“I used to refer to it as Seattle’s dirty little backyard," said Fred Roberson, perhaps Tacoma's most influential and generous private developer. “But after you’re here a while, it really grows on you.”
TACOMA — Six decades ago, an obscure Tacoma City Council candidate named Fred Roberson wrote an unusual political manifesto for the local newspaper.
“Listen Tacoma: If you think I am going to hand you a bouquet, you are sadly mistaken,” he wrote at age 32, announcing his entry into a five-way primary. “You may have been asleep for the last 50 years.”
A lifetime has since proven him a visionary for his city, if a terrible predictor of his own destiny.
Now 88 and a wealthy real-estate developer, Roberson has handed Tacoma much larger things than bouquets.
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In his will, he’ll give away the landmark Armory building on the Hilltop and the Carlton building downtown, both worth millions. He also has sunk fortunes into preserving other old buildings, playing a pioneering role in the revival of downtown Tacoma.
“I call him the prince of preservation here in town,” said David Fischer, executive director of the nonprofit Broadway Center for the Performing Arts, to which Roberson is bequeathing the Armory.
“We are so lucky to have had him as a part of our community. He has helped not only preserve, protect and energize a number of buildings, but he’s shown others how to do it. That’s as powerful as anything.”
Roberson, perhaps the city’s most influential and generous private developer, sat down to discuss his life and career recently in his nine-story, 109-year-old Harmon Building on Pacific Avenue.
The Harmon is one of more than a dozen commercial buildings Roberson owns, mostly downtown. It also is the project he credits with turning his focus from building apartment complexes, which made him his fortune, to reviving the city’s dilapidated old buildings.
He bought the former F.S. Harmon furniture plant for $700,000 in 1994, when the former largely vacant warehouse stood in a depressed stretch of downtown frequented by prostitutes. It required five years and millions of dollars to renovate.
Now, for years, it has been a busy mixed-use hub for the resurrected downtown. Its occupants include an eponymous brewpub and other retail business, office space, a parking garage and 55 loft-style apartments, all rented. The Pierce County Assessor’s Office values the building at more than $12 million.
“Everybody told him he was crazier than hell,” said Rodger Tiegs, who worked as a contractor on the Harmon in the 1990s, “and now you can’t even buy a one-story building for what he bought the Harmon for.”
Roberson travels daily to his second-floor office in the Harmon Building, down a hallway lined with exposed-brick walls and old wooden beams about a yard thick. It’s believed to be one of the West Coast’s tallest post-and-beam structures.
Of all his properties, collectively assessed at more than $31 million, it is the one he says he wants to keep in his family after he dies.
“After doing this building,” Roberson said, “I just got hooked on old buildings.”
There is the Armory, a cavernous, circa-1908 building he bought for $950,000 in 2013 and since has spent more than $1 million renovating. There are four buildings on the Hilltop, including the former Planned Parenthood building on Martin Luther King Jr. Way.
He has a stretch of buildings on Tacoma Avenue, all about a century old, and a downtown conversion of the Tacoma YMCA, a 1909 structure, into condominiums. The city sold him the Carlton Center, a restored six-story hotel, at a loss with some controversy, in the 2000s. Each now is in active use.
“I don’t think anybody has done as much for the preservation of buildings in this town as he has,” said Steph Farber, co-owner of LeRoy Jewelers and The Art Stop.
Two Tacoma buildings bear Roberson’s name, both emulations of old-school architecture: a neoclassical office building on Tacoma Mall Boulevard he built in 1984 with a tile roof and stucco walls, and a condo tower on Market Street that nearly mirrors the former YMCA next door.
He was asked by a News Tribune reporter in 1985 why he bothered using historic elements even on construction next to Interstate 5.
“I do things this way because it’s what I like,” he said then.
Viewed from his downtown office today, it is as difficult to quantify Roberson’s influence on the present evolution of Tacoma as it is to square the young Roberson’s words with the older one’s achievements. The city has gravitated toward urban density, mixed-use neighborhoods and historic preservation in line with Roberson’s vision.
He has played a prominent role in shaping this outcome despite coming in dead last in that City Council run all those years ago.
From a perch on his office couch, Roberson read his younger self’s political announcement out loud, with some incredulity.
“My God,” he said, clutching the old clipping. “I said, ‘Listen, Tacoma, if you think I’m going to hand you a bouquet.’ What the hell am I talking about?”
He came in last in that 1960 council primary, with 2,876 votes, 9 percent of the total. He gave up the idea of going into government then and devoted himself to business, a decision that has shaped city history.
He could have messed around with politics, Roberson reflected, “or I could stay and just keep what I’m doing … and make a million bucks. And I decided I’d rather have the million bucks.”
At 88, he laughed at the things he said at 32. He said he’d hustled and exaggerated — lied outright a couple of times — to build the career that has enabled him to become a benefactor.
“Dirty little backyard”
Roberson grew up near Seattle in Bryn Mawr, the youngest of five siblings, and went to Renton High School.
He was 25 in 1953 when he arrived in Tacoma to run a downtown bar at 1347 Broadway with his brother. By then he already had sailed with the U.S. Merchant Marine, been drafted by the Army for Korean War service, and worked a 12-hour-a-day, six-day-a-week job as a taxi driver in Fairbanks, Alaska.
“When I first came into Tacoma,” he recalled, “I used to refer to it as Seattle’s dirty little backyard. But after you’re here a while, it really grows on you. And then, as I began to sink my roots down, I really appreciated it all. Tacoma’s always had a slow growth, and I had to really hustle to make money here.”
The bar the Robersons ran was first called The Kennel, on a then-rowdy stretch called Lower Broadway. They renamed it the Tiki and integrated it, to the chagrin, he said, of other white tavern owners and city officials.
“They particularly didn’t like to see a blond-haired lady in there dancing with a black guy,” he said. “That was part of it. It’s hard for me to believe how much different things were in those days.”
The Tiki is long gone, having been purchased by the city with an adjoining string of bars and cafes for the 1960s New Tacoma Urban Renewal Project. Today it’s a parking lot.
Roberson went on to a land development career that would make him rich. He was fired as a Nalley truck driver and sweated through shift work at the Puget Sound Plywood plant, a co-op in which his wife’s family owned a share.
Dick Shaw, who would later invest in properties with Roberson, met him working on the glue gang at the plywood plant. Shaw described it as methodical work, feeding planks into machines and peeling off veneers. “It was all labor in those days,” he said.
Roberson worked nights and weekend shifts at the plant. He says he got started as a developer when, while peddling real estate, he found a house at 15th Street and Tacoma Avenue he could buy with no money down.
He split it into apartments, then used the property to get a home-improvement loan to build his first from-scratch apartment complex, at 5136 N. Pearl St. near Point Defiance Park. To get the loan, he falsely claimed he owned his in-laws’ share in Puget Sound Plywood. He noted that his political campaign statement to The News Tribune also included this fabrication.
“I have a lot more integrity now than I had when I was a young man, I’ll tell you,” he said.
Roberson worked years as a buy-and-build developer, adding apartments to Tacoma’s housing stock as the city could support them. He avoided redevelopment, but in 1985, after more than 20 projects across the city, he opened the 18,000-square-foot Roberson Building on Tacoma Mall Boulevard.
A decade later, the Harmon Building would convert him into an aficionado of old buildings, rather than ones that used only some historic elements.
He borrowed money for the Harmon, struggling to convince banks he could make a profit off a mixed-use apartment project in a city center that had none to prove the concept. Even his allies remember being skeptical.
“It was a filthy, derelict building,” said Phil Sloan, Roberson’s attorney at the time. “I thought, ‘This is ridiculous. You’re going to lose your fortune.’ ”
A local medical-supplies salesman named Pat Nagle saw a newspaper story about the unorthodox project and cold-called Roberson’s office to pitch an idea. Brewpubs had sprung up elsewhere in the Northwest, but Tacoma didn’t have one. How would Roberson feel, Nagle asked, about taking one into the Harmon, as its landlord and an investor?
“He’s like, ‘Well, ohh-kay,’ ” Nagle said. “He’s got that gruff way about him, but he’s really a teddy bear. A little intimidating at first, but he’s a sweetheart.”
It took two years to prepare the restaurant space, which preceded the rest of the building going into operation. Today, Nagle’s Harmon Brewing Co. — named after the building, he said, to save money on signs — has expanded to several restaurants.
When he bought the building, Roberson said publicly he hoped to get $800 a month for the 55 loft apartments he built. After it opened in 1999, after many construction delays, the rent was up to $1,400 and all but one unit had been rented out. Today the building is full, and the apartments go for $1,900 a month.
The sidewalks outside bustle with University of Washington Tacoma students. The Tacoma Link streetcar hums past Roberson’s office window. He drives in daily from his Day Island home to oversee his business and look for new opportunities in what he says is an unprecedented period of growth.
“The whole downtown area is exploding as far as I can see,” he said.
Considering the legacy
Post-Harmon, Roberson has spent much of his time and money on downtown and Hilltop investments.
The gestures ranged from aesthetic to commercial. In the mid-1990s, he paid an extra $5,000 for a University Place property to get its clock tower, then in 2004 had it trucked downtown for $20,000 to stand beside his buildings across Tacoma Avenue from the main city library. On Market Street, the vintage YMCA and the adjoining Roberson at Ledger Square cost millions to build out.
The Roberson hit the market with 32 condos unsold shortly before the 2007 recession. In downtown’s ongoing rebound, 30 have now sold, said Mathew Shaw, Roberson’s commercial property manager and the son of Anne Roberson, Fred’s second wife.
Fred Roberson’s only child, Laura Roberson Fisch, lives in New York, where she has been a model and arts patron, and is married to a financial executive.
“This is all I need to leave her,” Fred Roberson said inside the Harmon Building. “I want her to keep this. I want this building to last a thousand years, like the Armory.”
Fischer, the Broadway Center director, said the nonprofit’s leaders have some plans in place for the Armory. It will be used as a backup space during the 2018-19 renovation of the Pantages Theater.
Tenants that Roberson is recruiting for its available office space and other facilities — he hopes to include a restaurant — will ensure a revenue stream for years.
“I don’t know that we would have the capacity to accept it if it weren’t in a place that was more financially structured to sustain itself,” Fischer said. “And for that we are deeply, deeply grateful to him.”
Roberson’s other planned gift, of the former Carlton Hotel building downtown, will expand the UW’s Tacoma campus north of South 17th Street for the first time. He bought the building in 2004 from the city, which had used it for offices.
As part of the terms of inheritance, the UW agreed to divert rent payments from long-term tenants to charities Roberson picks. The 42,000-square-foot building, another 1909 construction, will endure much as it stands today.
“He knows that with the right partnerships, he can see these assets preserved as part of the city’s overall profile,” said Joshua Knudson, UW Tacoma’s vice chancellor for advancement. “It is a true act of philanthropy.”