room,” she says. “They want things to be a little bit newer and bigger.”

These qualities have long drawn people to Bellevue, she stresses. But Taylor doesn’t view Bellevue as a suburb; borrowing from a Minnesotan’s lexicon, she calls it Seattle’s “twin” city, with its own network of suburbs. And we may already have triplets on our hands. Stein, the historian, notes Kirkland was once a small town. But today brokers like Taylor see it as its own “powerhouse.” Google has agreed to acquire land and office space in a city home to nearly twice as many residents as it had in 2010.

That transformation perhaps provides the most enduring truth about the communities around Seattle: You can stick labels on them, but just be ready to rip them off one day.

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