A Bellevue hearing examiner will decide whether to revoke Kemper Development Co.’s helistop permit following a March 22 hearing, though that likely won’t be the end of the decadelong saga.
Ten years after it was first proposed, the fight still whirls on over Kemper Development’s private helistop in downtown Bellevue — although the choppers themselves have stayed grounded.
Kemper, the prominent firm that has built much of downtown Bellevue, has had a helicopter landing and an approved takeoff pad atop its 19-story Bank of America building since the beginning of this decade. It’s one of two helistops in the city, along with one at Overlake Medical Center.
But some people who live and work in the fast-growing downtown area, led by philanthropist Ina Tateuchi — whose Bellevue civic project actually received millions in donations from Kemper — fear a crash could put them in danger, and don’t want any loud choppers buzzing near them.
The city, Kemper and the helistop’s opponents have gone back and forth since 2008, with the issue escalating to multiple public meetings, appeals and lawsuits.
Now, it’s all coming back to a head as the city will decide whether to shut down the helistop after a hearing set for next Thursday.
And yet, despite all the skirmishes, one thing hasn’t changed: The helistop is never used.
It’s been approved for choppers since 2011, but there’s only been one landing and takeoff there — an apparent test flight in 2015.
How come? Kemper declined to comment for this story. But when the city approved the flights atop the building at 10500 N.E. Eighth St., it mandated that Kemper use twin-engine helicopters — a safety measure in case one of the engines fails.
Kemper’s lawyers said in emails to city officials about five years ago that there was only one twin-engine helicopter in the region, and it’s owned by Microsoft, according to documents included as part of the opponents’ legal case against the helistop. The developer then asked the city to approve single-engine choppers at its helipad.
“If not modified, the practical effect of the twin-engine restriction is the Helistop will not be used,” Kemper representatives wrote in their application to use the less-expensive and more common single-engine choppers, according to documents provided by the helistop’s opponents.
But the city never approved that request — Kemper ultimately withdrew its application for the change. It’s unclear why, though Tateuchi and others had fought the plan.
While Kemper’s request was being reviewed, a single-engine KOMO helicopter crashed in Seattle in 2014, killing two people on board. The root cause of the mechanical failure that caused the crash was not determined.
The opposition to the helipad is led by Tateuchi, who created the Tateuchi Foundation with her late husband, Atsuhiko. The foundation is the largest donor to the Tateuchi Center, a long-planned 2,000-seat concert hall that would sit on the same block as the helistop.
Interestingly enough, Kemper Freeman Jr. — who leads Kemper Development — donated the land where the concert hall would be built and has given $1 million toward its construction.
Joshua Whited, a lawyer representing Ina Tateuchi, said she continues to fight the plans because there’s nothing to stop Kemper from again asking for single-engine helicopters and firing up chartered choppers that would buzz through downtown.
Whited’s continuing legal argument centers on the helipad’s lack of use. Bellevue law calls for permits for helistops and other special uses to be canceled if they have been “abandoned” for at least a year. Whited argues the fact that it hasn’t been used in years is clear evidence of that.
But the city disagrees: It says Kemper has maintained the helistop and continued to file the necessary (mostly blank) flight logs, showing that while choppers haven’t used the stop, it hasn’t been “abandoned.”
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City planning officials have recommended a hearing examiner reject Tateuchi’s request to shut the helistop. That ruling, which would come within a couple weeks after the March 22 public hearing, is unlikely to end the saga; It can be appealed to the full City Council, and even then, whoever ends up on the losing side can sue to overturn the decision.
Cliff Chirls, who lives with his wife in downtown Bellevue and is also opposed to the helipad, cited last Sunday’s helicopter crash in New York City that killed five people onboard when the copter went into the East River.
“Think about the consequences that would have occurred if a helicopter had come down in the middle of Manhattan,” Chirls said. While downtown Bellevue is no Manhattan, it has been getting denser in recent years, with high-rises popping up and the downtown population having surged fivefold since 2000.
“The consequences would be horrific,” Chirls said, if a chopper were to come down in downtown Bellevue.
It’s not the only local spat over helicopter use in recent memory.
In Delridge, businessman Tom Stewart unsuccessfully fought with the city of Seattle to build a helipad over his office building in the 1990s, taking the issue all the way to the state Supreme Court. Stewart ultimately moved out of state and died in a helicopter crash in Arizona in 2010.
In Renton, homebuilder Charlie Conner battled with neighbors in 2008 over a helipad he used to land choppers in his backyard. Conner still has the helipad at his home.
Correction: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Charlie Conner’s last name and one reference to a “single-use” rather than single-engine helicopter.