In Love with Kansas City
Real estate and railway attorney Allison Bergman keeps one of America’s great cities moving forward
Published in 2010 Missouri & Kansas Super Lawyers magazine
on October 12, 2010
Updated on October 15, 2010
In 1988, Allison Bergman took a road trip with her fiancé from Richmond, Va., where she was attending college, to Kansas City to meet her future in-laws.
“I was thinking, Kansas City, Kansas, which is flat. But [Kansas City], Missouri is not flat, and this is a lovely, verdant city,” recalls Bergman from her Grand Boulevard office, home to one of the city’s oldest firms, Lathrop & Gage. “I fell in love with Kansas City and became convinced that I wanted to move here.”
As long as she can remember, Bergman wanted to be an architect, and she had always been drawn to the area’s historic properties, such as the art deco-era federal courthouse at Eighth and Grand, where former President Harry Truman once had an office.
Today, as one of the city’s pre-eminent transportation and development attorneys, she still admires these buildings. “I love the city center. Part of that is loving old buildings,” she says. “There’s just nothing more exciting than taking a dilapidated building and starting the clock over by giving it another 100 years of life.”
Before buildings, there were railroads in Kansas City. As general counsel of the Kansas City Terminal Railway (KCTR), she oversees the comings and goings of trains that haul coast to coast. “In sheer tonnage, we’re the biggest [terminal] in the country,” she says.
Bergman’s enthusiasm for revitalizing an urban center and overseeing industrial expansion projects is evident from rooftops away.
“Allison is a mover and shaker,” says Matt Meier, a senior project development manager with The Alexander Co. in Madison, Wis., who worked with Bergman on the federal courthouse renovation. “She opens doors. She keeps her finger on the pulse.”
Bergman, now 46, grew up outside of Seattle in the 1970s, graduating from Aberdeen High School two classes ahead of Kurt Cobain. Prior to graduating, Bergman landed her first job at a small clothing store located next to the legendary Young Street Bridge that spans the Wishkah River. The Wishkah gained notoriety when it became the subject of Nirvana’s platinum-selling album, From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah, where Cobain was said to have lived prior to dropping out of high school.
After high school, “I was a wandering soul,” Bergman says with a laugh. Traveling through some of the country’s most beautiful cities inspired her to pursue a degree in urban planning. With family in Richmond, she enrolled at Virginia Commonwealth University. One semester away from a master’s, she decided her math skills weren’t strong enough for a career designing buildings and cities—so she took her bachelor’s and applied to law school.
With her newfound appreciation for Kansas City, she enrolled at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law. During her first summer, she clerked for the U.S. Army/JAG Corps at its litigation centers in Virginia and Washington, D.C. She handled contract disputes, and at one point helped defend the government in a lawsuit involving a would-be supplier of night vision goggles. It was intense work.
“Boy, if I looked better in olive green, I probably would have taken that job,” she says. “I got an offer to join the [Army] but I couldn’t make the move. I wouldn’t have had any control over where I was going to go. And I didn’t really want to go to Fort Knox.”
Instead, after graduating in 1996, she joined the litigation team at what is now Stinson Morrison Hecker. She played a critical role in her biggest case against the NCAA. Representing restricted earnings of basketball and baseball coaches, she helped try a class action lawsuit accusing the NCAA of wage fixing.
“We prevailed,” she says of the month-long trial that resulted in the NCAA paying $67 million in damages. “It was a significant win for us.”
She left her job to pursue other opportunities, including one that took her all the way to Prague, where she interviewed with a French-Canadian real estate development company. Though she loved that city, too, she eventually decided “a Prague wage was not going to give me the lifestyle that I chose. So instead I thought I’d turn my attention back to what my desire was, which was working in a field with architects.”
It brought her back to Middle America. She started working at Lathrop & Gage in July 1998 under the tutelage of Jerry Riffel, one of the region’s foremost land use attorneys. As his second lieutenant, she says, she had a part in several industrial development projects, including a $40 million plant expansion for Bayer Corp. She also helped convey one of Missouri’s first riverboat casinos. “[Jerry] handled all the regulatory work, but I helped lead the team who facilitated the sale of Flamingo to the Isle of Capri Casino,” she says.
Under Riffel, she began to make her imprint on Kansas City. “We did a lot of downtown development projects, which was right around the time that Kansas City’s evolution into the vanguard of living in lofts and condos was going on, so Jerry and I were really key to the progress of downtown redevelopment,” she says.
In the early 2000s—she was still an associate then—“I was brought in to work on two massive railroad projects,” she says. “And I was brought in as a land use attorney because there were significant real estate components to both of the projects.”
The projects, the Sheffield Flyover and Argentine Connection, would cost $100 million and rank among the largest infrastructure projects in Kansas City’s railroad history. Bergman handled the legal nuances of the real estate behind stacking rail tracks upon one another, like Legos, simultaneously bringing in more rail traffic and less congestion to the city.
“They essentially did a grade separation, where they allowed one railroad track to remain at ground level, but they took the other one over the top of it, hence the word flyover,” she says.
To get the projects off the ground, Bergman worked to acquire and renovate property, coordinating with the Army Corps of Engineers. Today, more freight tonnage goes through Kansas City than anywhere else in the country.
“So if you’re waiting in New York City for a FedEx from Los Angeles, it’s likely coming through Kansas City,” she says. “And now it’s going to get there a lot faster.”
The city is steeped in railway history. “The Kansas City Terminal was formed by Lathrop & Lathrop in 1906 when it acquired a sizeable amount of railroad right of way, which had largely dictated the way Kansas City developed,” she says. “By that time, the railroads had become fervent business rival railroads. If you could get through town faster than the other railroad, you’d have more customers and you’d make more money. The KCT was formed by those rival railroads to serve as a neutral governor of rail traffic, offering a level playing field that would force the railroads to play well together.”
As a result, trains no longer strong-armed one another. “Essentially the KCT provided safe harbor for the competitive railroads, and that’s how Kansas City became what it is today: the heaviest freight rail corridor in the United States,” she says.
Today, the company is owned and governed by the nation’s most storied railways, including Union Pacific, BNSF Railway Company and Norfolk Southern.
Bill Somervell, former president of the railway, promoted Bergman to general counsel of the company in April 2007, and then Charles Mader took over in 2009 when Somervell left. “I considered Allison one of the premier railroad attorneys in the country because of the diversity of the issues she’s been exposed to,” Mader says. “She’s a partner and trusted adviser, and has a strong influence on the quality of the Kansas City area.”
Her general counsel job affords some unique challenges. “Four times a year, I facilitate all of the corporate business of the Kansas City Terminal,” she says. “It essentially puts me in a novel position of being the woman in the boardroom who’s running the show.”
Today, her work as counsel to KCTR takes up 75 percent of her time. It has also kept her practice afloat during the economic downturn. “[The recession] just had a chilling effect on development, unlike anything I’ve ever practiced through,” she says.
Take the redevelopment of the federal courthouse—“a project with an enormous amount of cache for Kansas City,” says Bergman, who partnered with the U.S. Department of the Interior’s National Park Service to ensure that the building would be labeled a historic landmark.
The process was moving along just fine until the investor bank failed, says Meier of The Alexander Co. “Everybody has so much invested by the time it gets to the finish line. It takes a lot to completely start over in something like that. But Allison and her firm were able to pick up right where we left off.”
Bergman faced similar challenges with Beacon Hill. A decade ago, the 90-acre area east of downtown was blighted, with broken windows, vacant storefronts and a high crime rate. Bergman wouldn’t have walked through the neighborhood at night if you had paid her. Then she slowly helped the city pick up the pieces.
“I’m working with a consortium of developers,” she says. “I served as their lead counsel in taking Beacon Hill from soup to nuts for development. It started with condemnation. We then went through the process of rezoning, doing development plans, doing design guidelines, and coming up with this master plan that now allows individuals that want to purchase property in this area to get 25 years of real property tax abatement. And we continue to work on that. We just finished constructing six townhomes and we just keep on going. It’s a great project, very high visibility.”
Nearly 400 parcels of land—a sizeable portion of the project—was owned by the Housing Economic Development Financing Corp. (HEDFC), an entity that allocated federal funds for the project on behalf of the city’s housing department. However, four years after the developer started working on the project, it hit an immovable roadblock. In 2004, HEDFC became enmeshed in scandal and the city disbanded its housing department. Soon thereafter, HEDFC was placed into a federal receivership, which remains in place today. “The receivership has caused incredible complication and delay to the project, but activity is beginning to pick up again,” says Bergman, adding that once the HEDFC emerges from the receivership, the developer will be able to rapidly move forward on the development. As the Beacon Hill project illustrates, even popular development projects get political fast and become tangled due to changes in the political landscape. “We’ve been through two mayors, two city managers, and untold numbers of staff since we started this project,” Bergman says. “And every time there’s a change, we’ve had to retool, re-educate and re-advocate. So all the sudden we’ve taken three steps forward and about 15 steps back.”
Bergman’s inherent cordiality and professionalism also paid off this year, in what has been one of the most contentious battles of her career, involving the Horace Mann School in the Ivanhoe neighborhood.
“It’s an incredibly gorgeous, historic building, but it’s very, very blighted,” says Bergman, who represented the Ivanhoe Neighborhood Council. “It’s been abandoned for about 20 years and has long been the subject of vandalism and neglect. So we were talking to a co-developer, Prairie Dog Development Co., about potentially partnering with it to develop the school building into affordable housing for seniors. Communications broke down, and we parted ways when my very determined client decided they would have a better project by going it alone.”
Competition for the building and development rights ensued. The process quickly became very political, which played out through the public process. Ultimately, Ivanhoe secured ownership of the building, but Prairie Dog was granted development rights by the Planned Industrial Expansion Authority (PIEA). Without a building, however, Prairie Dog had no project. So, on Prairie Dog’s behalf, the PIEA filed a condemnation action. Both sides fought for favor from district and appellate courts, which grappled with interpreting Missouri’s condemnation statutes that were significantly modified in 2006, as well as the PIEA’s enabling legislation. In August, the Missouri Supreme Court denied the PIEA’s request for condemnation.
“I think it probably got me a little respect,” she says of the dust-up. “People don’t usually look at a freckle-faced woman and think that I’m going to stand up and assert myself. And I’ve definitely gotten respect from people in the development community knowing how to navigate the process, because I was having to—on whispers and hairs of technicalities—move my client’s project forward.”
Congress also weighs in on her work. After the 2008 Metrolink disaster, where 25 people died in Los Angeles after a conductor lost control of the train while on his BlackBerry, the government required that Amtrak and all U.S. railways carrying a certain level of tonnage or hazardous materials add an automated stopping system—called positive train control (PTC)—by 2015. For the Kansas City Terminal, it’s a $50 million project. Bergman is trying to figure out how to fund PTC. “It is the issue du jour for the railroads,” she says.
And Bergman remains as ever passionate about her city. “I face the trains all day long, and I call my client and tell him when they are not moving fast enough,” she says, chuckling. “But I can also see how things are operating. So it’s a perennial reminder that there’s a lot of stuff we can do on the railroad to improve the city.
“I put my money where my mouth was 10 years ago when I bought a 1890 Victorian in the historic Union Hill neighborhood,” she says. “It was falling down. It had missing floors. It had been a boarding house, it had been a variety of things, and my husband and I completely rebuilt it from the ground up.”