December 9, 2004

Matthew J. Griffin


Firm: Pine Street Group LLC

Position: Managing partner

Working summers as a carpenter during his high school years was Matt Griffin's introduction to the hands-on world of construction and he's been building on the experience ever since.


Known for his intuition and his ability to institute change, Griffin's track record in commercial real estate dates back to the early 1970s. After graduating from Princeton University with a bachelor's degree in civil engineering, he headed back to his native Seattle and worked for Howard S. Wright Construction, renovating pulp mills in Alaska and managing projects in Washington and California.

Griffin later earned an MBA and a master's degree in construction management at Stanford University and made the shift from construction to development. He joined Wright Runstad in 1977 and subsequently played a leading role in the transformation of downtown Seattle's skyline.

One of his first projects, 1111 Third Avenue, a 34-story tower completed in 1980, was the city's first high-rise to have an outdoor pedestrian plaza with restaurants, shops and sitting areas.

"What may seem obvious now was not back then," said Griffin. "We took a risk on Third Avenue where no one had before, because we saw the potential. It's in the epicenter of downtown, it's pedestrian friendly, the views are great and it had transportation flow with an effective, existing bus system."

Wright Runstad grew from a 15-person organization to 150 during Griffin's tenure and he played a major part in the company's success in Seattle. He managed the development of the 48-story Wells Fargo Center and the 55-story Washington Mutual Tower, a national award-winning building for its architecture, functionality and contributions to the city.

Griffin is a persuasive and passionate champion of urban living and has the address to prove it: He and his wife, Evelyne, live in the heart of downtown and his projects are within walking distance.

As managing partner of Pine Street Group, an urban development company, he oversees management of Pacific Place, the Fifth & Pine Building, 1505 Fifth Avenue Building and the Seaboard Building.

Griffin's mantra "If I can't walk to it, I probably don't understand it," is apropos as he doesn't, nor does his wife, own an automobile. "Everything we need is right here," he said. "We love living downtown."

Griffin isn't entirely without wheels, however, and he does manage to get out of the city. An avid bicyclist, he has spent a year riding around the world; 10 months in South America and a recent 15-day trip through Vietnam.

Q&A with Matthew J. Griffin
Q: If you could own any property on earth, what would that be?
A: Already own it. Our home in downtown Seattle. I wouldn't trade it for anything.
Q: Looking back on your career, what business deal still makes you smile?
A: In 1989, I went to work at Egghead Software for four years at $1/year and a pile of stock options. I was clearly in search of adventure.

Q: What was your very first job?
A: I had a paper route and mowed lawns like other kids. My first job of 40 hours per week was working for a home remodeling company, Custom Kitchens, for the summer after my sophomore year in high school.

Q: If you had to choose your next career, what would it be?
A: I'd build a small public project in a third world country as a volunteer.

Q: What's next on your leisure reading list?
A: "The Quiet American" by Graham Greene.

The "density" factor, a word Seattle should be accustomed to by now, is the force behind this urban lure and Griffin has his grip on the theory — and its future. He said downtown residential is the next big thing, and that developing a dense downtown, packed with culture and commerce, will result in a vibrant and economically strong city.

The monkey wrench is transportation. Less cars and more affordable public transportation pave the way to higher density. Griffin notes that the solutions are as massive as tearing down downtown's lumbering viaduct and constructing the proposed underground six-lane tunnel (he's for it) to changing simple mind-sets about the bus (he rides it).

"People think the bus is for someone else," he said. "The bus system in Seattle is terrific."

In the mid 1990s, Griffin and several partners took on the intrepid status of change agents when they embarked on an extensive and bold revitalization of the "ugly duckling" section of northeast downtown Seattle. Literally changing the face and pace of a three-block stretch of underused space, Pine Street Development managed the overhaul, including development of Pacific Place, a dazzling five-level, 335,000-square-foot urban shopping and entertainment complex.

Pine Street Development also redeveloped the Fifth & Pine Building, 1505 Fifth Avenue and the Seaboard Building. The group further took on the transformation of the vacant, grand dame Frederick & Nelson building into a stunning 380,000-square-foot flagship Nordstrom store.

The effort behind the Pacific Place project involved complex public/private partnerships and political hurdles. Griffin's group persevered and the results exceeded expectations, drastically changing the landscape of downtown.

"We had the city behind us, we had several prominent Seattle families behind us and we had the opportunity," said Griffin. "The project mushroomed and now we have a thriving, solid urban neighborhood."

Pine Street Group, as it is now called, is leading the development of a project at Second Avenue and Union Street in downtown Seattle to provide a new headquarters and office tower for Washington Mutual Bank and expansion for the Seattle Art Museum. The project includes a 710-space parking garage, 300,000 square feet of expansion for the museum and 890,000 square feet of office space for the bank.

"Matt has a few people he follows and respects, one that comes to mind is Warren Buffett," said Bill Lewis, president of Lease Crutcher Lewis, a Seattle construction firm and Griffin's Princeton roommate. "He is one of those people who regularly attends the shareholders' meeting. My sense is that he admires Buffet's no-nonsense, get-it-done attitude. There's an intellectual side to Matt in his decision making, to which he applies quite a bit of discipline."

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