Developer John Freeman has created a tiny utopia at Kingsley Commons

Developer John Freeman has transformed Kingsley Commons, a once-dilapidated townhouse complex he owns in the Falls Church area of Fairfax County, into his own tiny utopia. "We embrace the idea that families live here with children," Freeman says. "We're not just providing housing; we're providing a community."
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 9, 2010

Developer John K. Freeman is an unlikely social engineer.

Over a 30-year career, he has amassed a portfolio worth millions by investing in apartment buildings that ring the Beltway. He and his wife, Sally, sent their kids to private school. They live comfortably in a $2 million home in Bethesda and vacation at a beach getaway constructed from the remains of a historic lighthouse.

Yet over the past decade, Freeman has transformed a townhouse complex he owns in the Falls Church area into his own tiny utopia. With little fanfare, he built a computer lab and family resource center for the 2,400 residents of Kingsley Commons, many of whom are recent immigrants. He started four soccer teams -- paying for coaches, uniforms and cleats out of his own pocket -- a summer camp and 4-H club with its own garden. In 2008, he founded a nonprofit group at Kingsley Commons, bankrolling it with $150,000. It now has a staff of three.

Fairfax County officials said it's rare for a landlord to create social programming for a privately owned rental property.

What Freeman has done is "amazing," said Karen Fuentes of Fairfax County's Office of Public Private Partnerships. "You have people out there trying to get attention for themselves all the time with little things, and then you have people who do these big things and just go about quietly doing them."

But Freeman has his detractors. He has clashed with parents who live outside the complex over the fate of an adjacent elementary school.

Even close associates don't understand why he has become so involved, suggesting it's a combination of altruism, concern for children and perhaps a bit of ego.

"People always ask, 'What's the motive here?' " acknowledged Freeman, 65.

The Harvard MBA says his efforts are simply good business. At Kingsley Commons, he doesn't have to hire security staff. There's little crime or vandalism. His tenants live there longer, on average, than renters in other places, and the lower turnover rate saves him money.

"We embrace the idea that families live here with children," Freeman said. "We're not just providing housing; we're providing a community."

Family destination

On a recent warm day, Freeman strolled past the small white townhouses trimmed in red brick, stopping to remove a weed from one of the mulched flower beds. Kids kicked a soccer ball on a well-worn patch of grass. Hand-lettered signs advertised "Family Movie Night" for the coming weekend.

In a way, Freeman has tried to re-create the peaceful world he knew growing up in Camp Hill, Pa., which may explain his deep attachment to Kingsley Commons.

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