The Israeli developer behind the proposed Point Wells "urban village" in Snohomish County says he wants to build an attractive community on a beautiful but damaged waterfront property. Some residents in nearby Shoreline and Woodway, however, see too-tall buildings and traffic clogging residential streets.
As Israeli attorney and developer Shraga Biran tells it, his fascination with Point Wells began when he first visited the site.
That’s when he saw something far grander than the aging petroleum-storage tank farm and asphalt plant his company, the Alon Group, had purchased. Instead of pipelines, fencing, rusting tanks and the smell of asphalt, he saw a self-sustaining community of condominium towers, shops and restaurants, with natural landscaping and the “scent of flowers.”
That was in 2006, and unlike oil refineries in Texas and California in which his company has a share, Point Wells was in an unlikely place: on a Puget Sound beach with the Olympic Mountains in the distance.
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To Biran, the development proposal offers a chance to repair a beautiful site scarred by 100 years of industrial use — and admittedly to make some money.
The vision is a community with energy-efficient buildings and its own gray-water retrieval system, says development architect Peter Busby, of Vancouver, B.C.
While Point Wells is a beautiful site, it’s also problematic. To the east is a 200-foot cliff, with the town of Woodway on top. Puget Sound is to the west and Shoreline to the south. The only way in or out is a two-lane road through Richmond Beach.
The development would bring too-tall buildings and traffic clogging residential streets, says Save Richmond Beach, a neighborhood group that wants to force Biran to either downsize or abandon his proposal. The group is fighting his plan through proposed state legislation that would require developers to reach agreements with affected communities and through an appeal to the state Growth Management Board.
“This is a very quiet, established neighborhood of single-family homes. … To hear our neighborhood is essentially going to become a thoroughfare for another community is sad,” said area resident Caycee Holt.
Biran says he is perplexed by the opposition.
“It’s so dirty and so awful,” he said of the site. “We are upgrading it … to a human habitat.”
His plans are in keeping with his reputation as a lawyer involved in development battles in Israel, a builder of apartment complexes and an author.
Tan and trim, Biran dressed in jeans, black sports coat and T-shirt for a Seattle appearance last month in which he spoke about his book, “Opportunism, How to Change the World One Idea at a Time.” He said he passionately believes in strengthening the middle class by giving it buying power and security. He also wants to change the notion that taking advantage of opportunities — like Point Wells — is a negative thing.
“Very self-made person”
In Israel, Biran, 79, is known for his work as a developer and a social activist, says Rachelle Alterman, professor at the Center for Urban and Regional Studies, Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa.
As a young man, Biran left Europe for Israel after World War II, arriving penniless. He worked as a shepherd and an exterminator, and eventually made it to law school. He would later buy a gas station, and then other property, according to his publicist.
Today, Biran’s Alon Group owns malls, fast-food chains, gas stations, Pizza Huts and 7-Elevens.
“He’s a very self-made person who started from absolutely nothing,” Alterman said.
Biran has been concerned with land use and housing for the past two decades. He is chairman of Israel’s National Task Force on Urban Renewal, and he’s proud of working on laws that will give property to people working in Israel’s slums, upgrading their homes through zoning reform.
His Blue Square Real Estate, the same publicly traded subsidiary company that is handling Point Wells, has been involved in the development of thousands of apartments in Israel. And the Alon Group, which is the holding company for Blue Square, owns apartment complexes, as well as oil pipelines, terminals and refineries in Texas, Oregon and California, according to the company.
Biran rose to prominence in the early 1990s when he worked on an initiative that made it possible for people leasing state-owned agricultural land to profit if it was rezoned to urban use, said Eran Razin, director of the Institute of Urban and Regional Studies at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
That rezoning was needed to provide housing for a million immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Razin said. “This was a controversial step that undermined [the] previously sacred policy to preserve agricultural land,” he said.
Biran brokered the deal between one kibbutz and developers, keeping a share in ownership as payment for legal fees.
He had a similar arrangement in the development of a 185-acre business park near the Ben Gurion International Airport, Razin said.
According to Israeli columnist Ari Shavit in Haaretz.com, Biran is regarded with both veneration and resentment. Some perceive him to be more shark than attorney, Shavit wrote.
And just as with Point Wells, Biran’s developments sometimes have drawn protest.
In 2008, Blue Square Real Estate joined with Kibbutz Glil Yam in a plan to turn about 222 acres of farmland into a residential, commercial and industrial district, which nearby residents protested by appealing to the city of Herzilya.
Herzilya had supported the project, but residents argued the development would impact their quality of life and drastically reduce green space. In 2009, the kibbutz and Blue Square won the right to build, say Israeli news stories.
Out to “heal,” for profit
Today, no one would think of using a site as beautiful as Point Wells for industry, Biran said. While his vision is to “heal wounded nature,” it’s going to be expensive — $30 million for environmental cleanup alone, a cost Blue Square Real Estate says it must make up by having the project be large enough to cover estimated development costs of $1 billion.
About 100,000 square feet of retail space for restaurants and coffee shops is planned, along with more than 3,000 condominiums, a public dock for fishing, jogging paths and an amphitheater.
Biran said he’s not out to make “speculative money” but rather wants to build a place of beauty on a polluted site. “If the Woodway neighbors do not want this, that will be their choice.”
Biran added that he does not believe in doing what’s good for one over what’s good for the majority. But, wouldn’t people rather “smell flowers and creeks” than asphalt? And what of the “Ponte Vecchio-type of bridge” and other public spaces and art planned for the development?
“The whole story of my life is to seize positive opportunities,” he said.
Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or firstname.lastname@example.org