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November 12, 2016

Foreign investors pouring billions into Seattle commercial real estate

The Seattle Times

Mike Rosenberg

The pace of foreign purchases of major King County buildings has tripled, with Chinese companies heavily represented - and now some are even building projects here themselves.

In Seattle's feverish world of real estate, much of the focus on foreign investment has been centered on international buyers scooping up homes. But most of the foreign money is actually flowing into other parts of the market, from Amazon offices to new apartment towers.

Historically seen as a second-tier city to foreign interests, Seattle and its suburbs are now being looked at much more closely by overseas developers and commercial real-estate investors, data and broker interviews show.

And while Europe and Canada are still eyeing Seattle, the biggest increase seems to be coming from China and other Asian countries.

Excluding houses, foreign investors have bought more than $4 billion worth of big-ticket buildings like offices, apartment and condo complexes, and warehouses in King County since 2015.

That's more than triple the rate from earlier in the decade, according to the local Economic Development Council. And it's more money than what foreign buyers spent on local homes during that span.

Earlier this year, the Association of Foreign Investors in Real Estate named Seattle as the No. 5 city in the United States for foreign investment, up from eighth a year prior.

But another change is that foreign interests aren't just buying what local developers have already built. Some international companies are constructing projects themselves - and at least one developer from China even relocated here to set up his new home base locally.

Among the biggest fish lured to the area is Vanke, China's largest homebuilder, which earlier this year agreed to its first Seattle venture.

Economic lure

Saying it was enticed by the area's growing economy, it plans to team up with a California developer to build a $200 million, 43-story apartment tower in the Denny Triangle.

But smaller builders are attracted to the area, as well. Allen Zeng, a developer in China for seven years, recently moved to Bellevue with his family and began construction this fall on a 244-unit condo complex in the University District.

"Ten years ago, Seattle (was) not too famous for Chinese. They just know San Francisco and Los Angeles," Zeng said at his office in Bellevue. Now, "I believe that Chinese will like Seattle more and more."

Create World, another Chinese group, broke ground last year on a $65 million Bellevue apartment tower. It now plans a second high-rise, this time across from Pike Place Market, after paying $17.1 million for the land.

"We're on their radar screen," Gordon Ahalt, senior director of the Cushman & Wakefield/Commerce brokerage in Seattle, said of foreign buyers. "We're on everyone's top hit list right now. I don't see this as a short-term deal."

Of course, the election of Donald Trump as president could alter the real or perceived value of U.S. real estate for foreign investors, but local experts say it's too soon to know what impact the election might have.

Developers, brokers and commercial real-estate buyers say they're attracted to the Seattle area for the same reason as foreign homebuyers: The Puget Sound region offers much cheaper land and building prices than places like New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Vancouver, B.C., which have traditionally been more popular with foreign companies.

Not all the projects have gone as planned: The most contentious was the $190 million, 41-story Potala Tower apartment project in Belltown, where local developer Lobsang Dargey was accused of diverting foreign investors' money for his own personal use.

Hundreds of individual investors from China, who put $83 million into the project in hopes of getting a green card through the federal EB-5 visa program, were in danger of losing their money and citizenship dreams.

After a recent court settlement, the project in October resumed construction under new management - with even more foreign investment. Now, China's Binjiang Tower Corp. and a Las Vegas firm are funneling $30 million into the tower as its new owners, with the foreign EB-5 investors still on board.

That's part of a broader trend: For years, many smaller foreign investors have used the controversial EB-5 program to spend more than $2 billion on Seattle projects, typically in chunks of $500,000 apiece.

Big purchases

Despite all the development activity, most foreign real-estate interests are still choosing to simply buy completed projects and keep them intact, holding onto the buildings as a pure investment.

Local officials say that while Seattle has always been on the global map for well-heeled companies from abroad, the interest level has jumped up a notch lately.

"I think we're getting to the point, though we're not quite there, that we have the same international reputation as a San Francisco or a Boston. We're getting more visible," said Don Wise, CEO of Seattle-based Metzler Real Estate and secretary of the Association of Foreign Investors in Real Estate. "There clearly is more offshore capital coming to Seattle."

The biggest recent purchase came last year, when Hong Kong-based Gow Capital Partners spent $711 million to buy Columbia Center, Seattle's tallest building, in what is believed to be the third-largest real-estate deal in the region's history.

Then this summer came a pair of big-ticket deals: South Korea's Mirae Asset Global Investment spent $247 million on an Amazon office building in South Lake Union. And downtown's Safeco Plaza - known as "the box the Space Needle came in" - sold for $387 million to a partnership between Germany's GLL Real Estate and South Korea's Vestas Investment Management.

And in October, the Chinese conglomerate HNA bought 10 local Oki golf courses for $137 million.

"On the map"

Suzanne Dale Estey, president and CEO of the local economic-development council, cited the likes of Amazon, Microsoft, Boeing, Starbucks and Costco as putting the region on the map internationally.

"We have these brands that are world-renowned," Dale Estey said.

Of course, most of the attention on foreign investment in local real estate has been on the housing market, because of its perceived effect on housing prices.

With commercial properties, it's also unclear how big a role foreign buyers have played in rising prices for things like apartment and office rents.

It's still somewhat a mystery who some of these foreign investors are. Often they don't have local websites or publicly listed contacts, and several companies contacted directly or through intermediaries did not respond to requests for comment.

One foreign developer who agreed to a sit-down interview was Zeng, head of Bellevue's ZQH Investments.

Manageable size

He cited the stable, growing local economy as his prime reason for focusing here, and said another advantage Seattle has over other international hot spots is its relatively small size, making it easier for him to get to know the area and its key players.

"I feel it's a little difficult to find a way to business (in bigger cities). In Seattle, it's a little simpler," he said. "I feel comfortable working here."

But the region's biggest selling point is its (relatively) low prices compared with California, Vancouver, B.C., and New York.

"Seattle (has) less risk for me," Zeng said.

He said it's still much more complex to build here than in China, where projects tend to spring up more quickly.

In a statement, Vanke's U.S. division called Seattle one of the country's top-performing markets (it has previously invested in other American cities).

The company said it was impressed with the region's diversified economic base, tech-job growth, relative affordability and "quality of life that attracts a talented workforce."

How long will the frenzy last? There are some signs the activity is dwindling - the investment dollar amount locally has dropped so far in 2016 compared with last year.

Dale Estey said she's heard most experts saying that, in baseball terms, the region is in the seventh inning of the cycle's upswing.

Skip Whitney, head of China Services in San Francisco for the Kidder Mathews brokerage firm, thinks Seattle will remain near the top of the list of most sought-after cities for foreign capital even after the current real-estate uptick wanes.

"I think it's the beginning that will continue indefinitely," Whitney said.

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