A Hong Kong-based group has a deal to buy Seattle’s tallest skyscraper for reportedly $725 million, a sign that Seattle has joined San Francisco and Los Angeles as a gateway market for Asia’s institutional investors.
An investment group led by Hong Kong-based Gaw Capital Partners has a deal to acquire Seattle’s tallest skyscraper, a sign that Seattle has joined San Francisco and Los Angeles as a key gateway market for Asia’s institutional investors.
The “pending acquisition” of Columbia Center by Gaw Capital, a private equity real-estate fund manager, shows the growing size of bets Asian investors are placing on U.S. real estate, CBRE Capital Markets said in a report last week.
Because Gaw is a CBRE client and the deal hasn’t closed, the brokerage later removed any reference to the deal for Columbia Center on its website, a CBRE spokesman said. But by then other websites had picked up the earlier version.
Trade publication Real Estate Alert reports Gaw has agreed to buy the 76-story Columbia Center for $725 million.
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A spokeswoman for Gaw could not be reached for comment. Columbia Center’s Boston-based owner, Beacon Capital Partners, declined to comment on reports of the deal.
Built: 1985 by developer Martin Selig
Height: 937 feet
Ownership: Current owner Beacon Capital paid $621 million in 2007; previous owner Equity Office had paid $404 million in 1998.
Sources: Seattle Times archives, Emporis
“Clearly there’s been a meaningful amount of institutional Asian capital that’s been interested in Seattle for several years,” said Donald Wise, president and CEO of Metzler Realty Advisors, whose largest client is a German investment fund. “The deal doesn’t mark a surge in interest as much as it marks a surge in success.”
Wise said he had no knowledge of a deal for Columbia Center, but if Gaw does close a deal, it would be the “first significant deal of that size” in the Seattle market for a Chinese or Hong Kong company.
In 2013, Beacon sold another big Seattle tower, Wells Fargo Center, to Canadian real-estate-investment firm Ivanhoé Cambridge for $389.9 million.
Asian commercial-real-estate investment in the U.S. surged in this year’s first quarter to $3.3 billion, CBRE reported. West Coast trophy properties are drawing particular interest, said Russell Ingrum, CBRE’s vice chairman.
Built 30 years ago at 701 Fifth Ave., Columbia Center rises to a height of 937 feet, according to Emporis, a provider of data on buildings.
In 1989, developer Martin Selig sold it for $355 million to Seafirst Bank, whose successor, Bank of America, sold it to Equity Office in 1998 for $404 million.
Beacon Capital bought Columbia Center in spring 2007 at the height of the last real-estate boom for $621 million.
But then the real-estate bubble popped, banks failed by the hundreds and the economy went into a tailspin.
The vacancy rate at Columbia Center zoomed from about 8 percent in March 2007 to more than 30 percent from 2010 to mid-2013, according to Officespace.com. Beacon has since filled a lot of that space with new tenants. The vacancy rate in March was about 10 percent, the website reports.
Earlier this year, Beacon Capital put the property up for sale. Several real-estate industry sources said Beacon had narrowed the list of bidders, but none was aware that a deal had been struck.
Stuart Williams, a managing director at brokerage JLL, said he’d met representatives from Gaw Capital recently and that the firm was looking to invest in the Seattle market.
Columbia Center is “a good location and getting better and better over time,” Williams said, with the addition of the new Fifth & Columbia skyscraper next door. “I could see why a group would stretch to buy it.”
Metzler’s Wise said he expects to see more such deals. Institutions want their investment portfolios to be spread geographically, he said.
And real estate provides a higher, more consistent return than government bonds and less volatility than the stock markets.
Gaw Capital says on its website that co-founders Goodwin Gaw and Kenneth Gaw have invested in the U.S. since the 1990s.
The company says it has raised $4.26 billion in equity since 2005, and managed $9.16 billion in assets at the end of March.
According to its website, Gaw’s 64 properties include 19 in the United States, from California to Florida. There are office buildings in Portland, downtown San Francisco and Silicon Valley, as well as trophy assets such as the tallest skyscraper in Kansas City, Mo., a 42-story tower, and Chicago’s 15th-tallest skyscraper, Three First National Plaza.
But its largest concentration of holdings appears to be in mainland China, where it has 23 properties. With its institutional investors, it has also been buying assets in Europe and elsewhere in Asia.
Since 2010, Gaw Capital has bought seven London properties — including the Lloyd’s Building in London’s financial district — for Asian clients such as Chinese insurance giant Ping An. Last September, Gaw and the Korean Teachers’ Credit Union bought London’s Exchange Tower for more than $290 million.
Gaw’s U.S. affiliate, formed in 2013, says it focuses “on repositioning projects located in major knowledge and innovation markets marked by a young, well-educated population and strong employment growth prospects.”