Donald M. Koll, a real estate developer who pioneered high-rise office building in Orange County and among other projects helped turn Los Cabos, Mexico, into a premier resort destination, has died. He was 78.
Koll died Tuesday at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center of complications of a heart attack suffered Dec 2. He had been in ill health since having a stroke six years ago.
Real estate and construction have been in the Koll family for generations.
In 1889, Koll's grandfather August founded A.J. Koll, a lumber business in Los Angeles. Koll's father, Milton, took over the business, and Koll's brothers and cousins all worked in their own real-estate-related business, sometimes building apartments or other projects.
Koll was born in Santa Monica in 1933 and graduated from Stanford University in 1955. He started in the construction business more than five decades ago, first working for relatives and then going out on his own and building custom homes in Newport Beach after a stint as a U.S. Air Force pilot.
He founded Koll Co. in 1962, a time when Orange County's economy was linked to aerospace and tourism and was centered in Anaheim and its nearby communities. One of his first projects was for Knott's Berry Farm amusement park, where he built the log ride and the replica of Independence Hall.
Koll, along with Irvine Co., was among the earliest to create mid- and high-rise buildings in the Irvine and Newport Beach areas, which in turn led to a large concentration of offices around John Wayne Airport and the development of south Orange County.
Koll's business took off, and he often invested in speculative projects in the belief that demand for office space would catch up with his building. Koll told The Times in 1995 that he would often find a joint venture partner that would put up the money for the development and take on the liability. The formula worked, and Koll's business weathered a series of economic cycles as the California economy, and especially Orange County, grew.
Among the company's best-known buildings are Koll Center Irvine, an office, hotel and retail complex of 1.5 million square feet; and Irvine Concourse, a 1.2-million-square-foot office and hotel center.
The company has developed more than 90 million square feet of office, industrial and retail space. Koll also built Jack Nicklaus championship golf courses in Los Cabos, Mexico, at his Palmilla and Cabo del Sol resort developments, which helped transform Los Cabos into a top resort.
"He took over some developments that needed some hard driving to be done, and he had good political contacts in Mexico. He was the one that was able to get water out to the projects," said Alfred Gobar, a retired real estate economist who worked on many Koll projects.
Not every Koll project worked out.
The executive spent millions of dollars and many years trying to build thousands of homes in Huntington Beach on the highlands next to the Bolsa Chica wetlands. But long delays in developing the environmentally sensitive project, which was debated in court and before numerous government agencies, forced his Koll Real Estate Group — just one division of his business empire — into a bankruptcy reorganization. Bondholders took control of the company, and Koll later left the project.
For many years, Koll worked both with and under the shadow of Donald Bren, the land baron who runs Orange County's Irvine Co. One of Koll's biggest breaks came in 1967 when Bren sold him 100 acres near John Wayne Airport, where Koll built his firm's first large development, the Airport Business Park.
Whereas Bren is known to run Irvine Co. with an iron hand, Koll carved a reputation as an easy-going and upbeat manager who leaned toward a decentralized operation.
"He was a real nice guy, funny and laughed a lot. He was a smart guy, and I enjoyed working with him," Gobar said.
Koll sold his interest in Koll Development Co., the commercial real estate business, in 2001. He remained active in real estate under a different corporation, Koll Co., where he was managing principal until his death.
Koll, an Eagle Scout, was an avid supporter of the Boy Scouts of America, Stanford University and many local charities in Orange County and Los Cabos, Mexico.
He is survived by his wife, Kathi Robinson Koll; six children; three stepchildren; and 20 grandchildren. He is also survived by a brother, Edwin.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times