Ronald E. Birtcher, Prominent California Executive, Passes Away

The industry leader leaves behind a legacy of lasting achievements in both real estate and philanthropy.
Ronald E. Birtcher. Image courtesy of Birtcher Development

Ronald E. Birtcher, emblematic Orange County real estate developer, passed away on April 21. Birtcher died surrounded by his wife and children in his Napa home, the family said in a statement. He was 89. 

Birtcher’s real estate legacy spans several decades, dating back to the early 1950s, when he joined the family-owned company his father, Fayette, founded in 1939. Along with his brother Arthur, Birtcher formed a partnership in 1961 that became an industry powerhouse, pioneering the building technique known as “tilt-up” concrete construction used in commercial and industrial development. The firm went on to develop, market and manage more than 40 million square feet of commercial real estate across the country. Iconic projects included the 535,000-square-foot Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Market in downtown Los Angeles, designated the largest of its kind in the U.S. 

Innovative endeavors

In 1969, the Birtcher Real Estate Group established a venture with Southern Pacific Railroad and became the in-house development company for the railroad’s 2.3 million-acre real estate holdings nationwide. In 1972, as part of the endeavor, the Birtcher Group started construction on the prominent Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood, dubbed the “Blue Whale” for its mammoth size and blue-glass exterior. Constructed on a former railroad switching yard, the 1.2 million-square-foot development opened in 1975. Other major projects included the 900,000-square-foot Lakeshore Towers office campus in Irvine, Calif., and the 305,000-square-foot Xerox Center in Santa Ana, Calif. 

According to a Los Angeles Times interview in 1990, the Birtcher Group preferred to hold on to their holdings long-term and focus on low-risk business strategies. In 1990, the firm sold a 50 percent stake in the company to Japanese conglomerate Mitsui & Co. for more than $100 million.

Birtcher was inducted into the California Building Industry Foundation’s Builder’s Hall of Fame in 1995 and held numerous industry awards and honors. In addition to real estate-related pursuits, Birtcher’s interests included agriculture, viticulture and various philanthropic activities. Through the Birtcher Family Foundation, a Presbyterian nonprofit founded together with his wife, Joanne, the family helped orphanages, schools and farms worldwide.

Birtcher is survived by his wife of 68 years, by sons Brandon—CEO of Birtcher Development—and Baron, daughter Shelley, nine grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren.