Over more than 30 years, Carl M. Freeman has carved a reputation as one of this area's most innovative, articulate and successful builder-developers. And he shows no sign of slowing down since turning 70 recently. However, Carl M. Freeman Associates Inc., of which he is chairman, chief executive officer and treasurer, has slowed its pace in new development.
But that's a sign of the hard financial times that nearly have paralyzed residential construction and home sales for nearly two years. Freeman's standard operating procedure has been to roll with the times and to play it cozy when the going is rough, but to be ready when the market rebounds. "I've done something like that through three housing recessions in the past 15 years," Freeman said recently.
That doesn't mean that the area's senior builder-developer is inactive. On a recent Monday afternoon he was in conference with a team of architects and landscape planners to coalesce plans for a new section of contemporary town houses in Sea Colony West, an area inland from the nine high-rise condo apartment buildings completed on the beach at South Bethany.
In discussing plans for the Sea Colony West development of a total of nearly 400 town houses, Freeman emphasized that he wanted to obtain maximum use of open space for recreation use of purchasers -- trying to make certain that they would not have to walk too far to reach an open field nor be too close to pools and tennis courts to be scattered through the development.
Even though the answer seemed predicatable, it seemed relevant to ask why he isn't building rental or condo apartments in 1981.
"I'm aware of the political attitude toward rent controls and the potential demand for rental housing," he responded. "But there's a real lack of long-term financing without assurance of stability in long-term income in developing and financing new apartments."
Long-time Freeman watchers and associates said that the feisty developer always has had a keen sense for the financial market and depended on getting favorable financing to make a rental apartment project worthwhile.
In recent years the Freeman organization, now located in the Cabin John Mall, has been concentrating on major recreation development in the Bethany Beach area and on shopping center and town house development on land that the firm has owned for years.
Norman Dreyfuss, former executive vice president of the publicly owned Freeman firm and still a stockholder and member of the board, said that the land portfolio includes tracts near the Metro station at Forest Glen Road and Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring, two more tracts at Seven Locks and Tuckerman, another at Connecticut and Georgia avenues, another at Seven Locks and Falls Road and another piece of land in Northern Virginia.
"I feel certain that Carl is getting poised to do at least one more major project," Dreyfuss added. "But he doesn't see this period as being right for a start."
One of the near-dozen of local building and development executives who have passed through the Freeman doors over several decades, Dreyfuss now is executive vice president of International Developers Inc., a firm that is very active in condo apartment building and conversions and in office buildings. "I left Carl -- who has my total respect and admiration -- on a pleasant note," Dreyfuss said. "I just really wanted to be in a more active situation. I started as a trainee with Freeman nine years ago and learned what I know from him and from the opportunities he provided."
Thomas Harkins, who left Freeman in 1965 to start his own construction-development business, has become successful in his own right. He also started as a Freeman trainee in 1957 after getting out of Renssellaer Polytechnic Institute with an engineering degree. "Carl is dynamic and his enthusiasm is contagious," Harkins said. "He made things exciting. He also has a very strong will and likes to do things his way."
Another alumnus who made it on his own in the building business said that Freeman has a "complicated personality and can be tough. He enjoys confrontations. He can spot inexperienced talent and develop it rapidly."
When you're 70, wealthy, have a 500-acre working farm home in upper Montgomery County and a desire to travel for a trip to the Scandinavian countries, you might be looking around for less responsibiity and a successor.
"Why plan on dying?" Freeman asked. "I plan to continue doing what I like to do. I do more varied things than ever. That includes horse- and cattle-breeding, overseeing a working farm, civic work, being active at the Corcoran, and with the National Symphony and the United Jewish Appeal."
Freeman conceded that he doesn't go into his office until early afternoon on most days, but he said he gets up fairly early and has a swim every nice morning. "Taking care of a 500-acre farm is something I enjoy and that's my morning work," he said.
Marvin Gerstin, an advertising executive who hasn't had a business relationship with Freeman for years, described the veteran developer as the one who made contemporary rental housing practical and introduced his own process of buying and planning land use and apartment design. "He broke the 608 (FHA rental housing) pattern and stuck his neck out to make rental apartments more attractive and livable," added Gerstin.
Freeman doesn't deny his reputation as a trend-setter. He said he had to challenge local building codes to get permission to put kitchens and bathrooms in interior apartment rooms. "This opened up living rooms to have more glass and balconies. But it took me years to get permission to make the change and then more time to find lenders willing to go along," Freeman said somewhat resignedly.