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Walter H. Shorenstein dies at 95; Democratic Party fundraiser and San Francisco real estate mogul

He headed one of the country's largest privately owned real estate firms, with holdings across the nation, and was the California Democratic Party's 1985 Man of the Year.

June 26, 2010|By Dennis McLellan, Los Angeles Times
  • Walter Shorenstein, who played a key role in keeping the Giants from leaving San Francisco, shakes hands with manager Dusty Baker in 1993.
Walter Shorenstein, who played a key role in keeping the Giants from leaving… (Michael Macor / San Francisco…)

Walter H. Shorenstein, known as a titan of downtown San Francisco real estate development and a highly influential Democratic Party donor and fundraiser, has died. He was 95.

Shorenstein, former chairman and chief executive of the Shorenstein Co., died of natural causes Thursday at his home in San Francisco, said a family spokesperson.

"He was a man of extraordinary vision, leadership and wisdom," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said in a statement, describing Shorenstein as "a proud San Franciscan, a great American and a dear friend."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) called Shorenstein "a civic giant whose legacy is imprinted on the skylines of San Francisco, Oakland and many cities across the nation."

"He was a street-smart, self-made man whose business acumen was matched by a lifelong dedication to both politics and philanthropy," Feinstein said in a statement.

A World War II veteran who said he arrived in San Francisco after the war with "no job, a pregnant wife and less than $1,000 to my name," Shorenstein went on to head one of the country's largest privately owned real estate firms, with holdings across the nation.

By 1985, when he bought Bank of America's 52-story world headquarters in downtown San Francisco, Shorenstein was known as the city's biggest landlord. He estimated at the time that he owned or managed about 25% of the building space in San Francisco, some 10 million square feet of office and commercial real estate.

"It's the premier building in the world," Shorenstein told the San Francisco Chronicle the day the Bank of America deal was announced. "There is no comparison."

At the time, Shorenstein had recently been named the California Democratic Party's 1985 Man of the Year.

He had donated $190,000 to help bring the Democratic National Convention to San Francisco in 1984 and spearheaded efforts to raise an additional $1.8 million.

"When Walter Shorenstein asks for a contribution, people sit up and listen," Thomas E. Horn, attorney for the host committee for the convention, told The Times in 1985.

Charles T. Manatt, a former California and national Democratic Party chairman, described Shorenstein on Friday as "a very stand-up guy and longtime stalwart of the Democratic Party campaigns going back 50 or more years."

"For many years," Manatt said, "Walter Shorenstein and [movie mogul] Lew Wasserman were the two leading people as far as both personal support and also getting other people of good names to support the national party, and the presidential candidates and the Senate candidates as well.

"He was certainly very involved in the strategy-making of many of the different campaigns," Manatt said.

The walls of Shorenstein's office, The Times reported in 1985, were filled with inscribed photos and mementos of former Presidents Johnson and Carter and former Vice President Walter Mondale.

A year earlier, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter had spent the night at Shorenstein's Seacliff mansion on their way to China.

In 1993, at the request of then-Mayor Frank Jordan, Shorenstein played a key role in the successful effort to keep the San Francisco Giants from moving to Florida by assembling and chairing a consortium of investors to purchase the baseball team.

Shorenstein was chairman of the 1975 Vietnam orphans airlift that matched the children with families in the U.S. He was also chairman of the national committee for the 50th anniversary celebration in 1995 of the signing of the United Nations charter in San Francisco.

Shorenstein made multimillion-dollar donations to a number of universities, including establishing the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University.

He and his wife, Phyllis, also endowed what is now the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in memory of his daughter Joan, a CBS news producer who died of cancer in 1985.

In 1992, Shorenstein made an unexpected appearance in the news when Nancy Novack, his 48-year-old former assistant, filed a lawsuit that claimed he had sexually harassed her for years before she was unfairly fired. The suit was settled, with terms that were kept confidential.

The son of a clothier, Shorenstein was born Feb. 23, 1915, in Glen Cove, N.Y. He attended Pennsylvania State University and the University of Pennsylvania before serving in the Army Air Forces during World War II.

After his discharge as a major, Shorenstein began his career in commercial real estate when he joined the brokerage firm Milton Meyer & Co. in property sales and management.

He became a partner in 1951, and two years later Time magazine named him a "Leader of Tomorrow." In 1960, he became president and sole owner of the company, which later took his name.

Shorenstein, who stepped down as chairman and chief executive about 10 years ago, was ranked No. 371 on Forbes magazine's list of the "400 Richest Americans" in 2009 with a net worth of $1 billion.

Phyllis, Shorenstein's wife of 49 years, died in 1994.

He is survived by his children, Douglas Shorenstein and Carole Shorenstein Hays, and six grandchildren.

dennis.mclellan@latimes.com

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