Oxbow Capital Partners, a Tacoma investment banking and venture capital firm, has committed to occupying about a third of Opus Northwest’s proposed new office tower and retail center in downtown Tacoma.

The decision by Oxbow Capital Partners allows Opus to begin designing and applying for permits for the project’s $50 million first phase, as the firms lease puts Opus much closer to pre-leasing requirements. Paying heed, the project once called Pacific Steps has been renamed Oxbow Financial & Technology Center.

Oxbow has agreed to occupy 70,000 square feet of offices in the 220,000-square-foot building. Starbucks and McDonald’s will lease about 6,500 square feet of 40,000 square feet of retail space in the project’s first phase. Though construction is not certain, Opus says it will be ready to build once leasing passes 50 percent, or about 110,000 square feet.

Both phases would cost about $ 100 million. Construction on the first of the office buildings could start in April of next year and be completed by the middle of 2002, says Bart Brynestad, Opus’ senior real estate director. There is no construction schedule for the project’s second phase, which includes and additional 220,000 square feet of office space and 40,000 square feet of retail.

Opus holds an option to buy the site from Pierce County for $1.9 million. The firm must decide by the end of the year whether to buy the property. If the company elects not to build, county government would keep the property.

The project has been a lot harder to lease than expected, says Brynestad, who hopes the Oxbow commitment will add some excitement. Meanwhile, Oxbow is creating excitement for other building owners as well, as it runs out of space at its current offices in Tacoma’s Old Town neighborhood.

In addition to its commitment to Opus, Oxbow has purchased a 25-percent stake in downtown’s Key Tower, a 16-story office at 1119 Pacific Ave, for an undisclosed price. Tacoma developers Herb Simon and Ted Johnson are majority owners of Key Tower, formerly owned by KeyBank.