Location, Location, Location

Real estate attorney Susan Lee Daly’s parents crossed the 38th parallel, then an ocean, to give her this opportunity

Published in 2015 San Diego Super Lawyers — February 2015

Real estate attorney Susan Lee Daly knew her parents had escaped from North Korea; but it wasn’t until 2013, when one of her sons interviewed her mother for a school assignment on immigration, that she heard the whole story.

Daly’s mother, who grew up under the Japanese occupation of the peninsula, escaped from the Communist North at age 19 with her aunt and 12-year-old cousin. “They left on a train heading south and were detained by North Korean soldiers and sent to a detention facility,” says Daly. “At the facility they escaped with the help of a paid guide. They slept during the day in a safe house and walked single file at night, so North Korean soldiers would not detect them. My mom remembers being provided a single match to light only in emergency.”

She didn’t have to light it. In the end, they trekked across the frozen Han River at the 38th Parallel, hitched a ride and arrived in Seoul with no money. After learning to type from a friend, she started work at the U.S. Embassy.

“There, she met my [North Korean-born] father, who was a photojournalist,” says Daly. When he left the Embassy in 1968, he moved the entire family to Los Angeles for a new life.

Daly adds, “My mother first worked for the U.S. Embassy and then she ended up getting a job for the CIA.”

The CIA?

“I know,” she says, laughing. “You meet my mom; she’s 4-foot-11.” Daly remembers entering the second grade without any knowledge of English—although she had recently been given a new English name. “The school thought it would be easier for us to acclimate to life in the U.S.,” she says. 

Today Daly is a partner at Hecht Solberg Robinson Goldberg & Bagley. As a real estate attorney, she guides developers with residential, commercial and mixed-use common interest projects in downtown San Diego and Los Angeles. She’s built a reputation for solving a variety of problems.

For example: the complications surrounding the construction of Vantage Pointe high-rise, a mile north of Petco  Park. “It was basically selling by the hour on the hour” in 2004, Daly says. But as construction of the 679-unit condominium project neared completion, the world economy collapsed and real estate values plummeted. Buyers wanted out of their deals; potential buyers couldn’t get financing. When the Canadian developer Pointe of View had to pay off a $210 million construction loan, it turned to Daly.

She had the idea to restructure and create a vertical master-planned community. Splitting it into five subprojects, with units for rent and for sale, meant her client didn’t have to sell so many units to meet presale requirements set by mortgage lenders. But they did get an offer for the entire project, and, in 2010, Vantage Pointe sold for $200 million.

More recently, for the 900-unit Pinnacle Towers project going up in downtown San Diego, Daly has structured the deal so the developer can handle an up or down real estate market. “It gives our client the flexibility to do a for-sale or for-rent or a combination,” says Daly. “It also has an affordable housing component in the project.”

The two 45-story Pinnacle Towers will be the biggest project in downtown San Diego, but Daly knows the developer has more plans—and work—in store.

Work she doesn’t mind.

“When I think I’m working too hard, I think about my parents and how hard it was for them,” she says. “The book Nothing to Envy [subtitled: Ordinary Lives in North Korea] was very difficult for me to read because I thought it could have been my parents if they did not leave. And sadly, it was probably my grandparents’ life because they did not leave. My parents’ experiences, their strong work ethic and the sacrifices they made for their children made me who I am today. … I don’t think I had any choice other than to work hard. I had amazing role models.”

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