Kemper Freeman has left the Bellevue Downtown Association after being a member for more than 30 years.
Kemper Freeman, a member of the Bellevue Downtown Association (BDA) for more than 30 years and whose father was one of the founders of the group, has quit the nonprofit, citing differences in opinion over the direction the agency is going, particularly over its endorsement of light rail.
Freeman’s departure leaves a handful of members of the Bellevue old guard — property-owning businessmen responsible for shaping the city’s early development. Now the BDA membership is increasingly diversified, with architects, CPAs, retailers of all sizes and representatives — if not the owners — of out-of-state investors among the ranks.
Freeman, 69, a vigorous opponent of the plan to bring light rail to the city, has been at odds with the BDA over its light-rail support. But he said his decision to withdraw, which he announced in mid-January, was not a “campaign of any kind or a personal vendetta” and his departure was because of a “lack of alignment of interests” with the board. “We have different agendas. I’m not as excited about it as I have been in the past. I’m slow to change things,” he said.
Freeman’s resignation wasn’t a surprise, said Leslie Lloyd, president of the business association.
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“I think Kemper Development has continued to grow over the years. They don’t really need an organization like the Bellevue Downtown Association, and we don’t always take positions that he endorses,” she said.
Greg Johnson, chairman of the BDA board of directors, said, “I think the organization is disappointed, but we’re committed to working with all the constituents downtown, and Kemper Development is part of that.”
He said the business association is focused on three things: making Bellevue a thriving retail destination, a center for high-tech jobs and innovative companies, and healthy and engaged residential neighborhoods.
Light rail, he said, is part of that. The voters decided it should come to Bellevue, he pointed out, so the association got on board and endorsed it.
Freeman, who has hired experts to do his own traffic analysis and fight the proposed East Link, believes light rail is a waste of tax dollars. He favors expanding freeways and bus transit.
“We’re spending all our time having a big twit over Sound Transit. We’re like little kids in the sandbox having this big argument,” he said last week. “What we should be talking about is growth.”
Growth — and with it potential traffic — he believes, wouldn’t be aided by light rail.
Freeman, who owns Bellevue Square, Bellevue Place and Lincoln Square, is one of nine plaintiffs who sued to keep Sound Transit from running light rail over the Interstate 90 bridge.
The State Supreme Court decision on that lawsuit is still pending.
Freeman, even in his letter withdrawing his company’s membership, indicated a “willingness and desire to work shoulder to shoulder with the BDA,” Johnson said.
Bellevue Mayor Don Davidson, to whose political campaign Freeman contributed, believes the developer’s departure is part of a gradual shift in the business association. It has moved away from property owners as members to others, including some agents of out-of-state developers with their own agendas.
When Kemper Freeman Sr. and other landowners, with the help of Bellevue’s then-planning director Fred Herman, formed the association 37 years ago, the emphasis was on developing a thriving downtown. Herman envisioned it would someday have two-level viaduct-style streets. Someone else suggested the buildings should have spires.
“The BDA founders were property owners, and downtown Bellevue was owned by locals,” said David Schooler, the association president in 1992.
Now “we have much of our real estate — particularly our high-rises” — owned by companies as diverse as insurance companies and real-estate trusts, Schooler said.
“It’s much more institutional in character.”
Schooler, president of Sterling Realty Organization, said that in the late 1970s, there were “big fights … , but there were very few landowners who didn’t belong [to the BDA]. You don’t have that kind of participation today because you don’t have all-local owners today.”
For some large out-of-state corporations, the property they own in downtown Bellevue “isn’t that significant in their portfolio,” he said.
Today, whether it’s coffee or cupcakes, even the smallest retailer has a place within the BDA, as well as representatives from the high-rise condominiums, said Lloyd, the organization’s president.
So when the business group takes a position on something, like light rail, it’s done after a lot of input from a diverse membership, she said.
“It’s real easy to dismiss a group like ours if it doesn’t have a robust and objective process for reaching decisions.”
Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or firstname.lastname@example.org