Sound Stories. Sound Voices.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
You are on the KUOW archive site. Click here to go to our current site.

Why It's Hard To Find Unhappy People In Bellevue

Yu Deng and her coworker lead moms in exercise at Bellevue's Downtown Park
KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols
Yu Deng and her coworker lead moms in exercise at Bellevue's Downtown Park.

Four Bellevue City Council members are up for election this fall.

The election comes at a time when Bellevue is going through many changes. Downtown is growing, and with light rail on the way, that growth will expand northeast toward Microsoft.

I wanted to ask voters what they think about Bellevue’s current path. I figured I would start by finding a person happy with Bellevue and someone looking for change. That ended up being more complicated than I’d imagined.

I found the happy person right away: Yu Deng led a group of jogging moms as they pushed their strollers in a great arc around Bellevue's Downtown Park. Yu Deng led them through more exercises, cool down stretches, then excused them with the reminder that "your final most important stretch of the day is your smile!" 

Deng moved to Bellevue from Shanghai. She is a direct beneficiary of Bellevue’s growth, as she lives in a residential tower nearby. Her husband was recently hired by a software company in San Francisco, but she said they decided to keep family in Bellevue. "He just travels every weekend,” she said.

"I just love it here," she said. "I want to stay here. I mean, San Francisco is beautiful, and it’s bigger, but I just love Bellevue.”

Deng worries some about the rising rents here, but she’s not complaining. After all, it’s cheaper than San Francisco.

Finding someone who wants change was harder. 

[asset-images[{"caption": "Elaine Kirk at Crossroads Mall in Bellevue.", "fid": "121766", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201510/Kirk.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols"}]]Elaine Kirk seemed promising at first. I found her playing bridge in the food court at Crossroads Mall.

“I don’t like downtown Bellevue,” she told me without hesitation, “It’s too busy!”

But beyond her initial complaint, Kirk didn’t deliver what I was looking for. She stays happy by avoiding downtown. The Grocery Outlet near her home has everything she needs.

“You find things at the Grocery Outlet that you don’t find in regular grocery stores,” she said, such as Muddy Buddies, which she says are basically Rice Chex covered in powdered sugar.

“So you’re pretty well taken care of then?” I asked, angling for more.

“Yes,” she said.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Mercedes Bakhach at Crossroads Mall in Bellevue", "fid": "121767", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201510/Bakhach.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols"}]]Mercedes Bakhach sat at another table at the mall. She said she came to Bellevue to be near her children, who work at Microsoft and Amazon.

When she complained about big apartment buildings built near her home, I thought I had found someone hankering for change.

“How could they allow it to happen here?” Bakhach said she’s been asking herself. “You want to walk around and see trees and the like, you don’t want to see high rises in your nose. If you go downtown, you expect that. But not right down the street from my neighborhood.”

But when pressed, Bakhach said, just like everybody else I had talked to that day, that she’s happy with Bellevue. 

“I feel proud of this city,” she said. “Bellevue’s working. Don’t change it too much so that it becomes like everywhere else. Then you will have the problems of everywhere else.”

So who is looking for big changes for Bellevue in the fall election? I was getting desperate. I snuck into a nearby apartment building when a building manager's back was turned and started knocking on doors.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Rajiv Venkatesh and his family could have to leave for somewhere like Bothell, if his rent continues to rise.", "fid": "121770", "style": "placed_left", "uri": "public://201510/Venkatesh.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols"}]]Jackpot.

One after the other, the residents started offered their stories. Standing in his doorway, Rajiv Venkatesh told me he’s concerned about the dramatic increases in his rent over the last six years, which has almost doubled.

Venkatesh said that if rents rise any more, he’ll have to move his family north, probably to Bothell. He’ll have to leave the friends he’s made here in Bellevue.

“It’s going to be pretty difficult for me,” he said. “It’s going to be a big loss for me, once I move there to Bothell.” Other residents offered similar stories.

But here’s the thing: When Vankatesh leaves, Bellevue will lose him as a voter. He won’t be able to push for change in Bellevue, even if he wants to.

Allison DeAngelis, who writes for the Bellevue Reporter, has a simple explanation for why I had a hard time finding someone who was really upset. “The majority of the middle-class and upper-middle-class families in Bellevue -- their day-to-day lives are pretty good,” she said, as long as they avoid the worst traffic.

DeAngelis said that relative affluence has had an impact on Bellevue’s city council races.

“There’s a little bit of a feeling of apathy,” she said, “given that Bellevue has become a wealthier area.”

The average household income in Bellevue is $93,000 a year. In Seattle,it’s $70,000.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Allison DeAngelis of the Bellevue Reporter.", "fid": "121771", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201510/DeAngelis.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols"}]]In Bellevue, DeAngelis said the people who are the most upset about Bellevue tend to work in town – but live north or south of Bellevue in more affordable communities.

“For those people who are working at the great restaurants that we have downtown, these are daily issues: sitting in traffic for an hour, and then not being able to spend time with their families,” she said.

DeAngelis said these people (who can't vote in Bellevue) don’t have a say in how Bellevue is run.

That partly explains why one city council member is running unopposed. In another contest, the challenger who made it through the primary hasn’t raised a dime in campaign contributions. 

Bellevue voters will decide how much change they’d like to see in the city council on Nov. 3.