While voters in Seattle were debating fine points of progressivism and pragmatism, some very different political battles were playing out in Bellevue. In one notable race, the New Bellevue of fast growth, high-rise development, and increasingly diverse population came up against the Old Bellevue culture of middle-class neighborhoods fighting to protect their character.
In this case, New Bellevue is winning handily. Janice Zahn, a six-year incumbent who came to the U.S. at 10 years old from Hong Kong, polled 66 percent of the votes by Tuesday’s count against Betsi Hummer, a Bellevue native and long-time neighborhood advocate.
Hummer had warned darkly that Bellevue risks inheriting the problems of its neighbor across the lake. “At the doorstep, I keep hearing our neighbors are concerned about becoming more like Seattle. We have rising crime, increasing traffic and less public input,’’ Hummer wrote in a campaign statement.
By contrast Zahn, a 30-year Bellevue resident and Chief Engineer for the Port of Seattle, said the city of 145,000 is moving to face up to its changing population and address its housing-affordability crisis. Today, 50 percent of Bellevue residents are non-white, and 42 percent are from countries other than the U.S.
No longer Seattle’s bedroom community, the Eastside has companies like Microsoft, Amazon, T-Mobile, Facebook, and Sales Force that have brought tens of thousands of new jobs to fill downtown skyscrapers. But new housing hasn’t kept pace. Today the average home price is $1.4 million, pricing out families with children. The school district is closing schools because of declining enrollment.
“Bellevue is becoming too expensive, and we have to create more affordable housing. That resonates a lot more than just ‘I am for neighborhoods,’” Zahn said.
Hummer was for many years a member of the East Bellevue Community Council, and her campaign themes echoed the mantra of neighborhood organizations that dominated Bellevue politics 30 years ago, in close alliance with Kemper Freeman and other downtown developers. Hummer’s promise was to “ensure neighborhoods retain their character and that any growth is with full consideration by the neighbors.”
In recent years, Bellevue has launched several new development initiatives, including the Spring District (which was slowed by the pandemic) and a new urban community in the Wilburton area, which promises thousands of new homes. Zahn touts “gentle density,’’ allowing duplexes and triplexes in single-family zones. She promotes biking and walking, and light rail will soon begin operating on the Eastside. Hardly an advocate of police de-funding, Zahn supported adding 19 more police officers and 18 firefighters this year.
Although Bellevue Square developer Kemper Freeman Jr. endorsed Hummer, Zahn captured the backing of Associated General Contractors, Realtors, and the Master Builders. The Eastside Business Alliance, the political action arm of local Chambers of Commerce, stayed out of the race.
Zahn says the city can and must grow to meet the demands of the future. It won’t necessarily look like Old Bellevue, but it will continue to be a good place to live and work. “I believe we can do even better to be inclusive and to celebrate the diversity of our residents and neighborhoods,” she said. “It is really different from a vision that looks back fondly at where we have been.”