Takeharu Miyama tells a fascinating story of how he came to the United States in the mid-1970s and wound up making millions in Dallas. His daughter Sawako translates from Japanese: “I told my parents I wanted to see the world. I wanted to go someplace where people didn’t know me. I wanted to see what I could be.”
We’re sitting in the Miyamas’ office on the fifth floor of an Uptown building they own. With its brightly colored walls, whimsical art, and views of Klyde Warren Park, the space doesn’t look like the former storage room for janitorial supplies that it once was. Because I’m not focused on his words, I notice the excitement in Takeharu’s voice, his infectious grin, and his twinkling eyes. I begin to understand how, on a cross-country trip 40 years ago, he was able to transcend the language barrier and why many Americans welcomed him into their homes. It was the kindness of the people, he says, that led him back to the States years later, and why he decided to invest here.
Takeharu made his first real estate play in Dallas in 1990. Sixteen years later, he acquired the Uptown building, 1909 Woodall Rodgers Freeway, and an adjacent motor bank. Back then, there was nothing remarkable about the asset, a nondescript, 1980s mid-rise. But today, it’s one of the most sought-after properties in Dallas—the last viable development site next to Klyde Warren Park. Practically every developer in town has tried to persuade the family to sell or do a joint venture. A stack of their business cards sits on Sawako’s desk. But the Miyamas won’t be rushed. Their first priority isn’t generating returns.
The family’s business philosophy has been cultivated for centuries in the Miyamas’ home country of Japan. The clan has lived on the same land in the Chiba Prefecture, east of Tokyo, since the 1500s. For more than 400 years, the Miyamas farmed rice. But after World War II, as part of the democratization of Japan, land reforms forced the family to sell or give away most of its property to their workers and the government. Seeking a new way to earn a living, Takeharu’s father, Kunitake, got into the gas pipe installation business, which benefited from the reconstruction boom. In the 1960s, his flourishing company, Miyama Globuiss, expanded into real estate development and construction.
It was understood that Takeharu, the family’s only son, would join the business after graduating from college. But when the time came, in 1976, he didn’t feel ready or worthy of doing so. Takeharu told his parents that he wanted to take some time to travel, and they gave him their blessing.
He flew on a 747 to San Francisco. “It was a time machine,” he says. “Like a lot of people in Japan, I had read about America and watched I Love Lucy and had dreams of going to Disneyland. But arriving in San Francisco after just a 10-hour plane ride was like going to the future.”
Takeharu had brought his bicycle so that he could ride in the Bikecentennial, a 4,250-mile, coast-to-coast trip to commemorate America’s 200th birthday. He thought it would be a cool way to see the country. After kicking around in San Francisco for a few days, he took a Greyhound bus from California to Astoria, Oregon, the Bikecentennial’s starting point, and began pedaling east. He traveled light, with a small tent, sleeping bag, some clothes, and a few tools jammed into panniers. Sometimes he rode with others in the group; often he traveled alone.
There were a few scary moments. At one point, a semi-trailer passed Takeharu and blew him into a ravine. Another time he leaned his bike against a beehive and got swarmed. He says that crossing the Rockies took his breath away. And he learned lessons that he still uses in business today.
“You have to keep pedaling to reach the summit,” he says. “And once you get to the top, you need to rest your legs instead of going down so fast. What that means is to set a high goal, you have to continually make an effort. And if you get lazy after you reach that goal, you can go down quickly and crash.”
The 10-state trip, designed to go through rural areas, was big news in the small towns along the way. Many people gave Takeharu a meal or let him rest for a night in their homes. Those fleeting encounters reminded him of the 1950s western Shane, he says. He was touched by the kindness of the strangers who hosted him, especially as memories of Japan’s role in World War II still lingered. He struggled to communicate, but he made sure to learn the words “thank you.”
He used to believe that physical things—land and resources—led to America’s prosperity. “I learned it was not tangible but intangible,” he says. “I never understood why the United States helped Japan after the war. After my trip, I understood why. The greatness of America is its people.”
After four months on the road, Takeharu arrived on the Virginia coast, where he jumped into the Atlantic. Not yet ready to return to Japan, and with cash remaining from the $4,000 he had brought with him, he flew to Heathrow and spent two months cycling through England, France, Switzerland, and Germany. One night he caught his reflection in a mirror and saw that he had grown from a scrawny kid into a muscular man. Tears well up today as he recalls the wave of homesickness that washed over him. Takeharu realized that he was ready to return to Japan and take his place in his father’s company.
Sawako Miyama was 10 years old the first time she visited Dallas with her family. She remembers being picked up at the airport by a limousine and feeling quite fancy. “In Japan, people are conservative and disciplined,” she says. “In Texas, everyone was saying hi to us and talking to us and being very friendly.”
It was 1990, and Takeharu, now at the helm of Miyama Globuiss, had returned to invest in the country that had been so kind to him on his cross-country trip. Like most foreign real estate investors, he looked at opportunities in the gateway markets on the coasts. But there was just something about Dallas. “He felt the downturn in the economy at the time was temporary and that it had a lot of upside potential,” Sawako says. “He also felt very welcome here, and he saw a lot of similarities between the people of Dallas and the people of Japan.”
Takeharu bought The Shelton on Luther Lane, in Preston Center, in 1990. It was built as a condominium project, but only a few units had sold, and he converted it to luxury apartments. He then bought The Forest at Duck Creek Apartments, a 130-unit multifamily property in Garland. He began looking for ways to contribute to the region, quietly but generously supporting Scottish Rite Hospital and developing two dormitories for the University of North Texas.
Sawako attended college in Japan, but she spent her summers at UNT in an English immersion program. When Takeharu would come to town to meet with his asset managers and business associates, Sawako would tag along and serve as interpreter, not realizing that her father was evaluating her for a role in the company. She knew her younger (and only) brother, Takehito, would be the successor at Miyama Globuiss and never imagined she’d be tapped to head up the Dallas affiliate, Miyama USA Texas.
When she was 20, her parents took her to Cambodia, where the Miyamas had built and donated a number of schools. A celebration was being held to mark the opening of the latest facility, with more than 1,000 people expected to attend. The night before the event, Takeharu told his daughter that she would give a speech on behalf of the family. She was surprised but knew she had to do as her father wished, so she stayed up all night working on her remarks. It was another test. Afterward, her father asked if she’d be interested in working in Dallas. “I didn’t realize he had so much confidence in me,” Sawako says. She moved here in 2003, after graduating from college, and has lived here ever since.
Sawako set about learning every aspect of the business, working in housekeeping, groundskeeping, painting, and maintenance, before taking on some office responsibilities. Each week, her father would send her lessons handwritten on yellow legal pads. Sometimes they’d be about work; sometimes they’d be about life. She learned the most, though, from being his translator in business meetings, carefully listening to both sides of the conversations.
In 2006, Takeharu sold The Shelton to Dunhill Partners. The Miyamas used the proceeds to buy a two-building industrial complex off Interstate 35 and 1909 Woodall Rodgers, as well the motor bank. Instead of the Uptown building, Takeharu had considered the newer, larger St. Paul Place on Ross Avenue, on the other side of the Dallas Museum of Art. But he had heard rumors about plans to build a deck park over Woodall Rodgers. He took the gamble.
At first, it appeared he might have made the wrong choice. Not long after he bought the office building, its lead tenant went out of business, and occupancy dropped to 30 percent. The Miyamas talked with several real estate brokerages, looking for leasing support. They decided to skip the big firms and go with an upstart, Pillar Commercial, led by Manny Ybarra. “We both were building our family businesses,” Sawako says. “We have grown together, purposefully.”
As Ybarra got to work, Dallas citizens approved $20 million in bond funds for the deck park, and interest in 1909 Woodall Rodgers took off. Today the building, known as Miyama Parkside, is nearly fully occupied. Ybarra says the enigmatic Miyamas are a rarity in the industry. “They’re very humble and very private and extraordinary in the character and ethics,” he says.
Any business relationship they have doesn’t exist as a business relationship. It’s a personal relationship, and business is a component of that. You don’t need a contract with Mr. Miyama; his word is his bond.
Takeharu constantly seeks out opportunities to learn, Ybarra says. A few years back, when he heard the former U.S. Post Office and Courthouse building on North Ervay Street was going to be converted into residences, Takeharu leased space in the building so he could watch things unfold. “He will literally spend hours, days, weeks, months completely immersed in a project,” Ybarra says.
Takeharu is putting that same kind of deep contemplation into the redevelopment of his Uptown jewel. “He’s not thinking about the investment but about being a good neighbor,” Ybarra says. “It’s not about extracting every nickel out of the project but doing what’s best for Dallas and the generational legacy of his family.”
In late April, Phil Puckett stands on the roof of 42-story Museum Tower in the Arts District, pointing a camera at Uptown. An executive vice president at CBRE, he has done more than 5 million square feet in lease deals over 25 years in and around this area. From the rooftop, he can see new projects in various stages of construction that his clients have helped kick off. There’s McKinney & Olive, a 20-story, César Pelli-designed building anchored by leases from Gardere and McKinsey & Co.; The Union Dallas, a mixed-use project at Field Street and Cedar Springs Road that will serve as Vinson & Elkins’ new home; and Park District, a 900,000-square-foot development anchored by a 200,000-square-foot office for PWC. In all there’s about $1 billion in new development underway. And it all springs from the park.
“Klyde Warren Park is the new epicenter,” Puckett says. “Everything revolves around proximity to it.”
When it opened, in October 2012, commercial properties that overlooked what used to be the concrete ditch of Woodall Rodgers Freeway went from having the worst view to the best view. New developments took advantage of the rare downtown green space, and existing properties reoriented, to the extent possible. Among them is the Dallas Museum of Art, which is getting a new $4.3 million north entrance that will open this year. Office lease rates in Uptown and the Arts District have gone up between 32 and 64 percent. Values of parkside properties have jumped by as much as 60 percent, and land prices have skyrocketed, too. Trammell Crow Co. and MetLife paid about $390 per square foot last summer for its Park District site between Pearl and Olive streets. “On the very best day, that previously may have traded for about $150 a foot,” Puckett says. “It’s the highest land price ever seen in the Uptown district.”
From Puckett’s Museum Tower vantage point, one commercial property stands out: Miyama Parkside. In the last couple of years, he has brought several large tenants to the Miyamas, asking them to propose a new development deal. At one point, the family had drawings created for a new 150,000-square-foot office building that would be built on the site of their adjacent motor bank. One of Puckett’s tenants would have taken two-thirds of that. But the Miyamas declined to bid on the project. “It was a very short conversation,” Puckett says. “What owner would pass on an opportunity to have a 100,000-square-foot tenant?”
Ideally, the five-story building and motor bank would be razed, making way for a mixed-use complex like Park District or The Union, Puckett says. The Miyamas bought the property for $10.5 million in 2006. Today the land alone is worth double that. Its value will increase even more if Klyde Warren Park is expanded, as supporters hope it will. Preliminary plans call for a westward extension to North Field Street, with a sky bridge that would link to the Perot Museum of Science and Nature.
“Without a doubt, it’s the last premier site left for redevelopment,” Puckett says of the Miyama property. “It’s really the last one standing. Sometimes I walk by and look at it in frustration and think, ‘Dang. That could be so cool.’ ”
On his first day on the job at Miyama Globuiss, in October 1976, Takeharu wore a suit to the office. His father handed him a hard hat and told him to go work in the fields, saying, “Instead of giving you a fish, I’m going to teach you to fish.” Humbled, Takeharu stepped back and became a student, soaking up the lessons his father taught. One of the most profound was that development should not be about what makes the most money. His father said, “It’s our responsibility to develop the land in a way that makes our town a better place to live.” The first step is to see what is lacking for the people in the area, Takeharu explains. Maybe it’s a grocery store. Maybe it’s a bank. Maybe the town is aging, and it needs apartments to attract younger people. “If you do what is right for the town, you will be successful,” he says.
Four decades after learning that lesson, Takeharu hasn’t forgotten it. That’s exactly what he intends to do with Miyama Parkside. Any redevelopment will be done “within our capacity,” he says. Partnering is not an option. Although he’s still mulling over the big picture, he has thought about some of the smaller details. Looking at the needs of the neighborhood, he thinks the project should include both a day-care center for parents who work in Uptown and public restrooms for families who visit Klyde Warren Park. The restrooms would have three donation boxes, he says, benefiting the Woodall Rodgers Park Foundation, Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children, and SPCA-Dallas. “Imagine 10,000 people giving a dollar instead of one person making a $10,000 donation,” Takeharu says. “It would give people a way to be a part of something and contribute. We are trying to start with what we can do to contribute to the city.”
The Miyamas bought the property for $10.5 million in 2006. Today the land alone is worth double that. Its value will increase even more if Klyde Warren Park is expanded, as supporters hope it will.
Takeharu also feels a responsibility to be a link between North Texas and Japan—a relationship that’s only going to grow with the move here of Toyota’s North American headquarters, new direct flights to major Asian cities from Dallas, and the potential of the proposed bullet train between Dallas and Houston (something he says will completely change the dynamics of mass transit in the region). A number of cultural differences between the two countries persist. The United States has a hunting culture, going after a target, Takeharu says. The Japanese are more like farmers, staying in the same place, helping each other, patiently waiting for crops to grow. But there are also strong similarities, especially in Dallas, where the commitment to giving back is strong, as demonstrated by the way so many people came together to support Klyde Warren Park.
Forty years after the bike trip that changed his life, Takeharu stands in the center of that park, reluctantly but graciously posing for photos and looking around at the city he has come to love. He gets back to Dallas every other month or so, and still sends his daughter weekly handwritten notes on yellow legal pads. Sawako and her husband, Ryota, who’s also from Japan, have a 5-year-old daughter and a newborn son. They’re starting a new Miyama dynasty in America.
“We are focused on laying the foundation for the next generation,” Takeharu says. “We want to build something that will last a very long time.”