Hong Kong-based Gaw Capital Partners completed its purchase of the 76-story Columbia Center for $711 million Friday.

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A Hong Kong investment firm has purchased the Pacific Northwest’s tallest skyscraper, 76-story Columbia Center, marking the first time a big Asian investment firm has acquired a trophy tower in Seattle.

Hong Kong-based Gaw Capital Partners completed the $711 million acquisition Friday, records show.

It ranks as one of the biggest real-estate transactions in the region’s history. Market experts said the only two larger deals they could recall were for collections of buildings: the $1.15 billion Amazon.com paid Vulcan in 2012 for its 11-building South Lake Union campus, and a Goldman Sachs affiliate’s 2007 bulk purchase of a dozen properties in the Seattle area for $921 million.

An affiliate of Gaw Capital outbid a handful of other investors to buy the 1.5 million-square-foot Columbia Center from Beacon Capital Partners, which had paid $621 million for the tower in April 2007, near the peak of the last real-estate boom.

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Asian institutional investors have been shopping for deals in the Seattle area over the past year, but Gaw Capital’s successful bid for a trophy tower against domestic funds and long-established European investors is something new, said Lori Hill, a managing director at commercial-real-estate brokerage JLL in Seattle.

“I think it is safe to say there will be more to follow,” said Hill, who was not involved in the transaction.

To be sure, Asian funds have bought other commercial properties in the area, but nothing like a major office tower.

“This is the first,” said Pat Callahan, CEO of Urban Renaissance Group, the Seattle-based commercial-real-estate firm that will manage Columbia Center for Gaw. “It’s just an affirmation of the worldwide interest in investing in this market.”

Gaw Capital also has a pending deal to buy the 27-story Seattle Tower, a historic office building also in the central business district at the corner of Third Avenue and University Street, according to two sources familiar with the matter.


 Seattle’s top 10 buildings

Who owns Seattle’s skyline? Here is the rundown on Seattle’s top 10 buildings, ranked by floors. Source: Emporis, JLL, Seattle Times staff research (Kelly Shea / The Seattle Times)
Who owns Seattle’s skyline? Here is the rundown on Seattle’s top 10 buildings, ranked by floors. Source: Emporis, JLL, Seattle Times staff research (Kelly Shea / The Seattle Times)

“We continue to be interested in this market,” said Christina Gaw, managing principal and head of capital markets at Gaw Capital, in an email after completion of the Columbia Center sale.

Built 30 years ago at 701 Fifth Ave., Columbia Center rises to a height of more than 930 feet. It’s the West Coast’s second-tallest building after the 1,018-foot U.S. Bank Tower in Los Angeles, according to the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat.

Buying Seattle’s tallest building is “a pretty powerful message,” said Brian Hayden, a broker at Flinn Ferguson who said he’d never heard of Gaw before the news of a potential deal broke earlier this year. “It’s no secret there’s a lot of money in China.”

The property is 89 percent leased with 125 tenants, according to Urban Renaissance.

Several big Canadian investors have acquired Seattle skyscrapers since the recession, but major Asian investors previously have been on the sidelines.

Gaw Capital’s deal now indicates Seattle is on the radar of big players in Hong Kong, China and Korea who are able to place large amounts of capital in a single trophy tower.

In recent years, Gaw has been scooping up trophy properties in the world’s top office markets and raising billions of dollars from pension funds and wealthy families. Bloomberg reports that as of March, Gaw Capital had raised $4.26 billion.

Columbia Center becomes the largest office property in Gaw Capital’s U.S. portfolio, which includes buildings in San Francisco, New York and Chicago, according to the firm’s website.

Investment by Chinese institutions, corporate funds and wealthy individuals in global commercial real state reached an all-time peak of $10 billion last year, according to brokerage CBRE.

The U.S. attracted one-fifth of that total, with a majority going into hotels, offices and development sites, the commercial-real-estate brokerage said.

Some Chinese investment comes through the EB-5 immigrant investor visa program. Such funds have helped bankroll more than $2 billion in current Puget Sound area projects, including The Mark, a 44-story tower under construction in downtown Seattle.

“Chinese investors are only beginning to tap into the vast set of opportunities available to them in the U.S.,” said Brian McAuliffe, executive managing director for CBRE’s capital-markets division, in the report.

Columbia Center’s new owners envision renovations to maximize views. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times, 2014)
Columbia Center’s new owners envision renovations to maximize views. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times, 2014)

Renovations planned

Gaw Capital plans “significant” capital improvements to Columbia Center over the next few years, said Urban Renaissance’s Callahan. He declined to specify how much those might cost.

Gaw wants to renovate the lobbies, restrooms and other common areas as well as create more open floor plans in offices as tenants’ leases expire. That floor plan would accentuate the tower’s views, he said.

The tower’s 50,000-square-foot retail area on the lower floors also will be renovated to turn Columbia Center into a destination, he said.

With the opening of the luxury SLS Hotel next door at Kevin Daniels’ The Mark skyscraper, Columbia Center has an opportunity to attract people in the downtown core and Pioneer Square who are looking for restaurants, entertainment and shopping after business hours and seven days a week.

Already the multimillion-dollar renovation of the Columbia Tower Club — the private club on the tower’s top two floors — is a big draw, he said.

The plan is “continuing what Beacon started and finishing it,” he said.

A turnaround

For Beacon Capital, Columbia Center’s sale marks a turnaround.

When it bought the building in 2007, the tower was 89 percent leased. But by 2010, nearly 40 percent of the building was listed as “available” on online commercial-real-estate database OfficeSpace.com, partly because Amazon.com, which leased 177,000 square feet in the tower, was moving to South Lake Union.

That year, the firm defaulted on a $380 million loan it took out in 2007 to buy Columbia Center. Bondholders agreed to extend the loan to 2017.

As the office market recovered and tech firms began leasing more office space in the Seattle market, Columbia Center’s owner completed an extensive renovation and brought the vacancy rate down.

The skyscraper’s vacancy rate is now about 10 percent.

Its biggest tenant is the federal Social Security Administration, which leases 100,000 square feet.

Other large tenants include the City Attorney’s office, the Dorsey & Whitney law firm, the regional office of U.S. Health and Human Services and financial services firm D.A. Davidson.

Columbia Center is the latest office building Beacon has sold. It was one of 14 Seattle-area office buildings the company bought in 2007, making it this market’s largest landlord.

Beacon has disposed of several of those properties in recent years. In 2013, it sold Wells Fargo Center in Seattle to Canadian real-estate investment firm Ivanhoé Cambridge for $389.9 million.

This year it sold a nearly three-acre parking lot in Bellevue to Plus Investment USA, a firm backed by Chinese investors, for $45.9 million.

According to its website, Beacon has a few buildings left in its Seattle portfolio: the 184,000-square-foot Maritime Building and the 309,000-square-foot Exchange Building. In Bellevue, it owns the Lincoln Executive Center Campus, Eastgate Office Park and Sunset North Corporate Campus.