Hot Button: Is Seattle in a Retail Battle?

Sibling Rivalry: With the confluence of Bellevue Square and the new Bravern, retail has never been b

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With the confluence of Bellevue Square and the new Bravern, retail has never been better in Bellevue. Could Seattle’s little sister be threatening its retail supremacy?

Not so very long ago, two local developers battled to win the hand of one very high-end retailer. The skirmish commenced around a handful of downtown Bellevue blocks. On one side: native Eastsider Kemper Freeman Jr., who turned his father’s original 1946 open-air collection of 16 stores into a nearly-200-shop powerhouse mall, Bellevue Square, now anchoring a conglomerate known as The Bellevue Collection, which includes Bellevue Place and Lincoln Square (literally linked by two sky bridges), and their mix of hotels, condos, restaurants and a 16-screen cinema. On the other: Wyoming-born retailing upstart Dan Ivanoff, cofounder of Seattle-based Schnitzer West, who had ambitions for a new 1.6-million-square-foot complex of luxury retail, restaurants, residences and offices, called The Bravern, to be located just a block away from Bellevue’s heavily trafficked I-405 exits. The linchpin to his plan? The likewise Kemper-coveted retailer Neiman Marcus.

“Neiman Marcus was the A-number-one target we had to go get first,” admits Ivanoff, “then Louis Vuitton, Hermès, Jimmy Choo and all those names that…at any major center that Neiman Marcus is in, those kind of retailers are next to.”

The Dallas-based fine fashion purveyor had long been courted by Freeman, who even financed some of the demographic research Neiman needed in order to pull the trigger on its first-ever Northwest location. However, Ivanoff’s luxe vision and The Bravern’s blank-slate site appeal ultimately won Neiman over, and the dominoes of Ivanoff’s other wished-for signature shops soon followed.

This tug-of-war tale might seem like just an Eastside drama, but the very fact that it was centered in Bellevue raises the question: Has Seattle’s sibling city become a worthy cohort or a worrisome rival set to siphon off shoppers and threaten its reign of retail supremacy?

Their respective retailing personalities couldn’t be more different. Bellevue presents a cohesive cluster of largely indoor malls wrapped in wide SUV-friendly streets, ample parking—much of it free—and a Singapore-style orderliness. (At his malls, Freeman employees 75 security guards and cleaning crews.) Downtown Seattle counters with a series of distinctive retail corridors, expensive, elusive parking and streets bristling with dynamic disorder: Whether targeting Urban Outfitters on Fifth Avenue, Tiffany’s in Pacific Place, or the handmade goods of the Pike Place Market, shoppers rub up against a big city’s mix of rushing office workers, confused tourists, loud buskers and yes, pesky panhandlers.

“The scale is all different in Bellevue,” says Matt Griffin, who led the team that developed Pacific Place. “It’s made for cars. It’s not fun to walk…and I’m a big believer in walking the streets.” For him, Seattle’s very urbanity ensures its preeminence. “When you think of the great cities around the world, you don’t think of individual stores or storefronts. You think of great streets to walk...[and] dynamic urban places, theater, symphony, arts and office workers and real streets with all the things that go along with real streets. Seattle’s fortunately got a whole bunch of those good things going on.”

Freeman is also more than happy to tick off Seattle’s strengths: “It’s where the biggest accounting firms are, the biggest law firms, the biggest government offices, sports stadiums, arts centers, banks….” On the other hand, he says, Bellevue is trying to be the regional center for the Eastsid