Skyscraper is tycoons' ode to Raleigh

Staff WriterNovember 13, 2005 

It takes Dicky Walia a full day to describe his baby, the 480-foot skyscraper hotel that Raleigh loves, hates and can't stop debating.

From his office suite on Cary Parkway, he runs a laser pointer over an architect's drawing, highlighting his favorite spots.

There's the outdoor massage parlor on an 18th-floor terrace, the seventh-floor restaurant he hopes will draw celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse and the 10-by-60-foot window along the ground floor -- future home to some sizable artwork.

A day later, Walia finds words that suit him.

"It's not an abode for the weary traveler," he writes in an e-mail message, "but a resting place in an art museum for the ever-wandering soul!"

Forgive him for sounding melodramatic. It has been a long few weeks. Walia and his partner Sanjay Mundra make up the Soleil Group, and until recently, few had heard of them.

Now they are building the 42-story Soleil Center, called Glen-Tree until a few days ago, and have suddenly become quite public.

Their hotel, spa and condominium tower will stand as Raleigh's tallest building, five miles away from downtown and far taller than anything either man has built.

They don't talk easily about themselves. They'd rather discuss their luxury hotel rooms with plasma-screen televisions, or their 4,700-square-foot condos that cover an entire floor.

They don't like to seem flashy -- even if they are.

Mundra, 38, drives a Maserati (new ones go for more than $80,000) and wears diamonds on his wedding band. He traveled with President Clinton to India in 2000 as part of a delegation of businessmen.

"I was just lucky," he said with a shrug. "I was invited."

Walia, 45, is buying a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and lives in a house Wake County assessed at $1.3 million.

But the whole idea behind their building, they say, is to salute Raleigh, their adopted home, the place where their children go to school, the city they want to take higher.

"We're just your local guys," Walia said.

Stunning success

Getting Soleil Center approved by a 7-1 City Council vote, with only about 20 minutes of discussion, surprised even their supporters.

Raleigh's is a council, after all, that has kept a dog park in limbo for much of the year. It tends to be methodical and cautious -- slow, in developer-speak.

There were sentiments, too, that the glass tower was too tall, too gaudy, too out of place.

No one on the council knew much about Mundra or Walia. They'd never had a big project in Raleigh before. Their hotels were scattered around the state.

"I certainly had not heard of them," said Councilman James West.

Mundra and Walia invited them all to look at drawings and models. They wanted to shop the idea around, point out such details as the hidden air conditioning units, or the seventh-floor lobby designed to resist flooding.

They took it to Crabtree Valley Mall officials and neighbors in nearby Brookhaven. They offered to sponsor Councilwoman Joyce Kekas' campaign kickoff -- she declined, and they agreed it would be wise on second thought -- but otherwise the developers stayed out of local races.

By the time Soleil tower got to the council on Nov. 1, it was well-known among members. Mundra and Walia knew Mayor Charles Meeker had doubts about the height and that Councilman Thomas Crowder was likely to vote against it.

"Thomas may not like this project," Walia said, "but we still have a lot of respect for Thomas. He is an award-winning architect."

From riches to Raleigh

Finding Raleigh was a long haul for both developers.

Mundra grew up in Bombay, India, son of the CEO of a fiber-optics company.

His father stressed the need for a master's degree, he said, so Mundra traveled 8,000 miles to Fayetteville and got an M.B.A. from nearby Campbell University.

"I knew him briefly," said Umesh Varma, a professor at Campbell since 1988. "I came to know he was from one of the wealthiest families in India."

Not so, Mundra said. "But he [Varma] can say what he wants."

Walia said he was born in Burma, where his grandfather ran one of the largest construction companies in the country.

But the family was ousted in the coup of 1962, and 2-year-old Walia fled to India with his aunt. Three years later his mother joined them. It took his father two more.

"It left us penniless," he said. "Everything was nationalized."

Walia went to Texas at age 18 for college, then Lansing, Mich., for law school, and moved to Raleigh on the strength of the 1994 Money Magazine ranking: Best Place To Live.

Rankings like that one inhabit Walia and Mundra's thinking.

They often produce photocopies of Forbes Magazine articles that boost their belief that these are the years when Raleigh turns a corner. Best Place for Businesses and Careers. Richest Cities in the U.S.

Both insist they didn't succeed with silver spoons in their mouths. They started much smaller.

When Mundra and Walia first teamed up in the mid-1990s, they were buying Best Westerns and Hampton Inns in small markets: Havelock. Greenville. Lexington.

They bought them in down markets and sold them in recovery years. By the late 1990s, they were selling them for three times the purchase price.

Two years ago, they bought a Holiday Inn in Fayetteville for $4 million. It had cost $10 million to build.

"We buy low and sell high," Walia said.

Now they are ditching their old holdings for fancier, full-service brands. The Soleil tower will have a Westin hotel franchise, built to the brand's standards, widely regarded as an upgrade from the old Sheraton or Clarion on the property.

The Soleil Group still owns hotels -- about 13, the partners agree after consulting -- and they have other holdings.

Mundra is still an investor in the Hotel Europa on Capital Boulevard, which has had a woeful history. It stood empty for four years, got damaged in a fire, and it has endured through multiple owners and names. Now a "No Trespassing" sign stands in the parking lot.

"I don't run the day-to-day operations," Mundra said, adding it is soon to be sold.

The idea for Soleil is to bring luxury to spots where it hasn't existed before. They want their tower for traveling CEOs, for hockey teams playing the Carolina Hurricanes, for performers at the RBC Center.

They are trying the same idea in New Bern, next to the Sheraton Hotel they already own.

It will offer maid service and valet parking. The project, Skysail, will not open until 2007, but 70 percent of the units are already sold, some for as much as $600,000.

"Everything has gone pretty smooth," said Julius Parham, a New Bern alderman. "We had some controversy. A lot of people are trying to save the waterfront. But it will end up being like what's already down there. So far, so good."

Why not gamble?

Mundra and Walia admit their venture is a gamble. The Soleil group's holdings are worth about $250 million altogether, and the tower will cost more than $100 million to build.

But they expect to recoup roughly half of that cost by selling the condos -- no more than 40.

In the past week, they got a call from a businessman in Kinston seeking to reserve one of the condo units. Another call came from Las Vegas, seeking two.

It takes big thinking for a city to grow, the partners insist. Big buildings, too.

"If we're wrong," Mundra said, "there's no need to punish us. The market will punish us."

Staff writer Josh Shaffer can be reached at 829-4818 or jshaffer@newsobserver.com.

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