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Starbucks Center. Union Station. The Frye Art Museum.

They’re all monuments to the impact developer Frank Stagen had on Seattle, his home for more than 30 years.

He even gave one of the city’s emerging neighborhoods its name.

Mr. Stagen, chief executive officer of real-estate investment firm Nitze-Stagen & Co., died Jan. 16 . He was 78.

“Frank was in many ways a transformational character for the city of Seattle,” said Peter Nitze, his business partner of more than 40 years.

He had a reputation for taking on real-estate deals no one else would touch.

Under Mr. Stagen’s leadership, Nitze-Stagen in 1990 bought a massive old building no one else wanted — the cavernous Sears store and warehouse on First Avenue South — and converted it into a vibrant retail, office and industrial complex.

Today it houses Starbucks’ global headquarters and bears the coffee giant’s name. But Mr. Stagen originally dubbed the complex the SoDo Center, deciding the gritty industrial area south of the (King)dome needed an identity and a name.

A few years later Nitze-Stagen teamed with Paul Allen’s Vulcan Real Estate to buy historic but deteriorating Union Station and several adjacent blocks.

Workers had to scrape up to six inches of bird droppings from the former train station’s floors. Today the restored landmark is Sound Transit’s headquarters; the neighboring blocks sprout office towers.

Nitze-Stagen’s sister company, Daniels Real Estate, now is building apartment towers on what was part of CenturyLink Field’s north parking lot, and plans to break ground this fall on a 660-foot downtown office and hotel tower.

“Neither of them would be happening without Frank,” said Kevin Daniels, president of both companies.

Mr. Stagen was born into the real-estate business: His father was one of Berlin’s top mortgage bankers. The family left Germany after Hitler took power, and Mr. Stagen was born in London.

He grew up in Los Angeles, where his father ran a real-estate business, and attended UCLA, earning degrees in economics and law. His first job after law school was as a part-time assistant to legendary New York developer Harry Helmsley.

After working in real estate and investment banking in New York and Los Angeles, Mr. Stagen formed Nitze-Stagen with Nitze in New York in 1970. The firm invested in real estate in California, Pennsylvania and other markets before Mr. Stagen relocated to Seattle in late 1981.

Nitze-Stagen opened an office here six years later, and Seattle became its real-estate focus. Among the company’s early projects was the city’s first biotech building beyond the University of Washington campus, Daniels said.

But developers’ dreams don’t always come true. A 2003 plan by Stagen and other developers to build condos, offices and parks on the Port of Seattle’s Terminal 46 never got far.

Nitze-Stagen began managing the Frye Art Museum’s real-estate portfolio in the early 1990s, and that led Mr. Stagen to a seat on the museum’s board that he still held at the time of his death, said David Buck, the Frye’s board president.

In the mid-1990s he helped put together a $12 million remodel and expansion that reinvigorated the First Hill institution. “The Frye as it is today is very much Frank’s creation,” Nitze said.

“He was our institutional memory — a smart, skeptical, insightful and fun guy,” Buck added.

When he wasn’t working on real-estate deals, Mr. Stagen enjoyed simple pleasures, his partner, Tina Bueche, said: “A conversation with a friend, reading a good book, a good baseball game — he wasn’t hard to please.”

Mr. Stagen lived downtown and enjoyed long walks around the city. “He found his place here,” Bueche said.

Survivors, in addition to Bueche, include brother Tom Stagen, of Los Angeles; children Rand Stagen, of Dallas, and Corinne Torkelson, of Lake Bluff, Ill.; and four granddaughters.

A private celebration of his life will be held next month. The family suggests remembrances to the Frye Art Museum’s Children’s Education Access Fund, 701 Terry Ave., Seattle 98104.

Information from The Seattle Times archives is included in this report.

Eric Pryne: or 206-464-2231