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Wednesday, May 15, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Kemper Freeman Jr.: Bellevue's man on the move

Seattle Times Eastside bureau

He converted an aging Bellevue Square into one of the nation's premier shopping malls, built high-rises that helped transform downtown Bellevue into the Eastside's urban core and ruffled feathers by pushing for the construction of new freeway lanes as a way to battle gridlock.

So what is left for developer Kemper Freeman Jr.?

At age 60, he has found a new challenge: to raise $60 million to $70 million for a performing-arts theater, a landmark Freeman says would mark the coming of age for a "pimply adolescent" of a city.

The 1,800-seat center would be the largest such venue on the Eastside though smaller than Seattle's Benaroya Hall (2,500 seats), 5th Avenue Theatre (2,115), Paramount (2,800) and Seattle Opera House (2,890 after current renovation).

The hope, Freeman says, is that it would attract noted musicians, symphonies, ballets and touring Broadway shows that currently perform at Seattle theaters. And perhaps most important, Eastsiders need not worry about a clogged floating bridge making them late for curtain times.

It would allow Eastsiders to view world-class performing artists close to home. "I think with a half-million people on the Eastside, we're a large enough community to have a significant performing-arts facility," Freeman says.

The project has been on his mind for two decades. In the late 1980s, he offered to build a donor-funded performing-arts center, but skeptics panned the idea. He wouldn't raise the cash, they said. Art shouldn't enter an unholy alliance with business. Eventually, city government went to work on its own theater plans.

His feelings bruised, Freeman withdrew his offer. Until last year, when a new generation of city officials invited him to try again. It would be the largest nonprofit project in city history, said Councilman Chuck Mosher.

Freeman's long and successful track record is no guarantee this will work. The economy has slumped, the new Bellevue Art Museum's attendance has been less than hoped, and the nearby Meydenbauer Center's convention business has dropped. But if anyone can surmount the obstacles, people who know him say, it's Freeman.

"I'd never underestimate Kemper Freeman and his ability to pull something together," former Mayor Cary Bozeman says. "The guy has done too many things. He's a rainmaker. He makes things happen."

A regular guy

Freeman looks every bit a fixture of the business community, a monotone speechmaker wearing a dark business suit — except when he dons his helmet and cowboy boots to ride the open road.

This week, he and his wife, Betty, are riding through the Utah desert on a two-seat Harley-Davidson she bought him for his 50th birthday — his fourth motorcycle. Freeman started young, riding dirt bikes at age 12, and he often unwinds by riding. "I call it American music," he says of the Harley's grumble. "When I'm in a boring meeting, it's kind of nice to see a Harley go by and know that someone's having fun."

On two wheels, Freeman has the same attitude as in business: methodical and conservative. "He's a guy that prides himself on perfect riding etiquette," says Ron Dunlap, a longtime riding buddy and former King County executive. "Stay in the lane, choose a constant speed, full leathers, helmet."

However, Freeman does admit going 105 mph once in Wyoming "because it seemed like the right thing to do."

He loves to build and fix things.

At the couple's gated home on Lake Washington, he has been tinkering with a miniature steamboat powered by three high-pressure engine cylinders.

When he was a teenager, working on a farm that is now Marymoor Park, manager Ralph Dodd let him work on tractors and other equipment. Dodd, whom Freeman calls a "second father," also taught him thrift — the employees reused nails and lumber from demolished barns.

The family traces its ancestry to a settler who landed in Virginia in 1623 and another who was a neighbor of Thomas Jefferson. Grandfather Miller Freeman was the first to settle in Bellevue and served in the Legislature.

His father, Kemper Freeman Sr., built the original Bellevue Square in 1946. "We were close, but boy, was he strict," Freeman recalls. "I remember knowing this, that I wouldn't be working for him."

But when he was in his early 20s, his parents took a five-week vacation to Mexico, and he agreed to fill in at his father's radio station, Bellevue-based KFKF. He enjoyed the broadcasting business, wound up managing both that station and a sister station in Spokane, and even gave live traffic reports on the air.

"All of a sudden, I was an adult," Freeman says. "My goofy ideas, he listened to."

Dunlap speculates that a childhood cutting hay and spreading manure kept his ego in check.

"That's part of the delight of the guy, the charm of the guy," says Dunlap. "He doesn't like to shoot off his mouth and be a blowhard about what he's developed. If you met him at the airport or came across him in a wheat field in Eastern Washington, you could engage him in conversation and not have any idea who you're talking to. That's a special quality."

"I don't run from 'hard' "

Upon the shift of a state representative to the Senate in 1973, the 31-year-old Freeman was appointed as a Republican to a secure House seat. He resigned after three years. "I came to a fork in the road and had to decide whether my future was in business or in politics," he said then.

Mall developer Edward DeBartolo of Ohio was planning a huge center called Evergreen East, to be built in what is now the Overlake area.

Experts told Freeman and his father that they could not successfully revive what was then an undersized, uncovered mall, but they undertook a $142 million expansion that turned Bellevue Square into the shoppers' biosphere that it is today, selling a half-billion dollars in merchandise annually. Their venture, combined with environmental protests against Evergreen East, fended off the threat. The empty land at Overlake later provided a campus site for Microsoft.

The revival of Bellevue Square helped the city avoid the fate of Tacoma and other places, where the downtown core declined, said former Seattle Mayor Paul Schell. "Kemper should be given some credit," he says.

Freeman's next major project was the $260 million Bellevue Place, with a Hyatt hotel, an office tower, restaurants and shops. Neighbors fought him over traffic issues, and the buildings opened in 1989 in what Freeman calls "the worst real-estate market since the Depression." Three years later, the hotel came within a week of foreclosure before he restructured a loan.

"I've never done anything in my life that was easy," Freeman says. "I don't run from 'hard'; I don't run from work; I don't run from those kinds of things. If I dream of something that doesn't work, I bust my fanny to make it work."

One of his visions sputtered in the late 1990s: a planned "Tuscany Village" where ornately landscaped buildings, amid gardens and pools, would serve as convention centers by day and movie houses at night. Freeman says he spent $1 million on architects before a collapse in the cineplex industry soured the idea. Freeman led a $24 million capital campaign to build the Bellevue Art Museum, which opened in 2001 after several years occupying donated space in the mall.

His planned theater, tentatively called the Performing Arts Center Eastside, or PACE, would occupy the same superblock as the Hyatt. Freeman acknowledges he would benefit when patrons shopped and dined nearby. But he insists the spinoff income would be worth less than the land he donates, which he estimates at $8 million. That land estimate is included in the $60 million to $70 million price tag for the center.

More roads, less transit

Unlike many developers, Freeman has steeped himself in nonbusiness issues, mainly to promote an upscale and mobile suburban lifestyle. He gave money to a campaign to keep X-rated dancing out of Bellevue, and in Olympia he opposed a proposal to make public schools totally state-funded because he believed Bellevue residents would rather continue their local levies to maintain a quality school district.

Freeman insists the region build more road lanes rather than transit, not only because motorists bring dollars to the mall but because he considers the automobile a source of freedom.

Four years ago, he hired an engineering firm to make the case for construction of 1,400 lane miles in the Puget Sound region and said they would reduce congestion by one-fourth.

"Kemper's policy is an anachronism," contends opponent Peter Hurley, executive director of the Transportation Choices Coalition. "He's someone who advocates road projects that just don't work. Clearly, the guy does other good things. On transportation, I think he's become fixated on an L.A. model that will raise taxes, increase traffic and increase air pollution."

Freeman and other downtown boosters have locked horns with neighborhoods north and south of downtown, where a 35-member downtown planning committee endorsed traffic studies that include an evaluation of widening Bellevue Way from four lanes to six — which would add traffic and displace homes.

"His driving force is business," says neighborhood advocate Margot Blacker, "and I think sometimes he has doomsday scenarios about how things will fold if you can't get anywhere. Places don't die just because of congestion — (his) message isn't one I agree with, but there is no question Kemper's been an asset to Bellevue."

"More a giver, than a taker"

At the start of a recent interview, Freeman hands over a synopsis of his theater proposal, a document that listed the fund-raising kickoff as fall 2001.

"We just lost another year," he says.

Despite a developer-friendly City Council, the city subjected his offer to review by a citizens advisory committee. Freeman ultimately won the council's endorsement over a proposal by former KONG-TV President Michael Tuckman to build both a theater and sports arena on Northeast Sixth Street.

Elsewhere on the Eastside, the Kirkland Performance Center and the Meydenbauer Center theater in Bellevue each seat 400, while the Village Theatre in Issaquah accommodates 488 — an intimate size for regional shows but not lucrative enough for many national acts.

Freeman originally thought about seeking public funds for one-third of construction costs but has decided not to, hoping to minimize further delays or government regulations, including limits on ticket prices or content.

"More power to him," says Mayor Connie Marshall, who supports the project. "If he gets stuck, we're willing to make a contribution to put him over the top."

The theater, to open in 2007, would be on the same superblock as Bellevue Place, with a grand entrance facing northeast at Northeast 10th Street. There would be two balconies and side boxes, which could be draped to create a cozier 900-seat space for smaller shows. It would be a permanent home for the Bellevue Philharmonic. The center would be managed by a non-profit organization with operating losses covered by an endowment fund.

Peter Donnelly, president of the Seattle-based Corporate Council for the Arts, said the PACE plan is a logical next step after the opening of the Kirkland Performance Center, the Meydenbauer Center theater, the Village Theatre and the Bellevue Art Museum.

"The challenge for the Eastside facility will be, of course, to make sure it has high quality performances," he says. "... I could see the Seattle Children's Theatre wanting to perform there. I could see outreach programs of the Seattle Repertory and the opera."

Schell doesn't believe a Bellevue venue would spread arts companies or audiences too thin.

"In fact, it might increase the base that's out there. You do that by giving more people an alternative to sitting in front of the TV set," he says.

Before his father died in 1982, he told Freeman Jr. that he, and Miller Freeman before him, had devoted approximately 30 percent of their time to community activities, a commitment level the son already had subconsciously accepted.

"He's more of a giver than a taker," says City Councilman Don Davidson.

A few years ago, one resident suggested in a letter to the editor that Northeast 10th Street be renamed for Freeman.

Freeman chuckles at that notion.

"Those are the kinds of things I never even thought about. That isn't what drives me. What drives me is these things get done. I'm looking to be part of a really special community. If I can make it better — hell, that makes it better for me; I get to live here."

Mike Lindblom can be reached at 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com.

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