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From Rural Village to a Big Tech Hub: A Historian's Take on Bellevue's Future

April 1, 2022 - by Sandy Vo

From Rural Village to a Big Tech Hub

A Historian's Take on Bellevue's Future

Margaret O'Mara - courtesy of Jim Garner

Margaret O’Mara became a professional historian after spending her early years working in national politics and policymaking. Her experience taught her that historical knowledge plays a critical role in understanding and informing the future. Today, she’s the Howard & Frances Keller endowed professor of history at the University of Washington (UW), author of multiple nonfiction books, and frequent contributor to news organizations like The New York Times, The Washington Post, the American Prospects and more. 

O'Mara's current focus is on the high-tech industry, American politics, and the connection between the two. On April 21, she'll be presenting her work at our Downtown Forward celebration. You can hear her keynote presentation and how it relates to Downtown Bellevue by registering today.

In anticipation of the event, we sat down with O'Mara to learn more about her career and why knowing your history is essential to creating a vibrant downtown.

BDA: Where did your fascination with history come from?

O'Mara:  I spent the first five years of my career working in politics in Washington DC, which gave me a hunger to understand more about the history that brought us to now and to bring historical insights to wider audiences.

BDA: How did it feel when you became an endowed professor at the University of Washington?

O'Mara: Lucky! UW is such a great place to teach and work. I get to work with students from all over the state, the nation, and the world. I have fantastic colleagues and my building is on the Quad, right next to the cherry blossoms. That gives me the best view in town for a couple of weeks each spring, and the rest of the year isn’t too bad either!

BDA: How does remote work change how tech industries operate in downtowns?

Rendering of Meta office in The Spring District - Courtesy of NBBJ

O'Mara: It’s funny—tech companies have been in the business of creating tools that allow people to work from anywhere. But they have long been committed to working in person, and they have invested a lot in facilities with so many amenities that employees might never need to leave the office.

The pandemic upended that, becoming this enormous real-time experiment that showed tech that workers could be just as productive from home. Coming out of the last two years, it’s exciting to see how firms are changing their old ways, allowing and sometimes encouraging workers to stay remote or have hybrid schedules. This will have a significant impact on downtown real estate—the need for office space will remain, but what that space looks like, and how it’s used, may be really different.

BDA: Why is history important when it comes to creating a vibrant downtown?

O'Mara: Changing patterns of work poses a real challenge that requires flexibility as well as creativity. A historical perspective can make the challenge less daunting and spark ideas for constructive change. Keep in mind that central business districts are an invention of the late nineteenth century, when new building technologies allowed skyscrapers to soar and white-collar service industries—insurance, banking—grew and diversified. These downtowns struggled as jobs and people streamed to the suburbs in the postwar era, then those suburbs in turn—like Bellevue—became high-rise business centers, too. Downtowns are constantly changing, but one constant is how these places meet the human need to come together, collaborate, socialize, and build community.

Downtown Bellevue

BDA: What makes Downtown Bellevue unique or stand out from other cities in America?

O'Mara: Cities are always reinventing themselves, and Downtown Bellevue stands apart in its dynamism, transforming from a rural village into a suburban shopping hub and then into a high-rise and high-density center of jobs, commerce, and urban living. These changes reflect shifting market needs and consumer demand. Still, they also are a product of local leadership deliberately and consciously building out infrastructure and amenities to create a vibrant destination.

Join us for Downtown Forward, a social reception on April 21. We'll celebrate the tremendous people, projects & progress shaping Bellevue’s future. Enjoy live music, creative appetizers and a no host bar with signature cocktails while connecting with people who make Downtown special. Register today!