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Marc Stiles
Real Estate Editor

September 23, 2010

Real Estate Buzz: Greg Smith turns over a new Leaf

Real Estate Editor

Commercial real estate developer and investor Greg Smith has been flying under the radar in recent months, and that's rare for the Seattle-area native who rarely shies away from sharing his plans.

His latest new deals — launching a car dealership and investing in a bagel bakery — are not what you would expect from Smith, CEO of Urban Visions, a development and brokerage company. It goes to show that at least one player with money to invest in real estate thinks the market's recovery is still a long way off.

Smith hit a home run by selling and renting land northwest of Safeco Field to the state for the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement project. He got a total of $78.8 million out of that deal, after buying the site, which was formerly Wosca Terminals, in 1999 for $10.25 million. Smith also sold a rehabbed Pioneer Square building for $14.5 million.


People have been waiting to see what he would do with the money, and unless the market changes soon they'll have to keep waiting.

“I don't think prices reflect where the market's really at,” Smith said. Sellers are refusing to face reality so even two years after the crash, it remains a “really weird” market. “People think prices are going to be back,” Smith said. “Maybe they will. I'm not optimistic.”

So he's finding other opportunities, including developing a Nissan dealership, now under construction at South Royal Brougham Way and Sixth Avenue South. With some dealerships already there and others rumored to be poking around, Smith thinks the area could be the city's new auto row.

Smith initially approached Nissan about leasing the site, but decided he would start Stadium Nissan of Seattle himself. It's opening late next month.

A car dealership? For Smith, whose company is dedicated to environmental sustainability? “It's the Leaf that got me into it,” he said.

Smith said Nissan's new electric car is a good fit, not only for Urban Visions but for Seattle, where over the next two years 2,500 charging stations for electric vehicles will be installed. The stations are a partnership between Nissan and the Electric Transportation Engineering Corp.

Photo by Katie Zemtseff [enlarge]
Greg Smith is developing a Nissan dealership, now under construction at South Royal Brougham Way and Sixth Avenue South.

“I completely believe that the electric [car] revolution is here to stay,” said Smith, whose father, the late H. Martin Smith Jr., got his start in real estate with the legendary Henry Broderick.

The showroom was designed by Seattle-based Olson Kundig Architects, which Fast Company magazine named one of the 10 most innovative firms in the world. It's going to have a Seattle feel, with exposed wood, concrete and steel. Eighteen-foot ceiling fans — made by a company called Big Ass Fans — will cool the space. The team is aiming to make it the first LEED gold dealership.

Foushee & Associates is the general contractor. Smith declined to say how much he's investing.

Smith also is invested in some other non-real estate ventures, including The Pattison Group, a promotional merchandising firm. Smith is chairman of Maverick Apparel Printing, which he co-founded with former University of Washington and pro football player Mark Pattison. Another former Husky, Mark Bruener, who also played pro ball, is vice president of business development.

He's investing in Seattle Bagel Bakery, a wholesale business that A.J. Ghambari runs. He's the son of Ali Ghambari, owner of Cherry Street Coffee House, in which Smith also is an investor. Cherry Street is looking to expand beyond its current five locations.

It won't always be coffee and bagels and cars for Smith. Eventually he'll get back to buying and developing real estate. It is, after all, in his blood.

He said he is very close to getting a master-use permit for his high-rise apartment project at Second Avenue and Pike Street. Once things are in place, he'll start looking for development partners or sell the site, depending on the economy.

In the meantime, expect to see Smith tooling around town in a Leaf. They'll be in showrooms, including Smith's, later this year.

Is 1918's gain Russell's loss?

Here's a follow-up on a DJC news brief about a pending big lease at 1918 Eighth, a new office tower in downtown Seattle: The rumor that the tenant is KPMG is apparently true.

The developer of 1918 Eighth, Dan Ivanoff of Schnitzer West, told NAIOP members last week that it looks like the 667,000-square-foot high-rise is getting close to 50 percent leased. Office brokers speculated later that audit and tax advisory firm KPMG would be the building's next big tenant.

An in-the-know source says KPMG, which is now in the Norton Building, has indeed signed a letter of intent for 55,000 square feet at 1918.

We can't say for sure if it's true. KPMG didn't return our call. Michael Dash and Matt Christian of Cushman & Wakefield Commerce are representing the tenant. Their boss, John Miller, said they signed “a pretty tight” non-disclosure agreement and could not comment.

KPMG's choice, we hear, came down to 1918 and Russell Investments Center, another big new building with a lot of available space.

Got a tip? Contact DJC real estate reporter Brian Miller at brian.miller@djc.com or call him at (206) 219-6517.

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