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The Man Behind Point Wells

Israeli millionaire Shraga Biran wants to bring his vision of a utopian community to an industrial site halfway across the globe from his home.

At first glance, Point Wells seems like an unlikely fit for Shraga Biran.

After all, the Israeli developer and lawyer has made his mark transforming poor urban neighborhoods half a world away. Point Wells, with its waterfront location just outside of sleepy Richmond Beach, stands in stark contrast to the bustling communities Biran has reshaped in Tel Aviv.

But as Biran sees it, the proposed Point Wells development fits perfectly with his larger vision. He wants to take a damaged property and turn it into something he considers beautiful. Biran dreams of remaking the industrial refinery land into an inviting waterfront community, complete with 3,000 condominiums, cafes, parks and natural landscaping. As a principal in Alon USA, the company that purchased the Point Wells land, Biran is the driving force and visionary behind the project.

“Today, Point Wells is dead, ugly and wounded,” said Biran, who was in Seattle this week for a Town Hall talk and book tour. “Tomorrow it will be lovely.  Romantic. People will be proud to live there.”

Of course, not all of Point Wells’ neighbors share Biran’s view. A number of Richmond Beach, Woodway, and Shoreline residents are , saying the ambitious development will bring too much traffic and too many people to a suburban area with limited road access. The Shoreline City Council just  on the road to and from Point Wells to 4,000 cars a day. While Biran’s proposal includes a future train station and even potential light rail, cars alone rule Richmond Beach today.

Biran claims shock at the neighborhood’s opposition. His recent redevelopment projects in Tel Aviv did not spark the same animosity, he says, and he didn’t expect the conflict here. While he and the rest of the Point Wells development team will continue the permit approval process, Biran said he is willing to walk away if the local communities overwhelmingly reject the idea.

“If it should not be accepted, I will not continue with it,” Biran said. “We are not going to fight the people of Woodway, Shoreline and Richmond Beach.”

To be sure, Biran is not the only one pushing the project forward, and he alone wouldn’t make the call to kill it. He’s currently on a book tour in the U.S. to promote the recently released “Opportunism: How to Change the World One Idea at a Time.” He leaves the detail work – such as the current legal and permitting battles –to others on the Point Wells team.

Biran also may have less financial concerns over Point Wells than other invested parties. After making his fortune in law and real estate development, Biran is now one of Israel’s wealthiest businessmen. Indeed, Biran wants to see Point Wells succeed less for his own financial reasons, and more to continue his design and planning legacy.

“I’d be very happy if the project should happen, but from an economic point of view it’s not a big deal to me,” Biran said. “I want to have Point Wells as a chapter in my biography.”

If Point Wells does indeed become a chapter in Biran’s life story, if will be just one of many. Polish by birth, he’s a Holocaust survivor who saw his parents murdered by the Nazis. After acquiring his law degree, Biran channeled the pain of his youth into the courtroom. During the 1950s, he represented Holocaust victims in a case that attempted to reveal the truth about the persecution of Jews during World War II. The Kastner trial, as it was known, is still recognized in Israel as a groundbreaking Holocaust case. In the decades since, Biran has taken on numerous other human rights cases in court, including representing Israel in the battle over the Taba Peninsula in Egypt.

Evidence of Biran’s development work can be seen throughout Israel. He helped create a new business complex called Airport City just outside of the Tel Aviv airport. The neighborhood includes office towers, a conference center, a shopping mall, a hotel, parks and landscaping.

In central Tel Aviv, Biran helped transform the aging, rundown Wholesale Market into a new complex of residential units and shops. Biran now serves as president of the Task Force for Urban Renewal in Israel. He sees his projects not only as real estate developments, but also as a way to combat urban slums.

“Urban renewal is one of the best ways to fight poverty,” Biran said. “My passion is to change the situation of some of the poorest neighborhoods in the world.”

Biran lives in Jerusalem these days, and speaks fondly of a city so rich with religious and cultural history. When we met in person this week at a downtown Seattle law firm, he asked me of my own religious views. Come to Israel, he told me, and I will show you my country. Biran took my notebook and scrawled his cell phone in the margins. Please call me, he said. You cannot miss seeing my homeland.

Biran’s obvious passion for his own city can also be seen in his attitude toward greater Seattle. Gesturing toward the law firm’s view of Elliott Bay, ferry boat, and Space Needle, he said that he wanted to work on a development project in Seattle because he believes the city’s ideals match his. While in Israel, Biran read and admired the Puget Sound Regional Council’s Vision 2020, a planning document that heralded compact, high density developments where people live, shop, and work.

“Vision 2020 is one of the most enlightened documents in the literature of urban renewal,” Biran said.

When Biran first visited Point Wells following Alon’s acquisition of the land, he immediately thought the property could exemplify the goals laid out in Vision 2020. He took the idea to Snohomish County officials, who in turn expressed enthusiasm for a project that would clean up industrial land and bring new tax dollars to the county.

Selling the local communities on the project, of course, has not gone so smoothly, and the road to construction remains long and complex. The developers will soon file an urban center application with Snohomish County. They must then begin the process of completing an Environmental Impact Statement, which involves public input and can take as long as two years. Site clean-up would commence after that.

For now, Biran must simply share his dream for what Point Wells could one day become. He sees a neighborhood where a person could wake up in his or her condo, walk the dog along the shore, drop the children off at the local preschool, exercise in the community gym, and then pop in the local coffee shop for a latte.

“I see harmony of nature, habitat, life and people,” Biran said. “Today, Point Wells is ugly and dirty. One day, it can be a Garden of Eden.”

Calling Point Wells a possible Garden of Eden may seem a stretch for a controversial suburban development project, but Biran doesn’t shy away from ambitious proclamations. Point Wells is just one of a long list of projects he still hopes to accomplish in his lifetime. At age 79, he’s nowhere near slowing down.

“I’d like to do so much more,” Biran said. “I need another 100 years.”

Lynda Humphrey February 21, 2011 at 03:43 PM
Wow! I am impressed! I think he is a visionary and we need his expertise, passion, and project.
Dan February 22, 2011 at 03:07 AM
I am tired of millionaires and billionaires buying up every piece of natural shoreline for their own ideas of what is good. There are places like Mr. Birhan wants all over Puget Sound and very few places for the citizen's of Puget Sound to just walk on a uncrowded beach. Everything in America is up for sale to the highest bidder. Our shorelines and beaches are part of our natural treasure and should be for all Americans to enjoy. Take down the Tank Farm and make it a natural shoreline. The area does not need nor want the influx of cars and people this man and his buddies want to bring in. He does not live here. He has more than enough and his legacy is not important to the people who live here. My ancestors did not fight for this country in its many wars to have it sold to the highest bidder. Do we need more condos and coffee shops? Maybe we should change the names of Shoreline and Richmond Beach while we are at it. Pathetic.
JB February 28, 2011 at 11:37 PM
Yes.. his vision would be nice...if it were located in an existing urban landscape and if the transportation infrastructure existed to support such a mamoth development. The truth is that ALL of the traffic from this "utopia" would have to go through a narrow two lane road and his vision would be at the expense of the local communities. Why do you think ALL parties impacted by this are fighting?
chuck w. agen September 02, 2011 at 06:22 AM
Ridiculous. Shameful to use a horrible act to further your 'legacy'. If you truly want to create a legacy, and help to fight poverty with urban renewql, take your projects somewhere that is really needed. Have you been to Tuscaloosa or New Orlens lately? When is the last time you developed aprojectinJoplin Missouri? You here because you think its beautiful and trendytohave 'waterfront condos' on the Puget Sound. To hell with the neighbors. Andguess who will complain the most? Thenew age hippie wannabes that buy the places. They will be the ones complaining, and building gates and fences to keep everyone else out. I saw thisexact thing on the beaches of Florida. Someone who wants to build a legacy under the disguiseof helping to revitalize a neighborhood or 'urban' area. It ended up being an exckusive community. People like m e that grew up swimming and boating there were lockedout and arrested for trespassing. Good luckPoint Wells, and good luck Shoreline.
Anita Zinter January 30, 2013 at 10:03 PM
This land is essentually land locked. There is only one way in and one way out on a very limited access road. Please use this land as a park with water access but certainly not for unlimited residential use. Actually, it is a dead end road. Check the records. Also, if you check the records the Point Wells Prop have an easement access road which runs East up to Woodway, Check this possiblity. Anita Zinter anita_zinter@msn.com

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