Kemper Freeman, Bellevue's most powerful landowner, has spent millions battling light rail. Now, in what may be his final fight, he is suing to stop Sound Transit's Eastside expansion.
It’s been 18 months since Puget Sound voters passed a $17.9 billion measure to extend light rail to Lynnwood, Federal Way and the Eastside. And by the decades-long timetables of such massive public-works projects, things are humming along.
On the Eastside, the Sound Transit board has picked its preferred route through downtown Bellevue. Contractors are boring holes in the soft earth along Bellevue Way. Every time we buy something in urban King, Snohomish and Pierce counties, a portion of the sales tax goes to pay for expanding light rail.
Kemper Freeman is trying to slam on the brakes.
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The owner of Bellevue Square, Bellevue Place and Lincoln Square is one of nine suing to prevent Sound Transit from running light rail over the Interstate 90 bridge, arguing that converting the center lanes of the bridge for rail violates the state constitution because a portion of the project was paid for with gas-tax money.
“It is black-and-white illegal to do what they’re doing,” he says.
For more than a decade, Freeman has spent millions of dollars of his own money trying to influence transportation issues.
But in recent years, the most powerful businessman in Bellevue keeps finding himself on the losing side. His detractors have painted him as a dinosaur whose ideas about how to move people from place to place are out of date.
The I-90 lawsuit represents perhaps Freeman’s last chance of stopping light rail in its tracks.
The case has been accepted by the state Supreme Court and will be heard this fall. If successful, it could derail plans not only to use I-90 for light rail, but State Route 520 as well.
Aubrey Davis, former chairman of the Washington State Transportation Commission, thinks the lawsuit has little chance of success. Freeman “can’t understand why we can be so stupid to spend all this money on light rail — but that’s the way people are voting,” Davis says.
“I think he is, in a sense, Don Quixote with his lost causes, and I do think he tilts at windmills.”
Kemper Freeman is 68 years old, a tall, trim man with salt-and-pepper hair. He rides Harley-Davidson motorcycles, collects Leica cameras, loves to ski and has been married for 45 years to Betty Austin Freeman. His daughters, Amy Schreck and Suzanne McQuaid, and their husbands, Kevin Schreck and Howard McQuaid, work for Kemper Development Co., and when Freeman retires — if he ever decides he wants to retire — they will take over the business.
A former state legislator who served in the 1970s, he is courtly and gregarious — a real gentleman, one city councilmember says — but also blunt at times, and prone to saying things that can look bad in print.
Freeman thinks light rail is a waste of taxpayer money, and there are cheaper, faster ways to solve our transportation problems. He wants to expand the area’s freeways, but also says he supports bus-rapid-transit, free bus service and increased use of van pools.
He is an outspoken critic of Sound Transit, believing it represents the worst kind of big spending, unaccountable government agency. “They just plain plow on, irrespective of anyone or anything,” he says. With characteristic hyperbole, he adds: “It’s in the culture of the place. I won’t call ’em crooks, but if it goes on long enough, it’s the makings of something worse than Chicago.”
A conservative Republican, Freeman is suspicious of big government projects. But he’s not the only one; some Democrats have questioned the wisdom of rail as well.
“Kemper has had important insights about transportation,” says Doug MacDonald, the former secretary of the state Department of Transportation, who thinks light rail makes sense along the heaviest-traveled sections of Interstate 5, but not as a way to solve traffic woes on the Eastside.
But Freeman, MacDonald says, has “largely been debunked and ignored by people who have made a caricature of his positions for their own purposes.”
Freeman is aware of this.
“Here’s what they say: They say Kemper Freeman, the developer” — Freeman draws this word out — “from Bellevue” — and he draws that word out, too — “and all its bad overtones; everybody knows it’s something bad; he doesn’t want minorities coming to his nice, upscale shopping center, therefore he is not going to let transit come to Bellevue.”
Is this true?
“That has never, ever, ever been part of my mind or thought process at all. That is a pure, synthesized vilification,” Freeman says. “That’s how they explain what a freak I am to each other.”
Five years ago, in a Seattle Post-Intelligencer profile about his business success, Freeman differentiated Bellevue Square from others by remarking that Southcenter Mall patrons wear hair curlers and flip-flops when they go shopping.
Out in the blogosphere, words like those can take on a life of their own.
If people have built a portrait of Freeman as a snobby, freeway-loving Bellevue developer, it’s fair to say that he’s built his own narrative about his foes. They’re the car-hating members of the Sierra Club who support light rail precisely because it is a terrible way to move people around the region.
Its supporters know light rail does not work, Freeman argues, but because it sucks up so many of the available transportation dollars, it has the desired effect of shutting down growth.
“The dominant view of the Sierra Club is to stop everything that matters,” he says. “Not all of them; there are some wonderful people. But the leadership is pretty radical. They don’t understand the role of the economy. They don’t understand how things work.”
How you feel about Kemper Freeman likely depends on what side of the political spectrum you’re on. Freeman is a Republican in a region full of Democrats. But when it comes to developing property, he knows how things work.
Freeman’s father, Kemper Sr., opened Bellevue Square in 1946, before Bellevue was incorporated. His son could have managed the family business without much effort and done well, but “he constantly reinvents it and refreshes it,” says Mark Baerwaldt, a Belltown entrepreneur and financier who has worked with Freeman on light-rail opposition campaigns. “He has one of the more successful malls anywhere in the U.S.”
Freeman’s developments have molded and shaped downtown Bellevue. He’s also been instrumental, and generous, in supporting the growth of Overlake Hospital Medical Center, where he serves as a trustee. He led the capital campaign for the Bellevue Arts Museum. He donated downtown property worth between $8 million and $12 million for a planned performing-arts center, and he and his wife are heading up the fundraising. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Freeman turned his analytical, businessman’s mind to fixing the Eastside’s traffic problems — hiring his own engineers, commissioning his own studies. He estimates he has spent between $3 million and $4 million trying to understand what could solve gridlock.
He spent a lot to influence the debate, as well. In the last six years, he’s shelled out $1.1 million in campaign contributions, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission — most of that spent on exploring a pro-roads initiative and waging war against light rail.
He fears that if traffic becomes hopelessly congested, it will choke off the stream of shoppers who come to his mall, his hotels and his city. “Vitality comes from activity,” he says.
Freeman also believes our area has a fraction of the density that makes light rail a good solution in cities like New York and Singapore. Here, he says, a fast network of buses and robust use of van pools make more sense.
Bellevue City Councilman John Chelminiak calls Freeman a member of the “old guard” that fails to see transit brings a different set of benefits, including reliability, frequent service and a way to connect dense urban centers. The Bellevue City Council went on record in favor of light rail in 2006.
“He has excellent points, but they’re not the only excellent points,” Chelminiak says.
The I-90 lawsuit contends that running light rail on the floating bridge is unconstitutional because the bridge was built, in part, with gas-tax money. The state’s 18th amendment bars the sale or lease of roads purchased with gas tax money for non-highway purposes.
Sound Transit officials have argued that federal, state and local agreements going back to 1976 designate the I-90 center lanes for high-capacity transit.
Davis, the former transportation commission chairman and a former Mercer Island mayor, was involved in the 1976 agreement over widening I-90. He says the middle lanes were reserved for high-capacity transit, which was understood to mean rail. And the corridor was built primarily with federal money, which does not have the same restrictions on how it is spent. “Their legal case seems awfully flimsy,” he says.
One attorney representing Freeman is Phil Talmadge, a former Democratic state senator and former state Supreme Court justice. Talmadge has long been opposed to light rail — as have some other Democratic leaders. Former King County Executive Ron Sims also opposed the 2008 Sound Transit measure.
“There are a vast number of things I disagree with him on,” says Talmadge of Freeman. “But … light rail is nuts. It doesn’t make any sense from a fiscal standpoint.”
Freeman says he spends 30 percent of his time “community-building” — trying to make Bellevue a better place. He counts his activism on transportation issues as an extension of that work, and he hopes that if the lawsuit is successful, Sound Transit will be forced to dust off its own reports and invest in bus-rapid transit and van pools. He believes it could be done in three years, be built for half the cost and move 200 to 300 percent more people.
“If you would call me the day after, hopefully, we won, I would say to you: ‘We didn’t win — the state of Washington won,'” Freeman said. “‘We’ve just saved Sound Transit from themselves.”
Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or firstname.lastname@example.org