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Originally published May 11, 2012 at 8:50 AM | Page modified May 11, 2012 at 9:28 PM

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Obituary: Jack Benaroya, 90, was a prolific developer and quiet philanthropist

Mr. Benaroya built the Northwest's largest privately held commercial real-estate empire by the 1980s, then turned much of his attention to philanthropy.

Seattle Times business reporter

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There's Benaroya Hall. And the Benaroya Research Institute at Virginia Mason Medical Center.

Plus a host of office, industrial and business parks in and around Seattle that over the past half-century have borne the Benaroya name.

They're all monuments to the outsized impact Jack Benaroya had on the city to which he moved with his Lebanese immigrant parents nearly 80 years ago.

Mr. Benaroya, a pioneering real-estate developer and philanthropist who had an aversion to publicity, died Friday, May 11. He was 90.

Starting in the 1950s, he built what became the Northwest's largest privately held commercial real-estate empire, then sold it in 1984 for $315 million — just before the market tanked.

His family got back into real estate in the 1990s, but Mr. Benaroya became better-known for his philanthropic activities.

Through his family foundation, he donated $15 million in 1993 to the Seattle Symphony for a new concert hall. At the time it was the largest gift ever to a Seattle nonprofit — but at first Mr. Benaroya didn't want his identity made public and didn't want the hall named after him.

"If he hadn't stepped up, I don't think we would have the world-class orchestra we have today," said Leslie Chihuly, who chairs the symphony's board.

Tully's Coffee founder Tom O'Keefe met Mr. Benaroya more than 30 years ago, when O'Keefe was a young commercial real-estate broker. The developer wasn't loud or talkative, he said, "but he was a man you could learn much from, without him thinking he was teaching.

"I've always been in awe of the guy. That feeling never left."

Mr. Benaroya was born in Montgomery, Ala., in 1921, and spent his boyhood in California before coming to Seattle in 1933. He graduated from Garfield High School in 1939, went to work for his family's beer distributorship, then served with the Navy in the Philippines during World War II.

He got into real estate in his 30s, at first building post offices. On a trip to Dallas around 1960 he saw something novel — a well-designed "industrial park," with warehouses surrounded by lawns, shrubs, trees and sidewalks — and resolved to bring the concept to the Northwest.

It took off. The Jack A. Benaroya Co. built industrial parks, later called business parks, in South Seattle, the Eastside, South King County and Portland.

"Jack was a man who understood that people work better in a beautiful environment," said Joel Benoliel, whom Mr. Benaroya hired as the company's general counsel in 1978. "He loved things that were orderly and well-kept."

Later the Benaroya Co. developed off-price retail projects in Tukwila that anticipated today's outlet malls. Altogether, its holdings grew to 97 buildings covering 365 acres.

"He always was a step ahead of the market," a broker said of Mr. Benaroya when the company was sold. "Time and time again he was way out in front."

After the 1984 sale, Mr. Benaroya became a venture capitalist. He was an early investor in Starbucks.

But philanthropy became his primary focus. "One of my favorite quotations is, 'Public service is the rent you pay for the space you occupy on this Earth,' " Mr. Benaroya told a reporter in 1993. "I really believe that to be true."

Among his passions: research on type 1 diabetes, after a grandson was diagnosed with the disease. A $3.5 million gift in 1997 from the family foundation helped Virginia Mason build the research center for autoimmune diseases that bears the Benaroya name.

"Perhaps [Mr. Benaroya's] most significant accomplishment was showing an entire community what it means to give back," said Gary Kaplan, Virginia Mason's chairman and CEO.

In addition to the arts and medical research, Mr. Benaroya's philanthropic causes included education and the Jewish community. While some gifts received much attention, "he liked even better the things he did that nobody knew about," said Benoliel, now a Costco senior vice president.

For instance, he said, years ago Mr. Benaroya endowed scholarships that allow four young African-American men from Garfield to attend the University of Washington each year.

Mr. Benaroya chose Garfield because he was an alum, the UW because he'd always wanted to go there, and African-American young men because his research told him they were a group particularly in need, Benoliel said.

He would host lunches for the scholarship winners, ask them to share their stories and dreams and invite past winners who had launched successful careers.

"He'd always be beaming," Benoliel said.

Mr. Benaroya served on numerous boards including the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, United Way of King County, Temple de Hirsch Sinai, Congregation Ezra Bessaroth, the Stroum Jewish Community Center and the Pilchuck Glass School.

When he turned 80 in 2001, then-Mayor Paul Schell proclaimed his birthday "Jack Benaroya Day."

Chihuly, the symphony board chairwoman, said she last saw Mr. Benaroya in Palm Springs, Calif., in January. He was frail, she said, but still liked to get out to galleries and artist receptions: "This guy loved art. He loved music."

In addition to his wife of 70 years, Rebecca (Becky), Mr. Benaroya is survived by a sister, Rose Newhouse, of Seattle; children Donna Benaroya, of Seattle, Alan Benaroya, of San Diego and Larry Benaroya, of Seattle; four grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

A public memorial service will be at 2 p.m. Monday, May 14, at Benaroya Hall. Seattle Symphony musicians, led by conductor laureate Gerard Schwarz, will perform.

The family suggests remembrances to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation Seattle Guild, Benaroya Research Institute at Virginia Mason or the Michael J. Fox Foundation.

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

Eric Pryne: 206-464-2231 or epryne@seattletimes.com

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