November 24, 2008 · Updated 4:55 PM
Restaurateur's love of Island leads to Island Market Square
Growing up on the Island, the oldest son of longtime Islanders Ruth and David Cohn, Steve Cohn had no plans to become one of the most talked about property owners involved with the highly controversial new Town Center. In fact, even now the 59-year-old Cohn considers himself a restaurant and family man, who loves to travel, ski, work-out, watch his children's sporting activities and raise money for charities.
"I'm not a developer," Cohn says. "I was happy just being a landowner." Cohn and his younger brother, Ron, spent much of their youth and adulthood working in their family's business, which Ron now runs. Ron, who lives in Issaquah, took over as president of Consolidated Restaurants for their father, who died in September, 2003.
Cohn identifies with owning restaurants from previous involvement with the family business. But, his love of the Island and a need to make sure his hometown gets the kind of Town Center Cohn believes should form the heart of the downtown area, persuaded him to partner with Renton-based SECO Development to begin construction on Island Market Square. Cohn decided to become involved in the development angle when the City of Mercer Island approached him seven years ago and showed him a plan for the downtown area, he said.
"I thought about it a lot and drove around and looked at many buildings," Cohn said. "The most important thing to me was the quality of the project; that's why I chose SECO, because they build quality and Mercer Island is special and deserves quality."
Island Market Square, one of seven projects currently underway in the City's new Town Center, is a five-building, four-and-five-story, development with about 230 apartments, from studios to townhouses, as well as about 50,000 square feet of ground floor retail, office and restaurant space, and 493 underground parking spaces. It is being built in the 2700 block of 78th Avenue S.E., across the street from a property currently owned by Cohn's brother and occupied by Coldwell Bankers. Island Market Square is slated to be completed in December, 2005.
Most of the retail space is already spoken for; however, due to final details with contracts, Cohn won't say the names of the businesses that will occupy the space. All of the retail and service spaces will be occupied by businesses that will benefit the community, he says. Already slated are a dry cleaners, a spa and two real estate offices that previously rented and will be returning to the property.
Cohn lives in Bellevue with his wife, Laura, who is a retired Swedish Hospital head nurse, and their two daughters, Rebecca, 12, and Sarah, 8. Being a dad is the most important thing in his life, Cohn says. "Being in the restaurant business, I used to think life's biggest thrill was going to Paris with my wife and going out to dinner in the restaurants there," he says. "But, holding your newborn baby in your arms makes Paris pale by comparison. It's so liberating, having a child and realizing when someone is more important than you are."
Cohn still considers himself an Islander.
His family moved to Mercer Island in 1949. And after attending elementary and middle school here, he graduated from Mercer Island High School in 1964. His Island connections weren't severed when he moved away from home to join the Marines, and later attend Seattle University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in liberal arts, and studied for a year in the school's master's in business administration program.
In addition to his mom, who still lives on the Island, many of his friends live here.
"I'm still friends with people I went to kindergarten with on the Island," Cohn says proudly.
Cohn tells of his pride in being involved in a project a few years ago, in which a bronze plaque was placed at the high school to commemorate the lives of 11 former students who died in Vietnam.
"I was fortunate, I didn't have to go to Vietnam, but several of my schoolmates did," Cohn says.
Cohn has found several ways to give back to his community. In addition to participating last weekend in the Island's Rotary Run Half Marathon to raise money and awareness for colon cancer, Cohn, a cancer survivor, helps educate people and raise money for cancer research at the University of Washington and is involved in a committee at Seattle University to raise funds for a performing arts center.
Island resident Eric Meltzer, 59, has known Cohn for most of his life and is proud to be associated with the man whom, he says, has the highest possible character and integrity.
Although the two don't always see eye-to-eye or vote the same way, Meltzer appreciates Cohn's sensitivity in allowing others to have opposing views, without arguing or making a big deal of their differences, he says. Meltzer says many, including his sister, have vocalized concern and opposition to proposed growth in the Town Center. But, not him. "I'm not pro-growth in everything, but I'm pro-growth as it relates to Steve Cohn," Meltzer says.
"I know anything he does is going to be done with other people in mind, and with intensity. Steve is intense about everything he does. He runs intensely, he's a family man intensely, and he goes about everything he does intensely."
Meltzer talks of Cohn's recent struggle and triumph over cancer. "He's been faced with things that made him look at his mortality and I think that adds to his intensity and his desire to do for others," Meltzer says. Though the two have been friends for more than 45 years, Meltzer says he's able to look at Cohn objectively.
"When you follow someone from a distance you can stand back and see their blemishes," Meltzer says. "Steve doesn't have any. He's just a nice guy who does all the right things. Up close or from a distance he's a quality guy."