Why Don't Rich Eastside Developers Want Light Rail in Downtown Bellevue?

Inside the Plot to Reroute Sound Transit's Light Rail

Why Don't Rich Eastside Developers Want Light Rail in Downtown Bellevue?

Robert Ullman

Of the many proposed routes for the new light-rail line through Bellevue, one gaining traction is called the "Vision Line," and it is the preferred route of two Bellevue developers. Its most central stop in Bellevue is the better part of a mile from the center of downtown.

I decided to take that long walk to find out how practical the Vision Line would be for riders who would need to get from the potential light-rail stop to downtown Bellevue. Google Maps estimated that the full walk would take 11 minutes. I began the trek by crossing the parking lot underneath the I-405 on-ramp. There were no other pedestrians on those narrow, dimly lit sidewalks bordering wide roads of traffic. Crossing 112th Street Northeast was like playing Frogger, dodging cars even when I was walking with the signal. Speed walking, I made it to the transit center in four and a half minutes, but I wasn't even halfway to Bellevue Square. By the time I finished my trek, my jeans were soaked with rain.

Such a lengthy walk from station to destination would kneecap light-rail ridership. A report by the federal National Personal Transportation Study found that only 40 percent of Americans would walk 1,000 feet—the distance from the transit center to the proposed light-rail stop—to reach a transit stop. Only 10 percent would be willing to walk half a mile, which wouldn't even get them to the middle of downtown Bellevue from the Vision Line.

Ever since voters approved the Sound Transit extension in 2008, Bellevue has been split over its light-rail alignment. On one side of the debate: Transit advocates and regional planners want the line to run through the middle of downtown, which holds the second-highest density in the region after downtown Seattle. This seems obvious enough. The alignment would bring mass transit to the place it's needed most.

On the other side of the debate: A handful of well-connected developers, including development mogul Kemper Freeman Jr., want the light-rail line to skirt the center of downtown Bellevue, stopping by the freeway. The Vision Line's main Bellevue stop would then be roughly a quarter mile from the South Bellevue Transit Center and just over half a mile from Bellevue Square, at the core of downtown.

Freeman suggests that commuters like me could shorten the long walk by riding "a moving sidewalk," he says, or "something similar to what I call the 'Disney Train,' which is what goes through Disneyland."


"Clearly the train is in the wrong place if you're needing a moving walkway to get people into the city," says Shefali Ranganathan, director of education and outreach at Transportation Choices Coalition, which works for transportation reform in Washington.

But after the 2009 election, it looks like this impractical alignment could prevail. The Bellevue City Council, which makes the city's light-rail recommendations to Sound Transit, is now stacked four-to-three against sending a line through downtown. Suspiciously, all of those four council members have accepted large campaign contributions from Freeman, public disclosure records show. Kevin Wallace, one of those council members, is Freeman's ally in the push for the Vision Line.

But Freeman says he's not trying to hurt transit. The Vision Line, for all its apparent impracticality, has a couple of assets. It's supposedly less expensive (definitive numbers weren't expected until after The Stranger went to press), and for Microsoft commuters the trip to work could be few minutes shorter. Wallace says it would "be faster" because the route, along Burlington Northern rail tracks, better connects to Renton to the south and Snohomish to the north.

In other words, the train can go from A to Z, without hitting point B—downtown Bellevue.

Freeman is a notorious light-rail opponent. State election records show that his company Kemper Holdings spent over $100,000 fighting Sound Transit 2; he was listed as a petitioner on a lawsuit brought before the state supreme court to prevent light rail from being built on I-90; and in 2003, he spoke at the Preserving the American Dream conference, a conference billed to "help you effectively oppose rail transit boondoggles." Freeman gave over $3,500 altogether to Bellevue City Council members Wallace, Conrad Lee, Jennifer Robertson, and Don Davidson. Freeman just gave money to "the four best candidates," he says, and he's "proud of them on all kinds of issues." The Bellevue Reporter said in September 2009 that Freeman owns roughly 8 percent of downtown Bellevue. Kemper Holdings owns and operates Bellevue Square (which has complimentary parking) and Bellevue Place and Lincoln Square (both of which have parking garages that require "validation from Bellevue Place and Lincoln Square retail, restaurants, and entertainment," according to the company's website). The company also owns the Hyatt Regency Bellevue, where parking ranges from $6 for two to three hours to $16 overnight.

Ben Schiendelman, who has been covering light rail on the Eastside for the Seattle Transit Blog, believes Freeman "doesn't really have any financial gain from adding light rail. He already has very high-class clientele, they live nearby... He already has access from the people who want to shop there. He thinks he might drive them away if people with lower incomes started coming in on light rail. And as you increase density, you see a wider range of incomes, and I don't think he wants to see that."

But Bruce Nurse, vice president of Kemper Development, says, "It's very presumptuous of Mr. Schiendelman to speculate on Kemper Freeman's market philosophy. Kemper Freeman has always welcomed the region's residents and visitors to downtown Bellevue... regardless of age or income. The need for good personal mobility is one of the reasons that Kemper has been active in the transportation debate for several decades."

He adds, "All residents throughout the region deserve a transit system that will actually get people where they want to go. Light rail simply costs too much, produces too little, and is too disruptive to the local business community during the lengthy construction process." Nurse says that Freeman's parking garages "have nothing to do with" his opposition to light rail.

"Kemper is a known light-rail opponent," says Ranganathan, of Transportation Choices Coalition. "I just find it interesting that he funded council members who are now supporting an alignment that will keep the train from getting to downtown."

Freeman defends his contributions to anti-rail council members. "What I didn't do is have a meeting with someone and say, 'Here's a check and here's what I want,'" he says. "I've lived here all my life, and I know the city council by first name."

But Ranganathan shoots back, "He's been on record saying repeatedly that a train going through downtown Bellevue would be disruptive. But we see trains in multiple cities that run alongside cars, and they work just fine."

The Vision Line is also gaining opponents among elected officials. "My preference would be to get a lot closer to the transit center," said Claudia Balducci, a recent Sound Transit board appointee and member of the Bellevue City Council. "The reason you would do something like that is if you could absolutely not mitigate a line to the transit center." However, she points out, every alternative listed by Sound Transit is closer to downtown than the Vision Line.

"In any alignment for East Link light rail, the public will want to know how it connects jobs with housing, how many people will ride it, how construction will impact the environment, and what it will cost," says King County executive and Sound Transit board member Dow Constantine. "The Vision Line should be studied," he says. "But I have concerns about how it would meet these criteria."

Freeman, while careful to point out he's not opposed to mass transit, per se, insists mass transit can't replace car trips (despite a Sound Transit study showing that light rail could reduce vehicle miles traveled by up to 30 percent per year, and that people who live and work near light rail drive up to 40 percent less). Freeman says the best mass transit could ever do is carry 18 percent of all trips.

"Kemper likes to use that figure a lot," explained Ranganathan, who says Freeman is basing the figure on a 24-hour period, and not on when light rail is most needed: during peak hours.

Sound Transit has proposed several routes as alternatives to the Vision Line. Among them: a line that circles the transit center and a tunnel that would go under the traffic mess of downtown Bellevue. But the tunnel is far outside of Sound Transit's budget, and Bellevue can't afford the tunnel on its own. With the tunnel off the table, a couple of other routes that serve the transit center without looping have gained some attention—and both would better serve the center of downtown.

Sound Transit is currently looking into the cost, environmental impact, and ridership for the Vision Line. If the ridership projections are too low, for instance, Sound Transit can take the route off the table. Wallace said the results of a Vision Line study will be ready by the next Sound Transit Board meeting on January 28. recommended

This story has been updated since it was originally published.


Comments (32) RSS

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platypusrex256 1
kemper freeman has a vested interest in getting people and their wallets downtown. if there was some way to bring in the lightrail without sacrificing car traffic, i am sure he would be all for it.
Posted by platypusrex256 on January 27, 2010 at 1:37 PM · Report this
well if kemper freeman and his gang want to pay for a rapid point to point only streetcar and all necessary transit improvements (streets, bikelanes, priority over lights) then let him. Otherwise, its going right to the transit center in Downtown Bellevue and right down SE Bellevue way to I-90--LIKE IT WAS ORIGINALLY DESIGNED!

And maybe to help pay for the cost of a tunnel (the best solution) the bellevue city council could increase the parking rates by $2 in a garage and 50cents/hour on the street. There!
Posted by Tax that man! on January 27, 2010 at 1:54 PM · Report this
The Class War rears its extra-ugly head again....
Posted by 5th Columnist on January 27, 2010 at 2:28 PM · Report this
well, I assume that the 9 minute walk from the Columbia City Station to Columbia City is also a bad idea? I mean, it's only 2 minutes shorter of a walk, but if you were going to Tutta Bella then suddenly your walk becomes 14 minutes....
Posted by 11min-is-nothing on January 27, 2010 at 4:13 PM · Report this
have you been over there in Bellevue? its grown up a little bit, but the traffic is worse than downtown seattle...making the LINK go anywhere but the transit center is fing stupid. let KF and his people pay for it through increased car-related taxes and a LID--they can afford it. that 550ST is so packed at night with all the restaurant and mall thing you knw they'll be saying is the folks who live in rainier beach will be gettign on the train to go commit crimes in Bellevue, just like they said in St. Louis when I was living there--and now that cities systems is off to a really good start.
Posted by tuff shit bellevue, its going in on January 27, 2010 at 5:43 PM · Report this
Difficult to see a map showing alignments without your article.
Please add.
Posted by David Sucher on January 27, 2010 at 7:28 PM · Report this
Spicy McHaggis 7
Kemper Freeman doesn't want any of THOSE PEOPLE coming near his upscale mall. The man needs a fifth of whiskey to kill the bug up his arse.
Posted by Spicy McHaggis on January 27, 2010 at 7:37 PM · Report this
Whatever motivations may (or may not) exist, having a rail spine along I-405 is a good idea.
Posted by David Sucher on January 27, 2010 at 9:08 PM · Report this
Greg 9
It should be called the Telescope Line, since you'd need one to see downtown from the stop.
Posted by Greg on January 27, 2010 at 9:15 PM · Report this
You should have speed walked in a tracksuit, that way your jeans wouldn't have gotten soaked.
Posted by Subdued Excitement on January 27, 2010 at 9:59 PM · Report this
Subdued excitement, are you from Bellingham?
Posted by Guest Author on January 27, 2010 at 10:08 PM · Report this
SeattleInspector 12
Spicy said it all.
Posted by SeattleInspector on January 27, 2010 at 10:44 PM · Report this
Mass transit: good for the economy and good for people.

Kemper Freeman: truly a modern day Montgomery Burns.
Posted by MacGruber on January 27, 2010 at 11:14 PM · Report this
In this era of recession and sustainability I am amazed that we would even consider spending $500,000,000 to route the Light Rail through Downtown Bellevue.

It seems that the folks that are most up in arms about not running the train through downtown Bellevue are not the folks that own businesses on a street that would be torn up for years.

If you have ever been to Bellevue you would know that the Mall traffic would be even worse should the flow to traffic be interrupted by a train every 30 minutes.
Posted by Johnny Medina on January 28, 2010 at 2:25 PM · Report this
Donolectic 15
Johnny Medina @ 14 - I've seen lots of construction projects in downtown Bellevue over the last 8 years that required street closures and the like at various points in their construction. Somehow, Bellevue survived and (I would argue) is in much better shape with those fancy new residential and corporate towers.

With your logic we should ban Christmas in DT Bellevue because it makes mall traffic the worst of all and, in this age of recession and sustainability, we shouldn't be buying so much crap. Lead the way Johnny!
Posted by Donolectic on January 28, 2010 at 3:01 PM · Report this
Letting anti-rail activists plan a light rail line is like letting the Aryan Nations plan the next NAACP conference.
Posted by BigJimm on January 28, 2010 at 5:16 PM · Report this
You are to be commended in ferreting out this story about the politics of fitting light rail into a community designed for and dominated by the automobile. Equally remarkable is the willingness of these same politicians to build a rail line right through Mercer Slough, Bellevue's largest wetland system, as if such a decision carried no penalty now or in the future.
Posted by Taos50 on January 28, 2010 at 9:21 PM · Report this
Mayhem 18
KF is a shitbag. The answer in Bellevue is to build more roads, cut taxes, and let the poor and the car-less enjoy the trickle-down. If it sounds like Timmy Eyman, its because Eyman is Kemper's hand puppet.
Posted by Mayhem on January 29, 2010 at 4:42 AM · Report this
i was once a member of the bellevue club and when this issue arose, every lcd screen in the place had emergency-status messages asking members to petition against light rail construction or else "the bellevue club as you know it" would be demolished. OH FUCK!!
Posted by sydvicious on January 30, 2010 at 1:16 AM · Report this
I work with a group of ladies who are originally from LA and they're absolutely right smack in Kemper's target market.

They absolutely loathe the new Bravern (the new ultra-luxurious shopping development) because of the Microsoft offices in the floors above. They say all these filthy people walking around in t-shirts and shorts really detract from their overall experience that they've come to yeah, if they can't stand underdressed software developers making 6-figures, they're probably not going to be too receptive to THOSE PEOPLE, and Kemper knows it.
Posted by boobooface on January 30, 2010 at 9:09 AM · Report this
the real reason is they don't want low -lifes with no money coming there.
Posted by duffomatic on January 30, 2010 at 7:08 PM · Report this
1. Sound Transit needs to draw a line in the sand. The LINK must make a stop at the Bellevue Transit Center, wherever else it is routed. The Transit Center is vibrant, with many connections. For the LINK to bypass the Transit Center would be the equivalent of having the Seattle train bypass Westlake Center.
2. Rather than see Kemper's position as a battle in the class war, I see his position in terms of dollars and cents; that is the language he speaks. Running the line through an area of low density should result in new growth and development along the corridor, a windfall opportunity for Mr. Freeman and his colleagues. Have you looked at MLK BLVD lately? This was the strategy employed by the Northern Pacific Railroad when when in 1873 it chose to locate its Puget sound terminus at the minimally inhabited Commencement Bay rather than in the growing town of Seattle, figuring they would be able to build a new city there.They delayed making the announcement until they secretly purchased as much of the land at Commencement Bay as they could. For better or worse, the result was Tacoma.
Posted by Pizzaman on January 31, 2010 at 11:38 AM · Report this
Maybe the point of the rail is to get commuters to work instead of shopping. The bulk of the ridership will be for Microsoft and other employers in Overlake and SE Redmond. Getting from Seattle to the techie area is terrible by mass transit right now. Employers such as the hospital and those going into the soon to be growing Bel-Red corridor will also be serviced. And, if the time in the article is correct, about 5 minutes to some of the office towers (in between 405 and the mall) is better than paying for the parking garages.

It will be so slow that people won't even consider it for off peak access to Bellevue Square anyways. Retail will already be serviced. Try Westlake/Pacific Place, Northgate, or Redmond Town Center if you must go to a mall by rail when it is all complete. It also looks like it will be a decent walk to University Village if taking the north route. Is that some sort of elitist conspiracy?
Posted by acptnono on January 31, 2010 at 9:46 PM · Report this
Wouldn't building the "Disney Train" be just as disruptive to business? Wouldn't it cost just as much? Wouldn't the "Disney Train" disrupt and delay traffic just as much? How does anyone see the "Disney Train" solution as an improvement?

On the other hand, Seattle has been building a lot of these "Disney Trains" (SLUT) and plans to build more (First Hill).
Posted by MickeyEngineer on February 1, 2010 at 5:43 AM · Report this
I used to work as a security sub contractor at Bellevue Square Mall. Yeah, I know, Mall Cop! I was so ashamed of myself every time I had to wear that outfit. I always expected that I would actually accomplish something with my life.

The KDC regulars though, just don't get that the joke IS them. A few are cool, normal guys, but the mid level supervisors I had to deal with were stereotypical, gung-ho, cop wannabes.

They're too savvy to just come out with it in this day and age but I know in my heart and from empirical experience that KDC does NOT want anybody but their "Upscale" clientele on or near their properties. That holds true for the whole of the East side though.

Don't you dare think you're going to comfortably shop there if you're black. I walked through the mall before I changed into my uniform and I swear that security was ready do go "LAPD/Rodney King" on me. Listening to the radio calls was absolutely chilling when they were trailing a black "suspect" through the mall.
Posted by Number-Nine on February 1, 2010 at 7:59 PM · Report this
My hunch is that his primary concern is the disruption to car traffic during construction. No matter how you cut it, building LRT lines on existing roads is generally bad for traffic and surrounding businesses during the couple years of construction work. It just is.

However, I still 100% agree with #22. Sound Transit needs to insist the line stop at the transit center. Yes, it will have short term pain, but it is so obviously the right thing to do long term that I'm surprised there is even a serious debate about it.
Posted by AnonymousMan on February 2, 2010 at 2:38 AM · Report this
The anti-rail component on the new Kemper Freeman Bellevue City Council do not want rail anywhere near “their” downtown, and have pushed the Council to favor a route that cuts straight across I-90 to the railroad and north to Overlake Hospital, both eliminating the South Bellevue P&R, and bypassing downtown - the place where transit riders want to go. And their B7 modified proposal runs across Mercer Slough! The public cherishes the Bellevue park system, and it needs to be protected - particularly from a group of self-interested developers manipulating the public sphere for their own selfish interests. The B3 route, proposed by the original (untainted) Bellevue City Council, made sense:
lowest environmental impact, lowest contruction costs, highest ridership.
Posted by KemperFreemanBoughtTheBellevueCityCouncil on February 2, 2010 at 4:08 PM · Report this
@4 - I'm not sure how slow you walk, but I live in Columbia City, ride the train all the time, and it takes nowhere near 9 minutes to walk to Rainier (where the shops are). It's 2 blocks. Google Maps says 7 minutes from the far end of the platform and even that seems a little long.
Posted by nullbull on February 2, 2010 at 5:20 PM · Report this
...the problem with light rail to the eastside is that it works both ways. The eastsiders will be able to come to Seattle, too. And who really wants that? Let them stay over there in their SUV ghetto, driving from three-car garage to grocery store to soccer game to luxury mall to meaningless office job and back. They love it! Live and let live.
Posted by ghoti on February 2, 2010 at 10:59 PM · Report this
Don't forget that Bellevue councilmember Kevin Wallace is a principle at Wallace Properties (His dad, Robert Wallace) is the other. The Wallaces are just as committed as Kemper to right-wing politics and keeping upstanding properties safe for the wealthy.
Posted by Echo HIll on February 4, 2010 at 9:58 AM · Report this
Kemper has a closed system. People live, shop, seek entertainment and may even work all within his properties that are connected by Sky Bridges. Maybe he doesn't want them to have an easy way to discover the wider world out side Kemperland.
Posted by jeffsc5198103 on February 16, 2010 at 7:55 AM · Report this
It's simple, it's a ridiculous boondoggle and the least cost effective way for people to commute. It is an inflexible, expensive shiny bauble in liberals eyes.

Monorail! Monorail! MONORAIL!
Posted by TheGreg on November 5, 2011 at 9:59 AM · Report this

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