There’s no question – Bellevue developer Kemper Freeman Jr. is a smart cookie as far as real estate goes. The question for me has always been – why doesn’t he support light rail, when it would do so much for his properties?
For years, he’s fought East Link light rail extension. He fought it in 2007 in Roads and Transit, pushing that only the road projects be funded, even going so far as to run his own “End Gidlock Now” campaign (his spelling). He fought 2008′s Mass Transit Now. Today, he’s funding anti-light rail candidates in Bellevue City Council races, and he’s suing the state to stop light rail to Bellevue, claiming use of the I-90 center lanes is unconstitutional. More after the jump.
Ironically, his fight against Roads and Transit resulted in no RTID funding for highways when Sound Transit came back to the ballot alone.
Now that Proposition 1 has passed and Sound Transit 2 is funded, he can no longer effectively fight the collection of revenue for Sound Transit overall, so his Bellevue City Council tactic deserves a closer look. There’s something very interesting that Publicola pointed out: If these City Council candidates win, they’ll try to force Sound Transit to build light rail on the other side of I-405 from downtown, in the old BNSF alignment.
This isn’t cost effective, of course. The dramatically lower ridership would actually result in a higher cost per passenger (and per passenger mile) – yes, even when getting all that cheap right of way – than building a tunnel in Bellevue.
So what’s the benefit to Freeman here? A potential agreement between the city of Bellevue and Sound Transit would be required to fund a tunnel in downtown Bellevue, and this agreement would come with a Bellevue tax package – if he can fight that, it means lower taxes for his properties. Tunnel construction in downtown snarls access to his existing properties.
Light rail in downtown also just doesn’t offer Freeman much benefit. He only has two properties left to develop in downtown Bellevue – the Safeway site, and a potential high-rise attached to Bellevue Square. These developments will likely happen before East Link is complete, many blocks away from potential downtown stations. It’s going to be hard to permit more high-rises past those, as downtown Bellevue traffic is projected to congest massively with much more construction. That congestion wouldn’t really change with light rail – light rail would just give a lot of people a way to opt out.
Light rail in the relatively undeveloped BNSF corridor, though, does offer him a benefit. Both Freeman and Kevin Wallace, one of the city council candidates he’s supporting, as well as their business partners and friends, could profit handsomely from developing east of I-405. Using light rail as a tool to spur development in auto row makes a lot of sense – at least, it makes a lot of sense if you ignore public benefit, and just want to give a handout to developers.
So while I always hear the question – “Why does Kemper Freeman Jr. fight light rail?” – there’s a reason. It just doesn’t help him – he’s already built most of what he can. He makes ideological arguments about freedom and prosperity because they resonate with voters, he makes comments about the “type of people” he wants at his mall, and I’m sure his ideology informs his decisions, but his actions do make sense to his bottom line.