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Tuesday, November 7, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Selig Still Has Reasons To Smile

"The trick to painting," says Martin Selig, the amateur painter, "is you gotta know when to stop."

It is a trick that Martin Selig, the professional real-estate developer, was slow to learn. Selig, in a white-hot rush in the 1980s, virtually re-created downtown Seattle, building as much office space by himself as had been built in the city's history before his cigar-chomping arrival.

He not only didn't know when to stop, he insisted on running faster and faster all the time. For most of a decade, he doubled the amount of office space he built each year, culminating in such grand explosions as Columbia Center and Metropolitan Park.

The sound you hear in the development community these days is hardly explosive. It is the clatter of decks being cleared - and no one had more stuff to clear up, put away or get rid of than Selig.

In the past month, Selig has sold two buildings, tying up the very loose ends of a bankruptcy proceeding.

He has farmed out the management of the 20 buildings he still owns to Martin Smith Real Estate, a former competitor. A three-year divorce proceeding is winding down, held up in large part by - what else? - disagreement over the property settlement.

Selig sits now a tenant in his own building at 1000 Second Ave. He spends almost all of his time trying to fend off old creditors and entice new ones.

The message board in his building's elevator offers an unsettling "Welcome to Martin Smith Real Estate," followed by Selig's old telephone number. (That number is almost a hieroglyphic in the levels of meaning it contains; the last four digits being 7600, a reference to the 76 floors of the Columbia Center, which Selig no longer owns, and with which Smith has no connection.)

Selig's offices remain crammed with the paintings - Callahans and Tobeys and Horiuchis - and sculptures and pieces of found art acquired in the heydays. The fact that he has managed to keep them all attests to the escape-artist skills he has used to remain solvent.

What his offices are not full of are deals.

His staff has been reduced to nearly nothing - himself and a couple of assistants. He once bragged that "deals walk in here every day. In the business I'm in, your money will always run out before your deals do."

These days he can't find money or deals. He's not alone.

"No one's had fun in the real-estate business the last five years," he says. "I mean the guys who are no longer in business can't say it was fun."

There was so much money being thrown at so many projects in the 1980s - a kind of blizzard, a whiteout of hundred thousand dollar bills - everybody lost sight of where they were going. Even some developers themselves questioned the sanity of the lenders giving them the money.

Rarely has there been a case where the conventional wisdom was so right. Everybody said there were too many buildings being built for too few tenants. Everybody was right.

The great whiteout of the Eighties was followed by the desert of the Nineties. The development boys and their toys have mainly disappeared, marching in ones and twos into the distance of bankruptcies, foreclosures and all sorts of legal mumble-jumble that did nothing to disguise the central fact: They were going broke.

The great noise of jackhammers has been followed by a great pall of lawyers, muffling everything that won't move under mountains of lawsuits.

Builders of the wave of 1980s high rises projected rents as high as $35 a square foot. Average rents downtown today are $19.

The gulf between those numbers became the abyss that swallowed up most of these projects, almost all of which have been sold or foreclosed upon. The buildings are still there. Most of the owners are not.

Consider: Columbia Center and Two Union Square were sold to their lenders. Gateway AT&T is in default and about to be sold at a bargain-basement price to the city of Seattle. Pacific First Center was lost in foreclosure.

Waterfront houses and fast cars were repossessed or sold. Seats on civic boards were abandoned. Those who didn't lose their buildings outright sold off much of their ownership stakes in them, reducing them to managers more than owners.

And here sits Selig.

The purpose of his house cleaning, he says, is preparation to begin building again. As incredible as this seems, it could be true.

Among the big-time Seattle developers, Selig alone has managed to retain control of his own destiny. Selig owned - or at least held title to, there being something of a distinction here - all of his properties without partners.

He still does. Much of it was cross-collateralized in such a way that tugging at the tangle of finances of one building might cause another to unravel.

The sheer complications of dealing with it have enabled Selig to keep hold of most of it.

He is not exactly standing triumphantly astride the city. He's barely standing, in fact. But he's still here and at 58 young enough to be scouting for deals.

Among the pieces of art in Selig's offices is a carved wooden clown that once stood outside a cigar store. The clown is squat and sturdy, with large features and an eerie grin.

It is impossible to ignore that the clown looks much like its owner, right down to the grin.

Terry McDermott's column appears Tuesday and Thursday. His phone message number is 515-5055. His e-mail address is:

tmcd-new@seatimes.com

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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