SEATTLE — Shraga Biran is a man of big ideas.
The attorney, who is one of Israel’s wealthiest people, arrived in town this week to promote his new book, “Opportunism: How to Change the World One Idea at a Time.”
Biran thought Seattle w
ould be an ideal place to start his U.S. tour, because it’s a “thinking city,” one where people have created so much wealth out of ideas.
It’s also the place where he’s been pitching a big idea of his own, a radical development unlike anything else in the region: Point Wells.
“A good t
ransformation of something that is ugly into something that is beautiful,” he calls it.
The project would turn 61 acres of industrial land between Woodway and Shoreline’s Richmond Beach neighborhood into an architectural showpiece of high-rise condos.
One building would even reach 18 stories, among the tallest in Snohomish County. When finished in 15 to 20 years, there would be more than 3,000 condos plus shops, a central plaza and a public pier.
Biran has brought in world-famous architects to get it done. It’s a controversial plan, though, and it has neighbors in Woodway and Shoreline on edge.
The only way to get to the area is a dead-end two-lane road from the south. Even Biran’s all-star legal and public relations team acknowledge that this traffic bottleneck creates a significant obstacle.
Like the rest of Biran’s life, his plan for Point Wells is ambitious and improbable. But those words describe many accomplishments in his past.
The 78-year-old was born in Poland. Before his 10th birthday, he was forced to flee to the Soviet Union to escape the Nazis. His parents and his brother were killed, according to a 2008 profile in Israel’s Haaretz daily newspaper.
Once in the Soviet Union, Biran was interrogated by the NKVD, the precursor to the KGB. He joined the Soviet partisans fighting the Nazis.
In “Opportunism,” Biran describes emerging alive from the forests of Ukraine in 1944, at the end of World War II. Against all expectations, he had survived. It’s one of the few autobiographical references in the book.
“I experienced the boundless happiness of triumphing over deadly hunger, targeted murder, and torture,” he writes.
He arrived in Israel in 1946, ahead of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. More wars followed in 1956, 1967 and 1973.
Through it all, and without the benefit of a formal education, he managed to enroll in law school.
During an interview Tuesday at the 29th-floor offices of Seattle law firm Karr Tuttle Campbell, Biran didn’t want to dwell on the violence in his past.
In his book, he gives a clue why: “I was always aware of the need to disconnect from the experiences of the past and focus solely on fighting for my future.”
For the past 50 years, he’s devoted himself to law. He says he’s fought against social injustice and ethnic discrimination, and worked to restructure the political and economic systems to give poor people more rights.
“I have a feeling I was born a lawyer and I will continue to be a lawyer,” he said.
Along with practicing law, Biran, a former Marxist, became a major shareholder in real estate and energy interests. He’s one of Israel’s wealthiest people, with a net worth reportedly in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
“A side story” to his legal career, he said, dismissively.
He’s a principal in Alon Group, a company with holdings in Israel, Europe and the United States. Alon Group acquired the Point Wells property in 2005 during a corporate acquisition.
When Biran visited, he found the warren of aging fuel tanks and pipes occupying the site an odd contrast to the trees, sea and mountain views all around.
“In the middle of this you have this ugly, small port filled with tanks from the beginning of the 20th century,” he said.
Biran grew animated as he describes a vision for colorful European-style neighborhoods of promenades and gardens, “where you can live, where you can work, where you can enjoy culture.”
Much of his inspiration comes from urban design concepts that originated in Seattle, and are now being talked up around the globe.
To hear him tell it, he’s trying to put these ideas into action. His vision, he said, follows what the Puget Sound Regional Council outlined in its Vision 2040, a strategy for accommodating 1.7 million new people in this region over the next three decades.
“There’s a great saying that you can’t be a prophet in your (own) town,” he said. “So I am being a prophet in your town.”
With stylish glasses, a black shirt unbuttoned at the top and blue jeans, Biran looks relaxed, like he doesn’t need to impress anybody.
He’s of average height with close-cropped silver hair. He peppers his speech with Hebrew sayings and snippets of Russian. To describe his vision for Point Wells, he uses a melange of French and Italian terms, describing a “quartier” neighborhood and “Ponte Vecchio” bridge.
Much more than just an entrepreneur, Biran’s an intellectual conversant in the great European philosophers. He’s prone to drop paradoxical pearls of wisdom on a listener.
“You have to draw lessons from the future and not from the past,” he said. “The future is becoming nearer and nearer to the present.”
He talks about his development project here with some reluctance, though with bursts of inspiration.
He’s more interested in talking about his book.
Biran spoke at Town Hall Seattle Tuesday night. His book tour also includes stops in Los Angeles, New York, Washington, D.C., and other major U.S. cities.
“Opportunism” is about the democratization of wealth, giving people rights over their ideas and, in general, how to improve the world.
The 209-page volume was released this year by New York publishing house Farrar, Straus and Giroux. It’s a version of a book originally published in Hebrew in 2008.
Biran finds it strange that American bookstores would put his book in the business section. It’s a work of economics, for sure, but one with a philosophical bent. He’s trying to follow in the tradition of thinkers such as Adam Smith, the 18th-century Scotsman who wrote “The Wealth of Nations.”
In his book, Biran is critical of communism, which he said failed during the collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc states. Capitalism, he said, failed during the 2008 economic collapse.
He envisions another route that democratizes intellectual property and opportunity, with more guidance from the state.
He poses a provocative idea: “Even though over the past two centuries opportunism has been stigmatized, it is essentially a positive concept.”
In the interview, he talks about applying these lessons to Egypt, a country he said he’s visited more than 40 times. There’s an economic and social solution. It’ll go to waste, he argued, unless the United States comes up with a plan for Egypt along the lines of the Marshall Plan for rebuilding post-World War II Europe.
It’s not a money-making scheme, he said. The petroleum depot and asphalt plant already produce income. Cleanup costs to prepare for development have been estimated at $20 million to $30 million.
“We’re not in a situation where we must develop it,” he said. “It’s just for pleasure. But you can’t do such a pleasurable element without some economics to it.”
Still, many people can’t understand how the two-lane road that goes there could serve more than 3,000 homes. Point Wells is in unincorporated Snohomish County, but the road runs through King County.
“If they shall not like (it), we will not fight anybody,” Biran said.
Then he warned, “One day they (will) have to ask for mercy from God or nature because they lost an opportunity.”
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, email@example.com.