The Land Baroness of Fremont

Flash back, a few months ago: Suzie Burke, Land Baroness of Fremont, was surveying her domain.

Between answering phone calls, poring over contracts and raising money for various nonprofits, Burke took in the view from her office window above the Red Door Alehouse, on the busiest corner in Fremont.

To the left, a giant plaza in front of sleek office buildings. Straight ahead: cars zooming over the Fremont Bridge. To the right: cranes lifting metal beams for big new office complexes. Even her office building would soon be moved, making room for a 130-unit apartment complex/retail shop/restaurant with parking.

Fremont was booming.

As usual, Suzie Burke was on top of, and right in the middle of, it all.

Burke has variously been referred to as the baroness, the Land Goddess of Fremont, the female Godfather of Fremont. Also: big-hearted, energetic, passionate. And: Obnoxious, overbearing, pushy.

Which is to say, she's a big, love-her-or-hate-her deal in the neighborhood. Name anything you know about Fremont, and it's likely Burke instigated it, had a hand in it, opposed it, pushed it, or outright owns it. She does, in fact, own some 35 acres of Fremont — about half its commercial and industrial land.

But then, everything about Suzie Burke is big — including her presence. "Do I seem like a shy, introverted person?" she whoops.

It's precisely Burke's big role in Fremont that troubles some who live there. The oddball neighborhood, home of the Volkswagen-clutching Troll under the Aurora Bridge and folksy stores, is fast giving way to mega-high-tech office buildings, big condos and trendy boutiques — many of them built on Burke's land.

The changes are happening all over Seattle. But because of the city's affection for Fremont's oh-so-"Northern Exposure" quirkiness and nostalgia for it as a last hippie bastion, the changes are particularly striking.

And because Burke, with her outsize personality, owns so much of that land, she's a natural lightning rod for The Changes.

"Do I agree with her? Not at all," says Lee Imsland, a Fremont resident and cook at Hilltop Ale House. When he first visited Fremont eight years ago, it was "probably the coolest place in Seattle," he says. "There were no BMWs. What's happening now is not good. It's just so not good."

Imsland and others wonder if Suzie Burke is selling out, betraying the neighborhood she and her family have had a stake in for generations.

But for Burke, change is the Way of Life. She's seen that through decades of working at her father's mill and industrial center. And there's ample proof of that in her office: photos and sketches of the neighborhood way back when Fremont looked the way the Duwamish industrial area does now.

Says Burke: "When someone says to me: `What a shame about all the changes in Fremont,' I say: `What do you want? To be shuffling around in the sawdust and looking up at smokestacks!?"

•   •   •

FREMONT HAS SEEN some pretty drastic changes over the years. In the early 1900s, lumber mills and an iron foundry were its primary industries. Named after the Nebraska hometown of two of its founders, the neighborhood was known as a working-class community for decades.

In the early 1940s, after interurban rail and trolley services were cut, stores closed down, families moved out. By the 1960s and '70s, the neighborhood was known for "bikers, bars, slums and junkies," according to one newspaper account.

That era also saw the emergence of characters such as Armen Stepanian, elected honorary "mayor" of Fremont in 1973 by defeating a tavern owner and a black Lab named Tommy Two. He preached the wonders of recycling and championed bright orange as the color for the Fremont Bridge to differentiate it from the rest of the city's green spans.

By the 1970s and '80s, low rents began attracting students and artists who helped shape the neighborhood into the bohemian, artistic community most Seattleites think of as "Fremont."

Since the late 1990s, the community has been morphing again.

If you haven't walked through Fremont in a while, come, take a stroll. Or take a very guided walking tour with Burke. Follow the spicy scent of Ciara whooshing around her, the trails of "Hi Suzies" as she strides down the streets (almost everyone calls her "Suzie"). She stops to talk to every third person, hands slicing the air, speech accented in emphatics. ("That looks greaaaaaat!" "This is maaaarveloouuus!")

She points. "See? There's where my father's millwork used to be." Or: "That's where we wanted to put the topiary dinosaurs."

There — notice the upscale fragrance boutique, full of matte silver jewelry and scents of fig and cassis. Near the main drag, cute shops selling flirty little clubbing outfits or nubby sweaters the perfect shade of eggplant.

That's what troubles some Fremonsters, as Fremont folks sometimes call themselves. It was bad enough, they say, when the boutiques started to move into the neighborhood that proclaimed itself the Center of the Universe in 1994. Then desktop publishing company Adobe Systems — with its 550 employees — moved in, followed by other Internet-related companies. In the past few years, five buildings opened in the Quadrant Lake Union Center along the Lake Washington Ship Canal. Two more are being built next to the Fremont Bridge for Getty Images, which is moving its world headquarters there.

"The changes she's making to Fremont are not very sympathetic to the character of the community," says Bruce Hayashi, an architect who used to live in Fremont and still has an office there. "As much as she thinks she's good for the community, she's missing so much of what a community has to offer. Her projects are pretty soulless and cold."

Rents have risen from a 1997 average of $713 a month for apartments to $886 this spring, according to Dupre+Scott Apartment Advisors. Office rents have sometimes rivaled those downtown. Traffic has snarled. Parking has gone scarce. Views have been lost.

Meanwhile, neighborhood institutions such as the Fremont Sunday Market and an outdoor cinema series were left searching for new homes.

"It's not that change is bad by itself, it's the rapid pace and intensity of it," says Toby Thaler, president of the Fremont Neighborhood Council.

Nonsense, says Burke, who points out that her land lease to Quadrant was signed in 1987, and that she's never made it a secret she'd like to see that property developed.

"This neighborhood has always been changing," she says. "That's what adds vitality."

•   •   •

BURKE, WHO PUTS her age at "50-plus-plus," spent her childhood learning about being a controversial leader in a small community. She grew up near White Center, back when only five families lived on 850 acres. The Burkes became the water source, running the supply system after they found springs on their land.

Burke's father, J.R. Burke, also installed a sewage system to make sure they had a clean beach.

"Some neighbors wouldn't speak to us when they found out we had a sewage-treatment plant on our 106 acres," Burke says. "They thought it might not be the most wonderful thing to be living next to."

J.R. Burke founded Burke Millwork Co. in 1939 on 20 acres south of North 34th Street below the Aurora and Fremont bridges. It was a family endeavor. Burke's mother, Florence Burke, landscaped the grounds. Suzie wrapped employee Christmas presents at age 8, answered the phone at age 12.

"Both Mom and Dad had a hell of a work ethic," Suzie Burke says. "You work for goals, but it's very important to help those that are working with you along the way." There was no question, she says, that her dad believed "we invested in Fremont, and we invested for the long haul."

The mill was a success, aided by the post-World War II housing boom. But by the mid-1950s, lumber mills across the nation began dying, and Burke Millworks went from a high of 550 employees after the war to 250.

By late in the decade, J.R. Burke had renamed his enterprise Burke Industrial Center, focusing on renting out the industrial space on his property.

Although Burke had worked at the mill since she was a child, she didn't go into the business until much later. She got married at 18 and dropped out of Seattle University, where she had three years' credit going full time while working eight hours a day at a department store. She wanted to be a schoolteacher.

"I started my family very young," she says. "I just didn't know better."

They scraped by. She babysat for pin money and her homeowners' association gave her $1 for each home she called on as the group's welcome wagon.

After three kids and nearly 13 years together, she and her husband divorced. (A second marriage, eight years later, also ended in divorce.)

Her dad called her in around 1975. After stints in the family business, her two older brothers were exploring other careers. But Burke discovered she had a knack for the job. She expanded the number of tenants they took on from 10 to 86 — mostly small operations.

"I like the part of my business that puts people in place to do their business," she says. She also discovered her real-estate niche: Acquire not-too-fancy property that's about to become vacant, fix it up a bit, put three or four tenants in where one had been before. The bigger, glitzier projects she leaves to Quadrant, a subsidiary of Weyerhaeuser Real Estate, to whom she leased her father's original 20 acres to form the Quadrant Lake Union Center.

"That's what we do best — the down and dirty," Burke says. "Quadrant can do the up and fancy."

Her supporters say she's a hands-on landlord, working to understand what her tenants do, what they need and whom they should talk to about furthering their enterprises. Her detractors say she has a tendency to talk at her tenants, rather than listen to them. And in the end, business is business.

When Andy Kelleher, co-owner of The Dubliner tavern, received notice earlier this year to vacate his building, which also houses the Red Door, he tried to get a one-month extension.

"She would not hear of it," Kelleher says. "We had to move four weeks prior to St. Paddy's Day." Still, Kelleher says, in his eight years as her tenant, Burke was "tough but fair."

•   •   •

BURKE DIDN'T THINK about taking over the family business until some eight years after starting there full time. The turning point was when she persuaded the bank to let her and her father buy the land on which the Redhook Ale Brewery and Burke Building sit.

"I had to convince them that my guarantee was good," she recalls. "And I'm thinking: `Omigod, I've got three children, a little house on Phinney Ridge. I'm building a net worth, but I'm not worth much yet.' But I was so sure I wanted to buy that property that I persuaded them. Talking. Just showing them exactly what I was going to do."

Burke began expanding her family's land holdings. In 1947, her father and a few others had formed Fremont Dock Co., a real-estate holding company. Burke has since built Fremont Dock's assets to about $16 million. She estimates her own assets at about $4 million.

She bought her first piece of land in 1985 — the part that wrapped around the Red Door Alehouse. The tavern itself was owned by someone else. When the opportunity came to buy the building, she snatched it up.

"It was in such bad shape," she says. But she had to have the property. "It was the entrance to Fremont!" By that time, she says, "everyone else down here had done fix-ups, had cleaned up." Burke converted the land next to the Red Door — a towing yard {mdash} into the neighborhood's first pay parking lot.

Around 1988, she bought more land at Stone Way between 34th and 35th, and then the railroad strip cutting through her father's original land. The railroad strip knitted her property back together with the rest of Fremont. It allowed for big projects such as Adobe to happen, since without it "you would've still had a big trough with just a bike path," she says.

Struggles over the Burke-Gilman path — not named after her family — gave its proponents, for one, a dose of what it was like to oppose Suzie Burke. "I've never been in anything as convoluted as those negotiations," Burke says. "Stupid arguments. `We have to have a bike path,' they said. Why?! They insisted the bike paths run along the railroad. Why?!"

Eventually, a compromise was reached, running the bike path along the water. But not before Burke was fed up. "You deal with people who don't have a dime on the table and don't have to be reasonable," she says.

"She's not oriented towards process as much as she's oriented towards accomplishment," says friend and tenant Jeanne Muir, who heads a public-relations firm that represents the Fremont Chamber of Commerce. "It's not that she doesn't believe in process. She's in the middle of process all the time. She's impatient with standing in one place."

Burke has been known to call those who want too much process — or maybe just don't quite see her view of things — "whiny." Or worse. Those same people have equally blunt descriptions of her: brassy and domineering.

"If you oppose her at a meeting, you'll get jumped on," says Bill Uznay, a property manager and longtime resident who's had a few tiwith Burke. "It's hard to deal tactfully and effectively with a bulldozer."

•   •   •

THROUGH ALL the acquisitions, Burke boosted Fremont's offbeat ideas and sensibilities, too, helping cement the public's idea of the neighborhood.

In 1994, when Fremonsters thought Seattle planners had drawn new urban-village boundaries without consulting them, they decided to "secede" from the city. According to a Metropolitan King County proclamation, they established themselves as a "sovereign ImagiNation" — the Artistic Republic of Fremont (ARF). They put up one-way signs with the words "Our Way" on it. That brought the "left and right castes of Fremont together," says Jon Hegeman, founder of the Sunday Market and cinema series. "The Republicans got together with the liberal, artistic elements, and forged an alliance."

In 1990, when Hegeman and his wife returned from a trip to Europe, eager to start a European-style outdoor market, they approached Burke, asking to use the parking lot behind the Red Door. "She said: `Hell yes!,' " Hegeman says. "But she also told us at that point that she had plans to develop (the land) down the road. She's always been right upfront with that stuff." (The ouster came earlier this year, leaving the outdoor market and cinema series temporarily homeless and making room for the apartment/retail/restaurant complex.)

Burke has often let community festival organizers use her land or warehouses in exchange for a few days' work or cheap rent. This year, she agreed to display a chunk of the Berlin Wall under the Aurora Bridge outside History House, a nonprofit organization she founded to celebrate Seattle's neighborhoods. The piece, on loan from an Australian businessman, joins the odd assortment of other Fremont "treasures" that Burke has welcomed onto her land: a statue of Communist leader Lenin (now on someone else's property), the dinosaur topiaries at the foot of Phinney Avenue North.

"It helps with neighborhood boosterism to have idiosyncratic stuff going on," Thaler of the neighborhood council says wryly.

Burke is always promoting something or someone, says her friend Muir. "She connects all these people in this web so we know each other better because of her. Is it good for Fremont as a whole? Yes. Is it good for her businesses and properties in Fremont? Of course it is. The alternative is not promoting Fremont or not increasing the value of properties in Fremont. I can't imagine why that would be a favorable alternative for anybody."

•   •   •

THAT SUZIE BURKE has come to represent so much about Fremont is a bit ironic, considering she's not artistic ("it was the hardest subject in school"), lives in Ballard and places herself politically "to the right of Atilla the Hun" — the opposite of the stereotypical Fremonster.

"Libertarians think I'm a little extreme. Republicans put up with me," she says. "Democrats don't know what to do with me."

A strong property-rights, right-to-bear-arms supporter, she voted for George W. Bush, served on former Sen. Slade Gorton's Seattle advisory committee and counts Republican Rep. Jennifer Dunn as a friend. Yet she supported liberal Seattle City Councilman Nick Licata. "He cares a lot about the community, has upright principles, is willing to work hard, doesn't give up easily," she says. She also sponsors annual neighborhood forums for local candidates.

Along the way, she's "ensured that neighborhood business districts have a strong voice in neighborhoods," says Jim Diers, Seattle Department of Neighborhoods director who's known Burke 13 years.

Burke is co-founder and treasurer of the Fremont Chamber of Commerce; she and her father helped start the North Seattle Industrial Association. She's also involved in many philanthropical endeavors, serving on boards of the Boys & Girls Club of Wallingford, Provail (formerly United Cerebral Palsy of King and Snohomish Counties), St. John's Elementary and Westside Place Alternative schools. She donates time and money to other groups and spends one night a month at her Catholic church's shelter for homeless women. The list goes on.

"The one thing Fremonsters have in common is they're all self-help kind of people," Burke says. "They want to do it themselves, want to be in charge of their own lives. They're interested in creativity and freedom. You get those things better with less government and a little more community involvement."

•   •   •

FLASH FORWARD to this summer. The Red Door Alehouse is scheduled to open again, at its new location on the corner of North 34th Street and Evanston Avenue North. Burke's office will once again be above the tavern. And it will, of course, have a commanding view of the neighborhood. Her grown children, Mike, Kirby and Gwen, are involved in some aspects of the business.

The Fremont Sunday Market has a new home, at least temporarily: near Lake Union on a Burke-owned parking lot on North Northlake Way. The outdoor cinema series is showing in the parking lot by the Redhook Ale Brewery.

Construction has begun on the apartment complex at the entrance to Fremont. Getty Images is scheduled to move in soon.

"A lot of the old Fremont values will change or move away," Hegeman says. "The real question is whether Fremont can reinvent itself."

Burke believes it can. "We're just rearranging the festival," she says.

Most of the infrastructure construction in Fremont will be done in five years, she states. And then? What will Suzie Burke see when she gazes out her window 10 years from now?

"Jobs. Opportunity. Vitality," she says. "Beyond that, I sure don't know."

All that's certain is Fremont will change.

And Burke will be smack in the middle of it.

Janet I. Tu is a Seattle Times staff reporter.