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Jim Melby and Todd Harris of Kemper Development Co. at the Lincoln Square expansion project. (GeekWire Photo / Nat Levy)

Kemper Development‘s Lincoln Square and Bellevue Square projects played an important role in Bellevue’s emergence as a city that attracts top tier tech companies and the well-paid employees that come along with them. Now the developer is finishing up its second round of transformative projects in the neighborhood.

A combined W Hotel and luxury apartment tower and a new office building make up the Lincoln Square expansion. (Kemper Development Photo)

The expansion of Lincoln Square, $1.2 billion project that will see more than 1.5 million square feet of office, retail, hotel and apartments added to the site across the street from Bellevue Square, is humming along. All the pieces of the complex project have either opened or are set to open at some point this year.

GeekWire got a preview of the luxury apartments that are a big part of the project. We didn’t get to see the finished units themselves, as the building is still under construction. But we got a peek at the model units and a look at some of the expansive views from the rooftop of the 41-story tower.

One of the first things we noticed is the price tag. The model units — a 1,000-square-foot one-bedroom unit and a 1,750-square-foot two-bedroom — rent for $5,000 and $8,000 respectively. Rents in the 218-unit apartment complex hover around $5 square foot. By contrast, some of the most expensive new Seattle buildings charge approximately $3 to $4 per square foot.

At the very high end, the most expensive penthouse in the building will cost $25,000 per month.

To justify those prices, the developer put in plenty of high end furnishings in the units, a slate of amenities and made sure to integrate the building with the surrounding complement of shops and restaurants that have been constructed over the past few decades.

“We tried to make sure it’s something where our family and friends would be comfortable,” Jim Melby, president of Kemper Development, said of the project. “We want to be proud of it. We live here. We’re not just building and flipping and moving on to the next city, so we tried to put all the features in so it’s great environment for people.”

A model unit Lincoln Square expansion apartment. (GeekWire Photo / Nat Levy)

A few things stood out in our tour of the building. The built-in refrigerators, and some of the furnishings in all units are things you sometimes only find in penthouses. The units have big bathrooms and bedrooms and tall ceilings. And if the mock views from the windows in the model units are any indication, every single window in every unit has an up close view of Mt. Rainier.

On the 14th floor there is an outdoor sun area with grills and other gathering spots. On the 41st floor is a deck with views of the Seattle skyline on one end and the actual Mt. Rainier on the other. Most of the units on two floors are fully furnished, meaning they could appeal to a tech executive recruited from outside the area, or someone who is coming for a few months on a consulting job.

In a region starved for condo development, this building feels like it should be a for-sale project. It shares space in the tower with an upscale W Hotel, a somewhat common interplay in condo projects. But Melby said the company opted for rentals because it continues to invest in its collection of properties in downtown Bellevue, and wants to hold on to ownership of the building and its units. The other reason is state law covering construction defects has led to numerous lawsuits against builders of condo projects in recent years.

But Kemper doesn’t want to shut itself off from people looking for a long-term home, so to appeal to that crowd leases can last as long as 10 years. Melby argues that the units are actually more affordable in the short-term than condos of comparable size once you factor in things like maintenance costs, HOA fees and taxes.

“We are trying to deliver a level of service that frankly you typically don’t see,” Melby said. “We hope these are homes that people choose to stay in for a long, long time. If they want to stay for 10, 20 years, great, we just want them to be comfortable in the environment, and we want to make sure the service offerings are commensurate with the luxury level of this project.”

A look at the 14th outdoor deck from above. (GeekWire Photo / Nat Levy)

There is plenty of tech in the building. Smart boxes in each unit let people easily switch on services like cable and internet without having to waste several hours waiting for the installer to come. The project team plans to partner with another firm to bring a “tech concierge” to the building. That would function as something like an on-demand IT guy, someone nearby who can fix a resident’s computer or iron out issues in the audio-visual system.

Smart thermostats are in every unit. There is a Distributed Antenna System in the building that promises quality cell coverage anywhere in the structure, including traditionally spotty areas like the parking lot and garage.

With the first residents set to move in October, about 30 percent of the units are already leased. There are residents young and old from tech and other professions. Melby wouldn’t name names, but he mentioned several prominent executives from tech companies in Bellevue and surrounding cities plan to live in the new apartments.

It’s not just the residential portion of the project that is seeing activity. The office building is approximately 90 percent leased to a deep roster of companies including Valve, WeWork, Pokémon, Steve Ballmer and others. The W Hotel in the building just opened.

The expansion was a bold bet for Kemper Development, which started work on the megaproject in 2014. The company wanted to start it years ago, but the recession in 2008 and 2009 put the brakes on that.

The 41st floor deck is still under construction, but this is what it will look like. (Kemper Development Rendering)

Melby has been with Kemper Development for 27 years and said he “went to Bellevue High School and now I work at the mall.” He remembers a time in the early 1980s when Microsoft occupied just a few thousand square feet of office space in downtown Bellevue. And in the 1990s when Jeff Bezos started Amazon.com out of his Bellevue garage.

“When you see the absolute explosive growth of those companies and then count all the spinoff activity, and the intellectual capacity of that community, it’s hard to overstate the impact they’ve had in the marketplace,” Melby said. “We would not be the company we are without what the tech community has done.”

The tech boom has helped turn Bellevue from a bedroom community into a city all its own. A turning point, Melby said, came when local high-end restaurant operators started to see Bellevue as a worthy destination. National operators were all over downtown, but for awhile, there was a reputation that “you dine in Seattle, and you eat in Bellevue,” Melby said.

That has changed, and now one of the biggest selling points to potential residents of the new Lincoln Square expansion project is the deep roster of local and national restaurants all within a couple blocks.

“You could probably go three months and never hit the same restaurant twice, and walk every night just a block or two,” Melby said. “That’s really compelling.”

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