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Freeman family still influences Eastside growth

Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter Kemper Freeman, Jr., speaks to the Mercer Island Probus Club last Wednesday. Freeman had recently given the same speech to developers halfway across the globe in Dubai. -
Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter Kemper Freeman, Jr., speaks to the Mercer Island Probus Club last Wednesday. Freeman had recently given the same speech to developers halfway across the globe in Dubai.
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Many longtime Islanders can attest to the notion that the Eastside is not what it used to be.

Much of the present day look of downtown Bellevue can be attributed to Bellevue Square owner and developer, Kemper Freeman, Jr., and his prescient grandfather.

Last Wednesday, about 100 members and guests of the Mercer Island Chapter of the Probus Club, a social network for retired professionals and businessmen, came to the Mercer Island Presbyterian Church to hear the developer’s talk about the Eastside.

“Who would have thought that three of the 10 richest Americans would live in the Eastside,” Freeman said. “We’re seeing all kinds of exciting things happen to the economy here.”

Freeman told the crowd he had just returned from a trip to Dubai, the bustling Middle East now the site of nearly one-quarter of the world’s development. There, Freeman said, he was invited to tell how his family-owned business succeeded.

“Much of the businesses in the Middle East are family-owned,” Kemper said. “They wanted to know what it takes to make [large development] projects like these work.

“The idea of a building a shopping center was odd in 1944,” Freeman said of the beginnings of downtown Bellevue. “But now the Eastside has grown into something entirely different from what it once was. What a trip we’ve been on.”

Freeman told the crowd how his grandfather bought the property Bellevue Square sits on today in 1944 for 10 cents a square foot, which was nearly double the amount of the going rate for land back then. Today, Freeman said, land in the center of the Bellevue business district costs about $350 a square foot.

The booming retail economy on the Eastside is due in part to a new restaurant scene and the influx of high-end retail stores that snubbed the entire Northwest for decades, Freeman said. He attributed the restaurant growth to outside restaurants, such as PF Chang’s, which came to Bellevue and was immediately successful despite local restaurant owners’ dire predictions.

He also stated that the re-development of the I-90 bridge, which removed the exit to the Leschi neighborhood, brought the need for a high end restaurant to Bellevue. He said most Eastsiders traditionally went to Leschi for Daniel’s Broiler. However, after the change on the highway, Daniel’s opened up in Bellevue and reached $5 million in sales its first year.

“There’s a billion dollar restaurant market on the Eastside but for 20 years the local restaurants refused to come here because the old saying was ‘Eastsiders eat on the Eastside but they go to Seattle to dine,’” he said.

One person asked Freeman wanted to know the future 108th Ave. N.E. and Bellevue Way, the “fourth corner” surrounded by Freeman’s other three developments. While Freeman noted the lot was owned by family friends he seemingly hinted at his eventual acquisition based on the ebb and flow of the real estate market.

Another audience member expressed his concern about new gates in Lincoln Square’s parking garage. Freeman said his developments would remain free upon validation for shoppers.

“I am fully committed to free parking,” Freeman said. “The other day in Seattle I had to spend $18 to park for lunch. It’s ridiculous.”

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