Six decades ago, an obscure Tacoma City Council candidate named Fred Roberson wrote in these pages an unusual political manifesto.
“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 millionaire real estate developer, Roberson has handed Tacoma much larger things than bouquets.
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 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 known for prostitution. 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 is believed to be one of the tallest post-and-beam structures on the West Coast.
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 fifth of five with 2,876 votes in that 1960 council primary, 9 percent of the total and 6,309 fewer than the top finisher received. Then he gave up the idea of going into government and devoted himself to private enterprise. This led to a personal success story that has shaped city history.
“I asked myself, you know, I could screw around with politics and maybe, maybe, one day I could even conceivably be governor or something,” Roberson reflected. “Or I could stay and just keep what I’m doing, and work my ass off, 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 — and outright lied, a couple of times — to build the career that has enabled him to become a benefactor.
How he started a fortune
Although Roberson has made his life’s work and much money from building Tacoma, he is not a native. He grew up near Seattle in Bryn Mawr, the youngest of five siblings, and went to Renton High School.
He arrived in Tacoma in 1953 at 25 to run a downtown bar at 1347 Broadway with his brother. By then, his life adventures had included traveling the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean with the merchant marine, being drafted by the Amy into Korean War service and working 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 or 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 how different things were in those days.”
Don’t look for the Tiki to be included in a future Roberson preservation endeavor. News Tribune archives show the City Council bought it for $6,350, along with an adjoining string of bars and cafes, in 1967 in the New Tacoma Urban Renewal Project. Today it’s a parking lot.
By then, Roberson had found the land development career that would make him rich. He had been 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 go on to 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. Here is how he got started as a developer, by his accounting: 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 the share in Puget Sound Plywood. He noted that his political campaign statement to The News Tribune 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.
Striking it rich, then getting new ambitions
Roberson worked years as a buy-and-build developer, adding apartments to Tacoma’s housing stock as the city could support them. He said in the 1985 story in the TNT that he had avoided redevelopment projects from the start. That year, after more than 20 projects across the city, he opened the 18,000-square-foot Roberson Building on Tacoma Mall Boulevard.
“I figured I could build them cheaper than I could buy them,” he said then.
A decade later, the Harmon Building would convert him into an aficionado of old buildings, rather than ones that used only some historic elements.
“There’s more to an older building,” he said in the Harmon. “Look at some of the new stuff. You can look at it and it looks cheap, like they’ve done everything in the cheapest way possible. Here you’ve got old brick and you’ve gotten wooden beams too. Those wooden columns, to me, they’re just a lot more interesting. What they use now is pipes, and they hide ’em in the wall.”
He borrowed money to build the Harmon, laboring 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 report that they felt 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.’ ”
The unorthodox project made the newspaper. A medical-supplies salesman from Tacoma’s west side named Pat Nagle saw the story and cold-called Roberson’s office to pitch an idea. Brewpubs had sprung up elsewhere in the Pacific 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. Little intimidating at first, but he’s a sweetheart.”
Roberson signed up. It took two years of building work 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 a handful of restaurants and is eying more expansion.
An immense, 300-pounds-per-foot steel girder protrudes into the brewpub’s dining room. It is one leg of the enormous retrofitting the building required to meet modern seismic safety code. Roberson said the overhaul cost him what he paid for the building several times over.
Blaine Johnson, a former News Tribune editor who later invested with Roberson on the YMCA condo conversion, recalled meeting Roberson while the developer managed his work crews during the five-year Harmon project. To save money, Roberson had handled all the construction in-house, hiring work-release inmates as cheap labor.
“It was just a scene like something out of the early industrial revolution,” Johnson said. “It was silhouetted, and here was Fred directing them. It made this impression on me, this hands-on approach to things.”
When he bought the building, Roberson said publicly he hoped to get $800 a month for the 55 lofts apartments he built. After it opened in 1999, after so many construction delays, he put showings on hiatus for a time, the rent price 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 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. “Tacoma can only grow south, and it can kinda grow west and up the hill there. And that’s a nice area. That’s going to have a lot of growth.”
A novel position late in life
Post-Harmon, Roberson has 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 had it trucked downtown for $20,000 in 2004 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 since have 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. She is married to a successful financial executive. This has placed her father in a novel position in his late life: figuring out how to best dispense with the trappings of his success.
Hence, his plans to bequeath two large, valuable buildings to Tacoma institutions.
“This is all I need to leave her,” Fred Roberson said inside the Harmon Building. “She doesn’t really need the money. They’ve got more than I have. But I want her to keep this. I want this building to last a thousand years, like the Armory.”
The Armory, Roberson and Shaw said, was structurally over-engineered when built a century ago and has stood up well through a cavalcade of military uses. Roberson’s workers have focused on renovating interior spaces to fit modern use — restaurants, theater groups and offices, among others — and modernizing the building’s infrastructure, mainly foundation and wiring.
The aim, Shaw said, is to give the Broadway Center a usable structure, not a brick burden a full block long.
“When he gives it to them, it won’t be a burden financially,” Shaw said.
Fischer, the executive director of the Broadway Center, 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 Roberson is recruiting for its available office space and other facilities — he hopes to include a restaurant — will ensure a revenue stream for years. This work has made postponing the handover until after Roberson’s death a good thing for the performing arts group, Fischer said.
“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,” he 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 UWT campus north of South 17th Street for the first time. He bought the building in 2004 from from the city, which had used it for computer workers’ offices.
As part of the terms of inheritance, UWT has 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, UWT’s vice chancellor for advancement. “It is a true act of philanthropy.”
Of projects large and small
Roberson’s resources run deep, but his effects on the city have not all been grandiose in scale.
One afternoon early this year, he wandered into the nonprofit Recovery Cafe on Tacoma Avenue, a neighbor of several Roberson-owned buildings. He struck up a conversation with its operator, Ronny Brown, to learn what was going on.
The introduction was unceremonious.
“This older guy came in,” Brown said. “I thought he came in for help, honest to God.”
The cafe, a startup, was about a year into its life and had counted about 10,000 clients among the city’s recovering drug abusers and other people in need of help. It also was on poor terms with its landlord, Brown said.
Roberson led Brown across the street and showed him around a building he’d recently acquired to see if it was suitable.
“As he’s walking, he pulls all these weeds out of the ground,” Brown said. “He said, ‘Ah, nobody else does it around here.’ And this guy’s a millionaire!”
In March, the Recovery Cafe moved into a Roberson property, the former Planned Parenthood building on Martin Luther King Jr. Way. About $100,000 in building improvements are underway, Brown said.
There is one problem with the careful work Roberson has put into his projects. The construction on his many buildings is mostly done by Roberson’s own staff workers, a 12-man crew that Shaw concedes is often running between jobs.
Morgan Alexander, who is moving his microbrewery Tacoma Brewing Co. into a Roberson property, has had to push back opening because of delays getting restroom construction finished and city-approved.
The brewery-in-waiting is the Court E side of one of Roberson’s Tacoma Avenue holdings. The space had for years warehoused construction materials Roberson salvaged for his various projects. The room’s soaring ceilings and brick archways have the potential to become a minor masterpiece of old-industrial tavern aesthetic.
Alexander said the barroom will take months, or longer, to properly finish, even after he opens. Roberson’s workers come through, do things, move along to the Armory and build things there. Downtown buzzes with their activity.
“They don’t get to spend too long on one project,” Shaw said.
Still busy, still building
Although Roberson is well into planning his estate, he isn’t done building his portfolio. He says he has interest in other prominent city properties he can bring back into vibrancy. Citing ongoing preliminary discussions, he declined to provide specifics.
“I don’t give a damn about money anymore,” he said, “but I’m terribly excited about projects that I’m doing. I get to pick my own project. It’s kind of like being an artist in a way.”
Although he’s willing to push his budget to get projects done right, Roberson has hardly become a spendthrift in recent years.
When he hit his limit at a public foreclosure auction in April to repurchase a condominium in one of his buildings, he backed away and let another bidder have it. He hadn’t wanted to go above $225,000, well short of the $250,000 median price for a Tacoma home as of this spring.
Overpaying didn’t make business sense given what the condo might resell for, Shaw said.
Roberson keeps his hands in his affairs nearly constantly, including by phone when he accedes to his wife’s wishes to spend winter months in their Palm Springs, California, condominium. He saw the world as a young man and still travels. The couple voyaged to the Amazon this spring.
Given his druthers, he’d mostly stay home these days, he concedes, to work and swim daily.
Age has caught up in several regards. His crowd of peers has thinned out. His hearing is going. He loves to dance, but that too has gotten tough.
“I figured out if I hold onto the bar with one hand, I can dance pretty good,” he said.
Yet he’s still usually in motion, to the wonderment of observers.
“He calls me every once in a while and says, ‘Let’s go do a deal,’ ” said Shaw, his onetime plywood-factory colleague turned co-investor. “I’ll be 78 soon, and I’m wondering what in the devil he thinks he needs to do yet.”