A fourth-generation Washington businessman and leading Eastside real-estate baron, Kemper Freeman Jr. directed redevelopment of his father's Bellevue Square into a first-class urban mall with 200 stores and anchors including Nordstrom and The Bon Marche' (now Macy's). He went on to develop several of Bellevue's premier commercial spaces and taller buildings, at Bellevue Place in the late 1980s and Lincoln Square in the 2000s. The outspoken Freeman is renowned for his support of "roads over transit," opposing transit projects like the Regional Transit Authority's 1995, $6.7 billion plan for light rail, commuter rail, and regional bus service. He helped defeat that plan, but was unable to stop a slimmed-down plan costing $3.9 billion that passed in 1996. Ironically, the 1995 plan would have served Bellevue, while the 1996 plan does not. Freeman remains unapologetic, arguing that roads need more funding and that transit plans cost too much and serve too few travelers.
A Family of Business Movers
Kemper Freeman Jr., comes from a long line of colorful frontiersmen and business movers, who broke new ground in one way or another over more than a century and a half. His great grandfather, Legh (pronounced Lee) Richmond Freeman (1842-1915) was a Confederate soldier during the Civil War and later published a paper called the Frontier Index, which he moved west to whatever town was at the end of the railroad, arriving in Yakima in 1884, where he published a number of farm-related and other journals. His son, Legh Miller Freeman (1875-1955), called Miller, moved to Seattle, became active in civic affairs and published a variety of trade publications, a business into which he brought his own son, Frederick Kemper Freeman Sr. (1910-1982), called Kemper. He eventually moved the family to Groat Point on the Eastside.
Frederick Kemper Freeman Jr. was born to Clotilde "Clo" (Duryee) Freeman (d. 1978) and F. Kemper Freeman Sr. on October 23, 1941. The young Kemper had two older sisters, Clotilde "Coco" and Sarah, and one younger sister, Elizabeth.
Developing Bellevue Square
Soon after the younger Kemper's birth, the publishing business was interrupted because of short supplies during World War II and the senior Freeman would soon go into shipbuilding. Later, after assessing the amount of shopping space available to the Eastside area's growing population (about 25,000 at the time) and finding it wanting, the senior Freeman would begin developing Bellevue Square on a former strawberry farm at Bellevue Way NE and NE 8th Street in Bellevue, a few miles from their home in Medina. Kemper Freeman Jr. is fond of recounting his first memory as a toddler: a bulldozer clearing the farmland for the family's shopping center. By the end of 1946, Bellevue Square had opened with 20 shops and a movie theater.
However, the financial burden of getting the mall up and running was hard on the Freeman family. To make ends meet, Kemper Freeman Sr. returned to the family publishing business, which by now included a broad range of publications, from Pacific Motorboat to Pacific Pulp and Paper to Pacific Plastics and Pre-Pack-Age. Then, while his brother, Miller Freeman Jr., oversaw the development in Bellevue, Kemper Freeman Sr. temporarily moved the family to Pasadena, where he would manage the publishing firm's Los Angeles office. The arduous road trip involving two cars left the young Kemper "wide-eyed" with awe at the places he saw, according to biographer Robert F. Karolevitz (p. 90).
A Taste for Farming
The family returned to Bellevue in June 1951, leasing Marymoor Farm near Lake Sammamish, where the younger Kemper and his sister Elizabeth raised their own calves in hopes of eventually selling them to a milking line. This experience gave the young Kemper a lifelong taste for farming and he often has referred to himself as a farmer, as well as a developer.
During this time, Bellevue Square was expanding, with Frederick & Nelson and Nordstrom stores being added. Downtown Bellevue was also evolving. (Bellevue did not incorporate until 1952.) The extra-wide streets were laid out in "superblocks," about four times the size of ordinary downtown blocks, in order to limit the number of stoplights drivers would have to face before reaching Bellevue Square. This layout, designed with cars in mind, would prove to have drawbacks in the future but it also would provide developers like Kemper Freeman Jr. opportunities to develop larger downtown properties than were usual.
The lease on Marymoor Farm came up for review in 1955, and the elder Freeman decided to move the family to a giant house on the Gold Coast of Medina. Apparently, this was a bitter disappointment for the young Kemper, frustrating his interest in farming. He had already bought a tractor and would later own a second, with which he would bale hay on contract.
Beginnings in Radio and Business
Kemper Freeman Jr. attended Bellevue High School, graduating in 1959. He then went on to work, at age 22, as an ad-time salesman for his father's radio station, the uniquely monogrammed KFKF. This was his first direct involvement with his father's business and it led to an amusing incident. He had at first been asked merely to "sit in" for his father in overseeing KFKF while his parents went on a trip to Mexico. However, his announcement at the station that he had come to work there prompted one DJ to quit in disgust, assuming that the boss's son had been installed above him to manage the station. Although he could make more money baling hay than as an ad salesman, the younger Kemper took to radio and eventually did become manager of the station.
Over the next 10 years, Kemper Freeman Jr. moved into increasingly more responsible positions within his father's business ventures. He continued to manage KFKF, with the addition of KEZE in Spokane. He also made an independent investment in a company that produced pre-recorded programming for radio stations. He became a partner in Bellevue Properties, which managed his father's non-Bellevue Square ventures. He became president and principal stockholder in Bellevue Square Managers, Inc., which leased Bellevue Square from a trust to which Kemper Freeman Sr. had sold it during a little-heralded business move.
Kemper Freeman Jr. married Betty Austin and they had two daughters, Suzanne Lea and Amy Clotilde. With all this activity, he still had time to experiment with politics. He was appointed to the state legislature in District 48 in 1973. He was elected to serve a second and third term but then stepped down in 1976 because of his business workload.
Development and Redevelopment
In 1980, the younger Kemper and his father joined in formally kicking off a $142 million redevelopment project at Bellevue Square. Frederick & Nelson, Nordstrom, and JCPenney were to expand their Bellevue stores and the Bon Marche' agreed to build a new store at Bellevue Square. The grand re-opening occurred under Kemper Freeman Jr.'s supervision on May 7, 1981. Kemper Freeman Sr. died of cancer on October 20, 1982.
Kemper Freeman Jr. went on to found Kemper Development Company, which would develop Bellevue Place on a nearby superblock, including the 21-story Bank of America Tower (1988) and 25-story Hyatt Regency Bellevue (1989). Meanwhile, he continued to play a role in local politics, mostly by providing funds for local Republicans and campaigns on behalf of roads projects and against mass transit.
For the Car
In 1995, he went head-to-head with fellow Republican Bruce Laing, who was a King County Councilmember and chair of the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA). The Seattle Times named them among the "People to Watch in '95.'" Laing was building support for a $6.7 billion plan for light rail, commuter rail, and regional bus service. Freeman backed the opposition, saying the transit plan did too little and cost too much, diverting funds that should be used for roads to serve a growing suburban population. The RTA plan, which would have included a light rail spur to Bellevue, failed at the ballot box, but a slimmed down, $3.9 billion plan passed in 1996, creating a system that did not reach Bellevue or any part of the Eastside.
In an interview with Washington CEO magazine in June 1997, Freeman cited a projected transit ridership of 10 percent and added, "My question is, who is solving the other 90 to 95 percent of our traffic puzzle? No one is working on it. All of government's attention is on mass transit. I'm just a little piece of dust, fighting this machine."
Lincoln Square and Beyond
After developing Bellevue Place and populating it with shops, restaurants, offices, and hotel space, Kemper Development went on to acquire the stalled Lincoln Square development. At the time, in 2003, the initial developer had backed out and the project was just a 12-acre parking garage five levels deep. One of the architects, who reached the lowest depth to find standing water, described it as being "like an Egyptian tomb." From the site, Kemper Development and a team of architects form Sclater Partners erected Lincoln Square, including Bellevue's tallest building, the 42-floor Lincoln Tower One (2005).
In 2005, Freeman, who to this day loves to take a spin on his Harley motorcycle, told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, "I have a greater vision for Bellevue. I am obsessed with making things work in general -- learned that on the farm."
Even as construction continued, it was not clear whether Lincoln Square would be a success. The bust in the technology sector in the early 2000s had created a hole in the Eastside economy, leading to high office-vacancy rates. However, as more tenants signed leases in 2006, crowned by Microsoft's agreement to occupy the top 15 floors, it began to appear that Freeman had a winner.
Today, as the developer continues to explore new plans, he and his wife, Betty, also continue to make the rounds of public service, serving on boards and fundraising committees for Bellevue causes. And Freeman continues to espouse his agenda of road building and the auto-friendly city. Without question, he and his family have had a tremendous impact in building the modern city of Bellevue, starting with strawberry fields and culminating over half a century in a city of skyscrapers, magnet retailers, and steadily climbing population (2005 estimate: 117,137).