All Business …
… Her job description, that is. But real estate lawyer Jane Rakay Nelson is about more than finance and acquisition
Published in 2010 Washington Super Lawyers magazine on May 27, 2010
A 5-year-old goldendoodle named Snickers charges across the hallway and careens into the corner office, all ears, tongue and tail. It is 5 o’clock in the afternoon, and a good portion of Lane Powell’s 41st floor office in the City Center building now belongs to Snickers. “He’s a pretty excitable guy,” says his owner, Jane Rakay Nelson. She orders the pooch to calm down, then apologizes: “He loves everybody, but you’ve got to ignore him at first.”
As the highly respected co-chair of Lane Powell’s real estate group, Nelson spends much of her time handling financing, leases and acquisitions for such clients as Home Depot and Chelsea Property Group (which has developed retail property in North Bend and Tulalip). And as chairperson of the Downtown Seattle Association (DSA), her focus is the financial health and vibrancy of the city’s core. In the world of commercial real estate law, Nelson’s warmth and willingness to listen are particularly valuable assets.
She has parlayed her people skills, along with an incisive legal mind and a knack for finding common ground between conflicted parties, into a highly effective career. Since arriving in Seattle in 1989, her clients have included Nordstrom and United Dominion Realty Trust, headquartered in Virginia and the fourth largest public apartment real estate investment trust in the United States. She is co-chair of the Fred Hutchinson Research Center Business Affiliates Council and on the board of the Woodland Park Zoo.
Nelson grew up in a town with no stoplights and the epitome of a bucolic name—Shadyside, Ohio. “My parents were from New York City,” Nelson explains, “and when I tell people that they moved to this little town of 5,000, they ask, ‘How did they end up there?’” She quips: “They must have run out of gas.” The little town in Ohio was a great place to raise kids, and, in her words, “My dad was a jock, and there’s no place like Ohio if you’re a jock.” Nelson’s father owned a men’s clothing store and her mother taught elementary school. Nelson and her two older brothers thrived. The boys were athletes, but she never played team sports. “I was before Title IX,” she says with a wry smile. “I played one game of powder-puff football in college.”
Nelson got a degree in elementary education at Ohio State University in 1975, taught school for three years, then worked in a federal nutrition-education program. But law school had always appealed to her, and both her brothers had law degrees, so Nelson enrolled in Duquesne University School of Law and got her law degree in 1985. She went to work in Pittsburgh in health care law, but came out West in 1988, fell in love with the region, and moved here the next year. “Every day, you could see something beautiful right outside,” Nelson says. And it wasn’t just the natural charms of the Northwest that made it easy to move. “Let me put it this way,” she says. “In the firm in Pittsburgh, there was a 2,000-hour billing minimum, and I was a mother with a small child.” She pauses. “Seattle was different. People here have multiple interests.”
Nelson arrived with a background in health care, and Lane Powell was looking for a real estate attorney. Fortunately, she had done a bit of real estate work for several health-care clients, but even so, when she was offered the position, she hesitated. “I asked my friends about real estate law, and they said, ‘Make sure it’s not just loan work.’ So I asked Lane Powell, and they said, ‘Oh, no, it’s not.’ But … and you know where this is going … the first two years were almost all loan work.” Nelson, however, now looks back at that time as valuable training.
In the late ’80s, the region, and Seattle in particular, was embarking on a boom to rival the Klondike Gold Rush explosion at the end of the previous century. Boeing was turning out four lines of jets, Microsoft was getting its legs, and Internet entrepreneurs were blowing bubbles like clowns at a birthday party. Nelson had never seen anything like it. “Right after I arrived,” she recalls, “all the California folks were coming to Seattle. Real estate prices spiked. In my practice, we’d look at these leases and everyone wanted room to expand—everyone was looking for room to grow. And then, a few years later, everyone wanted out.”
One of the new arrivals was the Home Depot Corp. To take advantage of the regional building boom, it was opening an array of large warehouse-style retail stores. Home Depot hired Lane Powell in 1991, and Nelson took on much of the work. “They were very entrepreneurial,” Nelson says. “And we were not just their scriveners—they wanted us involved in a lot of the process.”
David Johansen, a former colleague at Lane Powell, and now vice president and counsel for Nordstrom, describes their role working with Home Depot: “They were expanding rapidly, and I don’t think they had the corporate infrastructure to handle it all.”
Home Depot put Nelson and Johansen in charge of their projects. “They wanted us to be the quarterbacks,” he says. Nelson remembers loving it. “We got to be part of the team from start to finish. We did environmental impacts, property negotiation, land-use issues, dealt with contractors. For real estate lawyers, that’s really fun.” And challenging. Johansen (whom Nelson calls her mentor) explains, “Contractors weren’t used to answering to lawyers. Everybody had their own agenda. It was a good opportunity to exercise creativity.”
Johansen recalls that Nelson took readily to the demands of the role. “She naturally relates well to people. Her default mode is that more down-to-earth, small-town style. But,” he adds, “if somebody did something wrong, she could definitely get her back up. She didn’t take that sort of thing lightly.”
It was a fruitful partnership, and nearly 20 years later, Nelson—and Lane Powell—still represents Home Depot. But the economic slide has affected the needs of Home Depot, along with many of Lane Powell’s other commercial real estate clients and consequently her practice. “The work that has been coming in is a different kind. We’re doing some workout business for banks now.” She pauses a moment to reflect. “There are a lot of real estate lawyers who are not very busy. Fortunately, we have not had to lay anyone off.”
At the same time, much of her focus has shifted to the city’s core, of which she has a stunning view from her corner office. The city’s downtown has changed dramatically since she arrived. “In 1990, 6th Avenue was deserted on a Thursday night,” she reflects. “Now it’s hopping. It has become a thriving place. I think downtown has grown up a bit in the last 10 years. There’s been more than $2 billion invested—that’s amazing.”
Downtown is central to Nelson in a lot of ways. She lives and works there, walks Snickers there, and jogs there. It is also how she expresses much of her passion for community—through her role in the executive leadership of the DSA, a business, nonprofit, arts and residential association whose mission is “to champion a healthy, vibrant, urban core.” The position is right up her alley, according to Blake Nordstrom, a longtime friend of Nelson and himself a former DSA chair. “She’s been terrific about working with a very diverse group—she’s a great listener, super-smart and outcome-oriented. She doesn’t have a boisterous style, but don’t underestimate her.”
Nelson has some clear goals for her tenure as chairperson: “We have several priorities we are working on—safe and clean streets, healthy residential communities, transportation, and retention and attraction of new employers.” The last is a crucial point, especially after the demise of Washington Mutual (only losing Seattle’s NBA franchise hurt as much, says Nelson, betraying her genetically based athletic roots). The DSA helped woo Russell Investments, which announced last fall that it would relocate from Tacoma to the former Washington Mutual Tower.
“Jobs are crucial to a healthy downtown,” says Nelson. “What was important to [Russell CEO Andrew Doman] was the base of knowledge workers here. Seattle has that. He now wants to create a core financial center.”
Piloting the DSA through the current economic downturn will call on all of Nelson’s diplomatic and strategic skills. In addition, Seattle has a new mayor with a new set of priorities. “We align on a lot of issues, like density and transit, and I know he loves the city as much as we do,” she says. “We just have to figure out how to navigate and align on issues that we don’t agree on.” The DSA strongly supports replacing the Alaskan Way viaduct with a tunnel, and, though that is not Mayor Mike McGinn’s preferred option, he has said he will not stand in its way.
Nelson believes that, without the car tunnel, the city’s center would suffer from the loss of a vital north-south automobile corridor. “I live downtown,” she says. “I walk to work. But everyone is not going to start riding a bike.”
Plus, it took years of hand-wringing and debate—business as usual in Seattle—before the decision was made to build a tunnel. Nelson chuckles: “That’s the Seattle process, and that can sure drive you crazy.”
However, she also knows when it’s time to take a page from her Midwest past. “Seattle’s a small town,” she notes. “You work with the same people over and over again. When you talk about how to work with any category—with my associates, or the city council, or board work—it all comes down to relationships.” And that’s where her natural people skills come into play. “You don’t get to rule by fiat,” she says. “You make things happen with relationships—that’s what’s important to me.”