Bellevue developers spar again over Spring District project's impact
A year after two of Bellevue's most prominent developers — Kemper Freeman Jr. and Wright Runstad — clashed during a City Council election over high-density growth outside downtown, they're at it again.
Seattle Times staff reporter
A year after two of Bellevue's most prominent developers clashed during a City Council election over high-density growth outside downtown, they're at it again.
As in their previous go-round, Bellevue Square developer Kemper Freeman Jr. is raising alarms about the traffic he says will be generated by development company Wright Runstad's gigantic Spring District project.
This time, the fight is over the city's finding that a new environmental study isn't needed to make sure roads can handle the large development.
The urban village planned by Wright Runstad and partner Shorenstein Properties would bring some 13,000 office workers, 2,135 residents and 10,000 parking stalls to a former Safeway distribution center.
The city has embraced the 36-acre Spring District as the first step in transforming a landscape of aging warehouses, light industrial shops and strip malls in the Bel-Red Corridor, between downtown Bellevue and Microsoft's Redmond campus.
Sound Transit plans to open a light-rail station in 2023 amid the project's residential buildings and 11- to-14-story office towers.
Freeman's Kemper Development and owners of the Brierwood Center strip mall near the project claim in separate but coordinated appeals that further environmental study is needed because the city and Spring District developers have overstated how many people will ride the train and understated how many will drive cars.
A third appeal, filed on behalf of the Lake Bellevue Village Homeowners' Association, says the project could bring flooding, water pollution, a drop in the lake's water level and possible damage to condos built in peaty soils.
The city did a 2007 environmental study of future redevelopment of the 900-acre Bel-Red Corridor, and says it will require Wright Runstad to do more traffic and stormwater studies before each of the seven phases of The Spring District.
The city Development Services Department approved the project's master plan in May.
"I can tell you the city had determined that additional environmental review was not necessary for this project because the Bel-Red area was subject to exhaustive environmental review," said Legal Planner Catherine Drews, who is defending the city's approval. She declined to discuss the appellants' claims in detail.
Kemper Development is "a reluctant appellant," Bruce Nurse, the company's vice president — transportation, wrote in the appeal.
Kemper "does not see The Spring District project as competition," Nurse said. "Revitalization of Bel-Red benefits everyone. However, the traffic impacts of the development proposed by the Master Development Plan, if not mitigated by traffic improvements, can have a significant adverse impact on the city."
Wright Runstad and the city have said in several documents The Spring District could bring 18,560 office workers and 3,000 residents, but city officials said this past week that 13,000 workers and 2,135 residents — numbers used in a traffic analysis — are now thought to be more accurate.
Kemper and Brierwood representatives say they aren't out to kill a project the city has welcomed in a 2009 subarea plan, zoning and development agreement with Wright Runstad.
Freeman has applied for building permits for an $850 million downtown project with two 450-foot towers for office, hotel and condos above three floors of shops and restaurants.
That expansion of the Lincoln Square mixed-use development, together with Freeman's adjacent Bellevue Place and Bellevue Square, represents this Eastside city's biggest commercial development to date, but potentially rivaled in size by The Spring District.
One developer challenging another isn't unheard of. Residential developer John Su and others unsuccessfully tried to stop Freeman last year from getting a permit to land helicopters atop the Bank of America Building at Bellevue Place.
Freeman has been at odds with Wright Runstad President Greg Johnson over light rail (which Freeman opposes) and the city's plan to fund road upgrades in Bel-Red and between Bel-Red and downtown.
Freeman backed City Council candidates last year who opposed the road-funding plan, while Johnson and Wright Runstad Chairman and CEO Jon Runstad funded candidates who supported the plan. Two incumbents Freeman had hoped to unseat, John Chelminiak and Claudia Balducci, were re-elected.
Of the environmental appeals, Wright Runstad spokesman Roger Nyhus said in a statement: "The City of Bellevue conducted a very thorough review of the master development plan and issued a 74-page decision with its approval. We are responding to the appeals through the hearing examiner process. These appeals are not slowing down or delaying our development plans for The Spring District."
Executives of Kemper Development and Wright Runstad declined to be interviewed for this story.
Bob Wallace, a downtown property owner and developer who calls Freeman and Johnson friends, said he sees Freeman's appeal as an attempt to keep traffic flowing, not to sabotage a rival's project.
"I see Kemper as an equal-opportunity opponent," Wallace said. "He has been consistent since day one that traffic is life and death for everybody's interests and especially his interests in downtown Bellevue. If you can't get people from the freeway to Bellevue Square, you've got a problem."
Todd Woosley, one of three brothers who own Brierwood Center across Northeast 12th Street from The Spring District, said he questions whether the city will come up with enough money to upgrade intersections and avoid the "absolutely staggering" traffic congestion that would result from the project.
Woosley played a key role last year in scuttling a local improvement district that would have paid part of the cost of widening 120th Avenue — because, he said, the construction would reduce the value of his family's property by taking a big chunk of the parking lot.
Although Lake Bellevue residents' appeal focuses on water issues, condo owner and former state Sen. Randy Gordon said residents are also concerned about traffic.
"If you're truly a transit-oriented development," he said of The Spring District, "why have 10,000 parking spaces?"
A traffic analysis commissioned by Wright Runstad projects that 20 percent of The Spring District's workers and residents initially will travel by transit, but the number will rise to 30 percent after the East Link rail station opens.
As for worries about stormwater, the developer says the mixed-use project will generate less runoff than the property's old warehouse use.
A hearing examiner will decide, after up to eight days of testimony and argument starting Sept. 5, whether the city erred in approving the master development plan and saying an environmental impact study wasn't required.
Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Tateuchi Center, a future performing arts venue in Bellevue, is not among properties owned or developed by Kemper Development. A map accompanying an article Monday on the debate over traffic impacts from Wright Runstad's planned Spring District development incorrectly showed the center as a holding of Kemper Freeman Jr.'s Kemper Development.