Bellevue officials look to develop Olde Towne into new hot spot

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Posted: Monday, January 20, 2014 12:00 am

Big changes are coming to the heart of Bellevue, and officials see them as an opportunity for economic development.

In the next few years the landscape of Olde Towne — the area that includes Mission Avenue from Lincoln Road to the Missouri River — will look drastically different:

» City Hall, headquartered there for as long as anyone can remember, will be moving out of the area, to 1510 Wall St. The Police Department will be the first to leave, starting in March.

» The state is relinquishing Mission Avenue to the city, giving locals more control of the main downtown street.

» The new Highway 34 bridge opening south of town could decrease traffic coming from the Bellevue Bridge into downtown. At the least, it will change who travels through the area.

Downtown leaders see an opportunity to turn an area that's anchored by stodgy city buildings into a Bellevue hot spot — the next Old Market, Dundee or Benson.

“It has that opportunity. How do we harness it and capitalize on it?” Mayor Rita Sanders said. “I think there's great potential and great opportunities.”

They worry that if they do nothing, they risk allowing the area to languish.

When traffic moved from Fort Crook Road to the Kennedy Freeway, that area saw many businesses leave. Now city officials are trying to bring development back.

City Councilman Steve Carmichael, who represents downtown, doesn't want to let Olde Towne get to that point.

“I think there are pretty substantial concerns if we do nothing,” he said.

The priority is for the city to decide what to do with the City Hall building and land after it is vacated. The matter will ultimately come in front of the City Council, but staff members are preparing options.

One likely choice is to sell the land to a developer who wants to put in restaurants and retail. Part of the planning involves deciding what, if any, tax incentives to offer.

A group of downtown property owners, business leaders and residents have formed a committee to try to fill vacant properties and advocate for Olde Towne. They've brought in some new tenants, including the popular Swine Dining barbecue restaurant.

But City Hall's presence in Olde Towne has tied up much of the desirable land, said Councilwoman Carol Blood, who also is a member of the Olde Towne Development Committee.

“The key to the Olde Towne redevelopment is to get the city out of there,” she said.

John Jungers, committee president, said he'd like to see “something vibrant” move into the area.

“For a new Olde Towne, or an improved Olde Towne, we need to offer some things that are attractive to young professionals,” he said.

The area has a lot of upsides. It's within walking distance of riverfront parks, and it's close to Offutt Air Force Base. It contains several longtime businesses, including a coffee shop and jeweler.

Officials also are trying to plan for the changes to Mission Avenue and the new bridge.

The city received a federal grant to study what should be done with Mission.

The grant explores “green streets” strategies — meaning ways to make the area more accessible to pedestrians and cyclists, as well as motorists.

The study suggests using Mission as a test case and options such as changing the lanes and adding diagonal parking.

The study is just a jumping-off point, said Assistant City Administrator Larry Burks. Now the city is soliciting more input about what to do with the street and the area as a whole.

Carmichael said he's not sure what the new bridge will do to downtown traffic, but it will certainly change the nature of the motorists who come through Olde Towne.

But the most important transition will be the City Hall move, officials said.

“I think the city has an obligation as they vacate Olde Towne to help facilitate or put something in place that leaves it in good hands,” Jungers said.

Council members say that's exactly what will happen.

“Olde Towne is too important to the viability of the city of Bellevue,” Blood said.

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