How Bellevue’s tech hub is much like Silicon Valley — and what they will be taught from one another

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Construction is under way on a 43-story office tower for Amazon next to the Bellevue Transit Center and kitty-corner from a future light rail station. The Bellevue 600 project is part of an overall Amazon footprint that will ultimately total more than 6.6 million square feet in downtown Bellevue. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

Comparing Silicon Valley and Seattle has become something of a regional pastime in the Pacific Northwest.

But the comparison might be more accurate if directed a few miles east, across the shores of Lake Washington to where Bellevue skyrises are multiplying. Because historically speaking, the rise of the eastside closely mirrors the trajectory of Silicon Valley’s San Jose. 

“Bellevue has a lot in common with a place that I talk about and write about a lot,” said tech historian Margaret O’Mara, speaking at a Bellevue Downtown Association event last week. “And I can’t say that of many places.”

The place O’Mara was alluding to, of course, is Silicon Valley.

“The intersection between massive urbanization and defense spending in both the Seattle area and the Bay Area are a really important parallel, and also help explain why these places became early hubs of technology,” said O’Mara, a University of Washington professor known for her work centered on the rise of Silicon Valley.

Margaret O’Mara speaks at the Bellevue Downtown Association event last week. (Bellevue Downtown Association Photo)

Bellevue is hardly an underdog when it comes to tech. It hosts high-profile offices for T-Mobile, Facebook, Microsoft and – increasingly in recent years – Amazon. And as Seattle grapples with crime and political battles, Bellevue is looking like an appealing homebase for some other tech companies, too.

But despite recent headlines about companies landing in Bellevue, the city’s history with technology goes back a long ways – just like in the Bay Area. Speaking last week, O’Mara outlined the factors that transformed both Silicon Valley and the eastside into tech hubs.

In the Bay Area, the federal government poured huge amounts of defense money into aerospace companies such as Lockheed. In the Puget Sound region, it was Boeing. Those companies acted as magnets for engineers and their families (Steve Wozniak’s father was a Lockheed engineer) – and O’Mara noted it’s children of the defense-spending boom who are often credited with jumpstarting the tech industry in the second half of the 20th century.

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Take, for example, the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle, which focused on technology of the future.

“Seattle and Bellevue kids came to the fair,” O’Mara said. “They rode the Monorail, they saw the future, and they were changed by that.” 

Six-year-old Bill Gates visited the World’s Fair, as did nine-year-old Paul Allen. 

“And then 17 years later, those kids, mostly grown up, came back here and moved their little company, Microsoft … into Bellevue,” O’Mara said. “And the rest, as they say, is history.”

She added: “So think about not only what’s next, but who’s next,” O’Mara said. “Where are our six-year-olds and nine-year-olds, how are we going to inspire them? How are we going to show them what’s possible?”

But the story of the eastside’s rise isn’t entirely a story of wide-eyed children dreaming big. Like most of the country’s history, there’s an ugly undercurrent of racism as well. Historians, O’Mara included, have noted how forced busing in Seattle prompted what’s commonly called “white flight” in the region, with wealthy white families moving across Lake Washington to eastside suburbs to avoid social changes brought by desegregation efforts.

Now, Bellevue and surrounding eastside suburbs are writing a new chapter – one that will have ripple effects far into the future, O’Mara said last week.

“What we do now, the history right now, doesn’t just matter for the next 10 years,” she said. “It matters for the next 30 or 50, or 70.”

One thing O’Mara said she underscores when speaking to communities looking to mirror Silicon Valley: Don’t try to imitate another place. 

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“We can learn a lot from their experience,” she said. “But there’s probably quite a bit that Silicon Valley can – and should – learn from Bellevue. Because quite frankly, when it comes to urban-housing supply, dense walkable residential neighborhoods, a downtown mixed-use bustling with rich urban amenities, Bellevue is way ahead. When it comes to a regional mass transit system, transit accessibility, Bellevue is way ahead.”

Increased remote-work options have injected some uncertainty into the future of office-heavy urban centers. But O’Mara said if anything, the pandemic’s work-from-home mandates taught us more about the value of in-person connection.

“It’s not just the buildings,” O’Mara said. “It’s the people in the buildings.”

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