The Eastside's Everyman Looks To Bellevue's Future

"BELLEVUE is at a point in its history where it has more in common with Seattle than it does with some of the other, outlying suburbs," said Mike Creighton, mayor of Bellevue.

Creighton, like Seattle Mayor Paul Schell, is at the six-month mark in office when the first blush of the job is fading. The workload and the scope of the problems of the Eastside in the age of growth are settling in. He was born in Ballard, is married to a gifted landscape artist who shows her work in local galleries, and is the brother of a former astronaut, now a test pilot for Boeing.

Creighton served on the Bellevue School Board for nine years before moving on to the Bellevue City Council. He is the Everyman of the Eastside, in private business and in office, low key.

He's also mayor of a city no longer young and no longer the automatic snapshot of suburbia. Bellevue has essentially stopped growing. Its population is 105,000, expected to hit 120,000 sometime in the next 20 years.

"People across the lake look at Medina, Clyde Hill, Beaux Arts, Yarrow Point, Hunts Point - the Gold Coast of the Eastside - and think of Bellevue. None are in Bellevue," he said. "We've done a good job concentrating on the downtown, but Bellevue like much of the Eastside is barely able to cope with the traffic problems and like everyone else, we're looking for answers.

"The problems are magnified by growth," Creighton said. "In the 1980s, nobody expected a company as small as Microsoft was then to become what it is. It's great, but we have to be careful about killing the goose that laid the golden egg. Not just Microsoft, every new company out here is suffering from traffic congestion, attracting new employees to an area that is high cost and difficult to get to.

"Of the seven members of the City Council, every one of us said we could not afford to move here now. We know it's hard to hire somebody, especially if they try to come over from Seattle and have an hour and a half ride on the bus."

Bellevue and Redmond are nearly at war over growth and traffic in the Microsoft borderlands between the two cities. Creighton downplayed the differences (Redmond enjoys the tax benefits from Overlake growth, Bellevue gets the traffic). But he suggested the time is coming when highways and roads will have to match the pace of development.

"This could trip the concurrency rules," he said. "Either city could shut down growth in Overlake because we can't keep up with the traffic." Does either Bellevue or Redmond have the fiber on the city council to slow growth around Microsoft? "I think both do," he said. And what if the economy slows down?

"The next 12 months will tell us a lot about downtown Bellevue," he said. "We have two mega-projects planned, a three-tower high rise across the street from Bell Square and the Meydenbauer Convention Center expansion that includes a major hotel. Neither one has broken ground yet. We have 4 million square feet of office and commercial space announced. Not all of it will happen, that's just the way the industry operates. But assuming the two big projects go ahead, the skyline of Bellevue is going to change dramatically."

Bellevue's problem is not its downtown but the exacerbations of growth outside the city limits. Highway 520 is much on the mayor's mind as the Eastside tries to come up with some kind of solution to the angst of voters. "It's our number-one problem," Creighton said. "Everything else is second."

Among the potential solutions to 520, Creighton said, was the possibility of dropping to one lane of general traffic across the water and putting the other lane HOV. He's against that. A long-term possibility is redoing 520 from Redmond to Montlake into multi-lanes similar to I-90.

"I can't speak for the Seattle side," he said, "but I think the east side of the lake can start to see the benefits of the way Mercer Island adapted to a highway lidded with a park. But there's no lack of different ideas. The trick is getting everyone to agree.

"King County has 37 separate cities and about a third of them would be bankrupt if we didn't have tax equalization that gives the smaller cities a break. If the Sammamish Plateau incorporates, that will be another city on the Eastside this year. It's crazy.

"The cost of county administration - not the departments but the council and the staff and everything - is $10 million a year. That's absurd," Creighton said.

The area's second-largest city has no full-time mayor and a part-time city council. Bellevue has traditionally relied on one of the best professional staffs in the region to do the work of full-time government, but Creighton admits being part-time puts him at a disadvantage.

"The council has agreed to take a look-see at paid, full-time elective office, but it's a hard sell. I'm not sure Bellevue will ever buy the idea. For one thing, the taxpayers would have to pay a lot to attract someone living in Bellevue with enough money to be a full-time mayor. Right now, whoever is mayor, they just give the extra 20 or 30 hours a week for free."

James Vesely's column focusing on Eastside issues appears Mondays on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail adress is: