Daniels, Kevin (b. 1957)

  • By Nick Rousso
  • Posted 8/30/2022
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 22515

Kevin Daniels (b. 1957) has been a leading figure in Seattle real-estate development and historic preservation for more than 35 years. Born in Idaho and educated at Gonzaga University in Spokane, he began his career as an accountant before joining Nitze-Stagen, a New York-based firm with an eye on Seattle real estate, in 1987. With Daniels serving as its operations chief, and later as Nitze-Stagen's president, the company bought and developed the historic Sears building, restored Union Station to its former glory, and renovated Merrill Place in Pioneer Square. In 2007 Daniels took charge of his own company, Daniels Real Estate, which developed the north parking lot at the site of the former Kingdome, saved the city's oldest church from the wrecking ball, and built the dramatic F5 Tower on 5th Avenue. In his final major project, Daniels repurposed the dilapidated Saint Edward Seminary in Kenmore into the luxurious Lodge at Saint Edward Park.

Childhood in Idaho

Kevin Daniels seems rather ambivalent about growing up in small-town Idaho. On the one hand, Nampa, a bustling rail stop on the Union Pacific line, was a peaceful place surrounded by wide-open spaces. Born there on March 9, 1957, young Kevin was awed by the steam engines chugging in and out of the local rail yards, the beginning of his lifelong love affair with trains. He excelled at just about everything he tried. He took up tennis and became one of the best youth players in Idaho; he played the trumpet and earned All-American honors in the Nampa High School band. But by the spring of his senior year in 1975, Daniels couldn't wait to get out of Nampa. His parents, James (b. 1933) and Noreen (1934-2020), would be lifelong residents of the town. Their son, one of seven siblings, yearned for something bigger. 

In Nampa, Daniels felt stifled at school, where, he recalled, "the education was poor, and I wasn’t prepared for college in any shape or form" (interview with author). He also was sensitive to the town's overwhelming lack of diversity. "Growing up was different, in that the only non-whites in the whole town were a couple, Japanese, who stayed after the war; they had been in Minidoka. I remember we had an African American family move into town and they were like celebrities. So Nampa was very white, and very religious. It’s the home of Northwest Nazarene [University]; 60 percent of the people are Mormons, and 30 to 35 percent are Nazarene. So religion, and what church you belonged to, played a huge part. I can’t tell you how many girlfriends’ houses I was thrown out of when they learned that I was Catholic" (interview). 

Daniels's first foray into the wider world came during his senior year at Nampa High, when he was one of two Idahoans named to the McDonald's All-American High School Band. Part of the reward was a trip to New York City to march in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. "For a small-town kid, that was shocking," he recalled. "My first airplane ride was to JFK ... I cannot stress enough how that changed my life, and from that point on, the small town had no interest ... I got the hell out when I graduated from high school. I was gone" (interview). 

Daniels had hoped to attend the University of Notre Dame and play in the band, but with no scholarships forthcoming, he pivoted to a less-costly option in Spokane. "My older sister had gone to Gonzaga, and that was the year of the world’s fair, so we marched up there, and I thought, 'Huge city!' That would be really cool, and it was a long ways from Nampa. We got plenty of [financial] help from the school; that made it easier" (interview). He quit the band to focus on tennis, and by the start of his sophomore year he was the team's captain and No. 1 player, a lanky, nimble athlete with a 100 mph serve. He studied accounting and aced that too, graduating with honors in 1979. 

Into the Working World

Daniels jumped into his professional career when Johnson & Shute, an accounting firm in Bellevue, hired him in 1979. He spent eight years there, learning the ropes and advancing quickly. According to one report, "Daniels was a financial wunderkind whose broad interests and technical talents led him to train many of his clients' property managers, while also structuring complex financial models" (MacIntosh, 47). In 1987, he left Johnson & Shute to join business partners Peter Nitze (b. 1935) and Frank Stagen (1934-2013) in their new property firm, Nitze-Stagen. A pair of New Yorkers, Nitze and Stagen had targeted Seattle as a place to do big things in real estate. Daniels referred to them as "opportunists" rather than developers, and the men, Nitze in particular, were flush with money. Stagen hailed from a successful real-estate family, and Nitze's great-grandfather, Charles Pratt, had co-founded Standard Oil of New York. 

After consulting for New York-based Eastman Kodak on various projects, Nitze-Stagen consummated its first Seattle deal on December 7, 1990, when it bought the Sears Roebuck store and distribution center on 1st Avenue South for $11.6 million. A cavernous structure encompassing 2.1 million square feet, it is the second-largest building in the state behind the Boeing plant in Everett. Sears, its retail dynasty in a death spiral, would continue to occupy sections of the building until 2014. Nitze-Stagen converted other areas to office space, while much of the site was used for storage (the Port of Seattle kept millions of collectible Cabbage Patch Kids there in the early '90s). Daniels was charged with both accounting and operations, essentially learning on the fly. "We had to figure out what to do with it, so we had to learn development, property management, and all those necessary tools over a period of a couple decades," he recalled. "From the day we bought it, it was uncertain. Sears had tried to sell three times previously and failed. But it's within a half-mile of downtown, and that was the main focal point. Frank Stagen always thought the city would grow to the south, and we just had to wait and be patient" (interview).

Nitze-Stagen's fortunes turned for the good in 1993 when it leased 15,000 square feet to Starbucks, a temporary home for the coffee company, which had plans to build its headquarters in Kent. But the Kent plans changed when Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz fell in love with the Sears building. "It was old and recycled and was the Starbucks way," Daniels said in 2022. "Now they have nearly 1.4 million square feet in that building. There’s lots of cool stuff inside, and they’ve been able to grow as needed" (interview). In 1997 the building's name was changed from SODO Center to Starbucks Center, though Nitze-Stagen, in partnership with other families, continues to own it and capture its prodigious revenue stream. "It's the mothership," Daniels said (interview).

Marriage, Family, and Union Station

Daniels was a couple of years into his accounting career when he met Mary Gorman (b. 1957) at a Seattle house party. Mary had grown up in Quincy, daughter of the high school principal and an elementary school teacher, and attended Gonzaga for two years before transferring to the University of Washington. She didn't know Daniels at Gonzaga, though they had crossed paths once in Quincy, when she saw him playing tennis. "I had an Afro," she recalled, "and Kevin had really long hair, even longer [than Bjorn Borg], and he had these puka shells and these really big glasses. We met later and we never made the connection, because we both looked so different then" (Mary Daniels interview with author). The get-together in Seattle included mutual friends from Gonzaga. "My girlfriends were throwing a party," Mary said, "and everyone was poor, so we decided to have a baked-potato party where everybody brings the condiments – the cheese, the bacon, the chives -- and then they had the beer. So we met at a baked-potato party! One of my friends had told me that Kevin was kind of cynical, so I had it in my mind that this guy was a jerk. But later he asked me out on a date" (interview). They were married two years later, in 1984, in a ceremony at Saint John Vianney Parish at the Saint Thomas Seminary in Kenmore. The rehearsal dinner took place in Saint Edward State Park, a place that would remain near and dear to the couple for the rest of their lives. 

Their first child, Kevin, was born in 1985. Mary suffered complications during the pregnancy, and Kevin was nine weeks premature and weighed just 3 pounds, 4 ounces. "He wasn't supposed to survive," Kevin Daniels said, but baby Kevin made it through. A second son, Chris, arrived in 1987, followed by James in 1993. The boys followed their father into various business pursuits -- Kevin in construction, Chris in marketing, and James as a CPA at Johnson & Shute. The family lived in the Woodridge neighborhood of Bellevue until 1992, when they moved into their dream home in Newcastle. A year later, Starbucks took up residence in the Sears building, and Daniels's career took flight.  

His next big project was a monumental challenge: Renovating Union Station, a decaying former rail hub on the western edge of the Chinatown International District. "After Starbucks moved in, we finally had some hope," Daniels said. "It was tough days for a long time there, paying the mortgage and everything. But we finally got to a point where we had the internal capacity and reputation in town to pursue another deal. We went after Union Station, which had been shut down since 1971, and it was just a horrible place. That's where my love of trains really kicked in ... I was like a dog with a bone – there was no way, no way, I wasn’t going to do it, no matter who got in the way" (interview). 

The Union Pacific Railroad had abandoned Union Station and it was becoming an eyesore, Daniels said. "I brought up my partner to walk the site, and his first comment was, 'Where do I get the demo company [to tear it down]' ... we ended up taking out two tons of pigeon poop, and under Jackson Street there was a prostitution den for the Amtrak workers, it was just disgusting. There were mattresses down there, and all kinds of leftover things; you can use your imagination ... It was in tough shape. The windows hadn't been in for decades. The pigeons controlled it. It was an ugly, messy cleanup. Now, it was a spectacular restoration of a historic building that was able to be put back into the same use as it was before. Returning the Great Hall to the public, it was so beautiful and still is. And that got me hooked on preservation. If I can do that, what else can I do?" (interview). 

To finance the Union Station renovation, Nitze-Stagen partnered with Paul Allen (1953-2018), who built his Vulcan company headquarters adjacent to the station. Daniels brought together architects, engineers, permit specialists, financiers, construction people, and some of the finest craftsmen in the region. "I was the conductor," he said with a laugh. "I have no talent other than swinging my arms" (interview). Later, he would say that Union Station was his most satisfying project. "It is a magnificent structure, and I personally painted some of the gold leaf in the space. People thought we were nuts to do that project, but that's not unusual. They call me Mikey [from the Life cereal commercials] in some circles. If no one else wants the project, give it to Mikey" (Jones). When it was complete, Nitze-Stagen gave the station to Sound Transit for $1 but continues to own the land underneath. 

Pioneer Square and Beyond

With Daniels as its point man, Nitze-Stagen turned to other projects in Pioneer Square. In 1997, the firm purchased Merrill Place, a sprawling complex of four brick-and-beam buildings on 1st Avenue South. The site had been abandoned by Aldus (later Adobe) in its move to Seattle's Fremont neighborhood. "It was vacant, and Pioneer Square was vacant," Daniels recalled. "There were no offices down there at all. So we got a good deal, and that was the linchpin in starting to rebuild Pioneer Square" (interview). 

On February 28, 2001, the Nisqually Earthquake shook Pioneer Square to its bones. Damage was extensive, and 16 buildings were flagged as too dangerous to inhabit. Some owners began making plans for demolition, but Daniels, then the president of Historic Seattle -- the city-sponsored agency for historic preservation -- saw another opportunity, brokering a deal to purchase the heavily damaged Hotel Cadillac building on 2nd Avenue South and renovate it. Built immediately following the Great Seattle Fire of 1889, the Cadillac was "a 25-cent-a-night hotel catering to men who worked in the coal mines and logging camps and aboard fishing boats, which until World War I drove the Puget Sound economy" ("Demolition Plans Jolt Pioneer Square"). Historic Seattle paid $2 million for the building, and in 2003 it reopened as the home of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, a museum with offices on the upper floors. 

Daniels, who became Nitze-Stagen's president in 1999, took on more responsibilities in 2007 when the firm handed him its development portfolio and spun off a new company -- Daniels Real Estate -- to manage it. Daniels would continue to run both companies until severing his ties with Nitze-Stagen in 2019, six years after the death of his friend and mentor Frank Stagen. 

In 2010, Daniels co-founded the Alliance for Pioneer Square, a group tasked with promoting and revitalizing the neighborhood. The following year The Seattle Times reported that Daniels "is leading a street-level revival in Pioneer Square. Spurred by the departure last year of the neighborhood's premier retailer, Elliott Bay Book Co., he became co-chair of Pioneer Square's business association and pushed it to join the Main Street program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, where he is a trustee. The Alliance for Pioneer Square -- whose other co-chair is former Seattle Mayor Charley Royer -- plans to use the program, which typically focuses on small towns, as a catalyst for urban growth" ("Wanted: A New Breed ...").

Meanwhile, on Daniels's drawing board was a grand plan to develop the north parking lot at the site of the Kingdome, which was imploded in 2000 and replaced by a stadium for the Seahawks and team owner Paul Allen. As part of the stadium deal with King County, the north lot was earmarked for low-income housing, but nothing was built during the 10 years Allen maintained control of the lot and its revenues of about $3 million per year. When Allen's lease expired, Daniels and partner Opus, the nation's largest developer, submitted a winning bid to develop the property. (Opus was bought out in 2009 by Seattle's R. D. Merrill family.) "All of the sudden I went from being partners with Paul Allen to taking away one of his most valuable assets," Daniels recalled. "We went through a couple of years of real warfare, and refined the buildings and improved the density, and then cut a deal with the county. Finally, in 2012 we kicked if off, and I think everybody, including the Seahawks, are really thrilled with how it worked out" (interview). The first phase of Stadium Place -- the Wave, a 26-story high-rise with 333 apartments, and the Nolo, a 10-story apartment building with 107 units -- was completed in 2014.

Saving the Sanctuary

In the early 2000s, Daniels and Historic Seattle began to take a keen interest in preserving the First United Methodist Church at 5th Avenue and Marion Street. The congregation had been founded in the 1850s as Seattle's first church, and the 5th Avenue site -- a stout, Beaux Arts brick-and-terracotta beauty -- had been its home since 1907. But with church membership in steep decline and property values rising, the congregation was eager to sell the site and move to a smaller and less-costly one. At the same time, an investment firm in San Francisco was looking for opportunities in Seattle. "I went into this meeting," Daniels recalled, "and the opportunity to save the church just happened to mesh perfectly with their wanting to build a high-rise. And the rest is history" (interview).

The fight to save the church was contentious. In 1996, the state supreme court had ruled against the city's bid to have it declared a landmark. Seattle developer Martin Selig controlled the property for a time and planned to demolish the church. Meanwhile, against the wishes of the congregation, Daniels and other preservationists agitated to save it. As Daniels recalled, "They wanted nothing to do with me. We were out there with bullhorns, we were filing lawsuits to stop the demolition of the building, and to my rescue came Ron Sims, Dow Constantine, Diane Sugimura, and Greg Nickels. Ron, being a preacher, went in and preached about the need for community, and they can do this. Diane was a true visionary. It took each of them to make it possible" (interview). 

In 2007, with Sims (the King County Executive and an ordained Baptist minister), Constantine (a King County Council member), Nickels (the Mayor of Seattle), and Sugimura (director of the city's department of planning and development) in his corner, Daniels submitted a proposal that was finally accepted by the congregation. The purchase price was $32 million. The restoration consumed another $40 million, well over the original estimate. "What made it pencil for Daniels is the rest of the half-block parcel, which had held a mid-century church activities building. It just happened to be big enough to replace with a tower alongside the church. Daniels ... worked with architect ZGF to come up with a redevelopment plan. The great recession would come and go, delaying construction after a start in 2008, so that The Mark did not top out until 2016. The renovation of The Sanctuary didn’t begin until late in 2015" (Enlow). 

Building the Mark

From the time he arrived in Western Washington in 1979, Daniels professed a certain disdain for the architecture in downtown Seattle. "I believe that during the big growth in the eighties and nineties, we let the bean counters, like me, design the buildings. So you ended up with -- besides 1201 and maybe Unico 2 -- really pedestrian, ugly buildings," he said. "Without naming anyone in particular, just look at our skyline. We have this wonderful Space Needle on one side, so I've always thought that the cornerstones should be great architecture that costs more. Down the road, you'll sell the building for better cap rate, and you'll make it back, and forget the bean counters" (interview).

When planning The Mark (now known at F5 Tower), Daniels envisioned a sleek and dynamic skyscraper that would stand out from the ordinary. In the end, few expenses were spared, and the final construction cost was $500 million. Among the building's unique features is the exterior structural system, a skeleton of "diagrids" that allow for floor-to-ceiling windows. An additional $5 million was spent on high-tech glass that absorbs heat when it's cold outside, and reflects heat when it's warm. An extra foot was added to the floor heights, to 13 feet, 6 inches. From its narrow base, the building gets wider on the upper floors, inhabiting air space over the church and the Rainier Club below.

The design process left no stone unturned. "We had a competition," Daniels recalled. "My sister (Angi Davis) did one team and I did the other to decide if we had one person as an inspiration for the building, who would that be? My team chose Audrey Hepburn, and she chose Richard Branson. From there we went to ZGF; we probably went through 100 various designs of what could go there and what would represent those people. I always knew I would win, since I had the funding [laughs], much to the chagrin of my sister. But there was a poster from Breakfast at Tiffany's, and I'm sitting there, and I said, 'Have you guys ever thought about doing this?' And Greg Baldwin and Allyn Stellmacher from ZGF took it and ran ... We ended up loving the design with the diagrids, but it had never been done in the U.S., so we ended up having to hire a company that had done crazy stuff in China to figure out how to build this in a place zoned for earthquakes" (interview). The Hepburn influence is seen in the building's graceful lines. One of the diagrids is at the same angle as her cigarette holder in the movie poster. Look closely, Daniels said, and you can see her hip and elbow. 

Daniels Real Estate and its San Francisco investors were handsomely rewarded when they sold the building in two separate transactions in December 2019, shortly before the pandemic. Lotte Hotels, an international chain based in Korea, purchased the 189-room hotel (levels 2 through 16) and adjoining Sanctuary for $169.5 million. KKR, a New York-based private equity firm, bought the upper floors (20 through 48) for $458 million. All told, Daniels and his investors recouped $628 million. 

A Final Flourish in Kenmore

Among his other projects, Daniels and his company developed the Emerald condominium tower near Pike Place Market, the Gridiron in the shadow of Lumen Field, and the Graystone on First Hill. His next major preservation effort took him to Kenmore and the derelict Saint Edward Seminary. Recalled Daniels, "When I finished the Sanctuary downtown, I was looking for another historic project. I got a call from a friend of Frank Stagen's who was on the board of Bastyr University, and they were interested in the building to increase their dorm space and have more classrooms. So we worked on that for a year and a half, and then Bastyr decided to expand their campus in La Jolla (California) instead. At that point the state put it out to bid, and I just couldn't say no. We had our marriage up there" (interview). Daniels secured the building by agreeing to purchase 10 acres nearby, including 900 feet of Lake Washington waterfront, for public use. The state granted him a 62-year lease on the seminary property. 

Located in Saint Edward State Park, the seminary had been vacant since 1978, and while it was structurally sound, it required massive upgrades. The final tab was $58.5 million. Nearby residents wanted it torn down, and the fight to keep it got personal. "It was like The Sanctuary, except that this time we were on the other side of public opinion," Daniels said. "At the seminary, all the neighbors wanted the building to be demolished so they could have a park and it wouldn't have people coming in and ruining their experience and their park. So that part was tough on us, especially Mary. The things people do, the stories they make up ... they were nasty. We got sued right and left, and it was just a grind. Unfortunately, we fell in love with the building and the ties to our life ... I knew I wasn't going to walk away from that project because she wouldn't let me" (interview). 

The Lodge at Saint Edward State Park opened to much fanfare on May 7, 2021. A luxury hotel, the building incorporates public art, a gallery for emerging artists, restaurants and bars, gardens, and even an apiary. But it would be Daniels's final major project. On December 17, 2018, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). "I knew something was up when we were in Ireland (in 2017)," Mary Daniels recalled. "He was taking a photograph, he turned his camera, and he fell over sideways, just like a log. After two head-first falls down a flight of stairs, it took a crash at my mom's house, when his head went into a cabinet, before he went to a doctor ... The doctor laid it out: 'You better do your bucket list right now because you'll be in a wheelchair by the end of the year, and you have on average 2 to 6 years to survive.' I looked at the doctors and said, 'Tell me about the outliers'" (Mary Daniels interview). 

Three and a half years after his diagnosis, Daniels was in fact an outlier. He was still walking under his own power. His personal charm was fully intact. But because ALS is exacerbated by stress, he had backed away from the day-to-day grind at work. His standing as one of the region's foremost preservationists was secure. "I want people to realize the impact on the skyline, both in terms of architecture and sustainability," he said of his body of work. "I'm really proud of my generation of developers, like Ada Healey at Vulcan and Greg Smith. They pushed sustainable development and showed it can be done, where Seattle is one of the leaders in the world in that, bar none. And then obviously, preservation, showing that with perseverance and fortitude, you can do big projects and think big and leave legacies" (interview). 


Nick Rousso interview with Kevin Daniels and Mary Daniels, July 15, 2022, transcript in possession of Nick Rousso, Seattle; "People on the Move," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 8, 1999, p. B-3; Kathy Mulady, "$32 Million Deal Saves Historic Church," Ibid., May 31, 2007, p. B-1; Kathy Mulady, "Historic Church Reprieved," Ibid., August 26, 2006, p. B-1; Paige Cornwell, "Life for a Long-Neglected Landmark," The Seattle Times, May 7, 2021 (www.seattletimes.com); Melissa Allison, "Wanted: A New Breed of Pioneers to Settle Seattle's Oldest Neighborhood," Ibid., January 23, 2011; Susan Gilmore, "Demolition Plans Jolt Pioneer Square," Ibid., March 29, 2001, p. B-1; Sanjay Bhatt, "How Historic Sanctuary Was Saved," The Seattle Times, May 31, 2007, p. B-1; Bob Young, "Big Plans for Qwest Field Lot," Ibid., July 1, 2005, p. A-1; Eric Pryne, "Parking Dispute May Stall Project at Football Stadium," Ibid., August 26, 2011, p. B-1; Susan Gilmore, "Reborn From the Earthquake," Ibid., February 28, 2011, p. B-1; Susan Gilmore, "Historic Buildings Fund Set Up," Ibid., March 21, 2001, p. B-4; Bob Young, "Nearly 1,000 Condos, Apartments Planned for Lot at Qwest Field," Ibid., July 5, 2006, p. A-1; Tim Jones, "An Interview With a Seattle Real Estate Icon," JLL Real Estate Consultants website accessed August 1, 2022 (https://www.danielsre.com/media/news/news/2017/JLL-Story-on-KDD.pdf); HistoryLink Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Washington State Supreme Court Rules Against Seattle Landmark Designation of First United Methodist Church on May 9, 1996" (by Greg Lange) www.historylink.org (accessed August 1, 2022; Eric Scigliano, "A Higher Calling," Seattle Met magazine, February 18, 2010, Seattle Met magazine website accessed August 1, 2022 (https://www.seattlemet.com/news-and-city-life/2010/02/higher-calling0310); Brian Miller, "Kevin Daniels Bids Adieu to Ground-up Development," Daily Journal of Commerce website accessed August 1, 2022 (https://www.djc.com/news/re/12140222.html); Brian Miller, "Korean Hotelier Buys F5 Tower Hotel, With Former Church Included, for $169M," December 30, 2019, Daily Journal of Commerce website accessed August 1, 2022 (https://www.djc.com/news/re/12128381.html?action=get&id=12128381&query=kevin%20daniels); Sam Bennett, "A Slender, Stylish Star Inspires Designers to Create a Tower With a Twist: The Mark," May 9, 2016, Daily Journal of Commerce website accessed August 10, 2022 (https://www.danielsre.com/media/news/news/2016/2016-5-9-DJC-A-slender-stylish-star-inspires-designers-to-create-a-tower-with-a-twist.pdf). 

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