Jul 26, 2014

The Man Behind Point Wells

Israeli millionaire Shraga Biran wants to bring his vision of a utopian community to an industrial site halfway across the globe from his home.

The Man Behind Point Wells

At first glance, Point Wells seems like an unlikely fit for Shraga Biran.

After all, the Israeli developer and lawyer has made his mark transforming poor urban neighborhoods half a world away. Point Wells, with its waterfront location just outside of sleepy Richmond Beach, stands in stark contrast to the bustling communities Biran has reshaped in Tel Aviv.

But as Biran sees it, the  proposed Point Wells development fits perfectly with his larger vision. He wants to take a damaged property and turn it into something he considers beautiful. Biran dreams of remaking the industrial refinery land into an inviting waterfront community, complete with 3,000 condominiums, cafes, parks and natural landscaping. As a principal in  Alon USA, the company that purchased the Point Wells land, Biran is the driving force and visionary behind the project.

“Today, Point Wells is dead, ugly and wounded,” said Biran, who was in Seattle this week for a Town Hall talk and book tour. “Tomorrow it will be lovely.  Romantic. People will be proud to live there.”

Of course, not all of Point Wells’ neighbors share Biran’s view. A number of Richmond Beach, Woodway, and Shoreline residents are , saying the ambitious development will bring too much traffic and too many people to a suburban area with limited road access. The Shoreline City Council just  on the road to and from Point Wells to 4,000 cars a day. While Biran’s proposal includes a future train station and even potential light rail, cars alone rule Richmond Beach today.

Biran claims shock at the neighborhood’s opposition. His recent redevelopment projects in Tel Aviv did not spark the same animosity, he says, and he didn’t expect the conflict here. While he and the rest of the Point Wells development team will continue the permit approval process, Biran said he is willing to walk away if the local communities overwhelmingly reject the idea.

“If it should not be accepted, I will not continue with it,” Biran said. “We are not going to fight the people of Woodway, Shoreline and Richmond Beach.”

To be sure, Biran is not the only one pushing the project forward, and he alone wouldn’t make the call to kill it. He’s currently on a book tour in the U.S. to promote the recently released “Opportunism: How to Change the World One Idea at a Time.” He leaves the detail work – such as the current legal and permitting battles –to others on the Point Wells team.

Biran also may have less financial concerns over Point Wells than other invested parties. After making his fortune in law and real estate development, Biran is now one of Israel’s wealthiest businessmen. Indeed, Biran wants to see Point Wells succeed less for his own financial reasons, and more to continue his design and planning legacy.

“I’d be very happy if the project should happen, but from an economic point of view it’s not a big deal to me,” Biran said. “I want to have Point Wells as a chapter in my biography.”

If Point Wells does indeed become a chapter in Biran’s life story, if will be just one of many. Polish by birth, he’s a Holocaust survivor who saw his parents murdered by the Nazis. After acquiring his law degree, Biran channeled the pain of his youth into the courtroom. During the 1950s, he represented Holocaust victims in a case that attempted to reveal the truth about the persecution of Jews during World War II. The Kastner trial, as it was known, is still recognized in Israel as a groundbreaking Holocaust case. In the decades since, Biran has taken on numerous other human rights cases in court, including representing Israel in the battle over the Taba Peninsula in Egypt.

Evidence of Biran’s development work can be seen throughout Israel. He helped create a new business complex called Airport City just outside of the Tel Aviv airport. The neighborhood includes office towers, a conference center, a shopping mall, a hotel, parks and landscaping.

In central Tel Aviv, Biran helped transform the aging, rundown Wholesale Market into a new complex of residential units and shops. Biran now serves as president of the Task Force for Urban Renewal in Israel. He sees his projects not only as real estate developments, but also as a way to combat urban slums.

“Urban renewal is one of the best ways to fight poverty,” Biran said. “My passion is to change the situation of some of the poorest neighborhoods in the world.”

Biran lives in Jerusalem these days, and speaks fondly of a city so rich with religious and cultural history. When we met in person this week at a downtown Seattle law firm, he asked me of my own religious views. Come to Israel, he told me, and I will show you my country. Biran took my notebook and scrawled his cell phone in the margins. Please call me, he said. You cannot miss seeing my homeland.

Biran’s obvious passion for his own city can also be seen in his attitude toward greater Seattle. Gesturing toward the law firm’s view of Elliott Bay, ferry boat, and Space Needle, he said that he wanted to work on a development project in Seattle because he believes the city’s ideals match his. While in Israel, Biran read and admired the  Puget Sound Regional Council’s Vision 2020, a planning document that heralded compact, high density developments where people live, shop, and work.

“Vision 2020 is one of the most enlightened documents in the literature of urban renewal,” Biran said.

When Biran first visited Point Wells following Alon’s acquisition of the land, he immediately thought the property could exemplify the goals laid out in Vision 2020. He took the idea to Snohomish County officials, who in turn expressed enthusiasm for a project that would clean up industrial land and bring new tax dollars to the county.

Selling the local communities on the project, of course, has not gone so smoothly, and the road to construction remains long and complex. The developers will soon file an urban center application with Snohomish County. They must then begin the process of completing an Environmental Impact Statement, which involves public input and can take as long as two years. Site clean-up would commence after that.

For now, Biran must simply share his dream for what Point Wells could one day become. He sees a neighborhood where a person could wake up in his or her condo, walk the dog along the shore, drop the children off at the local preschool, exercise in the community gym, and then pop in the local coffee shop for a latte.

“I see harmony of nature, habitat, life and people,” Biran said. “Today, Point Wells is ugly and dirty. One day, it can be a Garden of Eden.”

Calling Point Wells a possible Garden of Eden may seem a stretch for a controversial suburban development project, but Biran doesn’t shy away from ambitious proclamations. Point Wells is just one of a long list of projects he still hopes to accomplish in his lifetime. At age 79, he’s nowhere near slowing down.

“I’d like to do so much more,” Biran said. “I need another 100 years.”

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