The owner of the MetLife Building, one of Manhattan’s most well-known skyscrapers, isn’t who most people think.

California billionaire Donald Bren’s Irvine Co. has built a 97.3 percent ownership stake in the 58-story tower in the past decade, said Dan Young, an executive vice president at the closely held company. While Tishman Speyer is still the managing partner of the property, which it acquired in 2005 for $1.79 billion and features on its website, the company’s stake in the MetLife Building has been whittled to less than 3 percent.

“It was just a matter of timing, really,” Young said in a telephone interview yesterday. “It was a very timely opportunity for us.”

Newport Beach, California-based Irvine Co., which doesn’t list any Manhattan office holdings on its website, first acquired a stake in the 200 Park Ave. tower in 2005 and has been increasing its investment since, Young said. Bud Perrone, a spokesman for New York-based Tishman Speyer, declined to comment.

The actual ownership of the MetLife Building, a 58-story skyscraper perched over Grand Central Terminal, has managed to remain a secret in one of the world’s priciest and most highly scrutinized real estate markets. Irvine Co.’s control has come to light as banks are negotiating to refinance debt backed by the tower. That deal values the property at almost $3 billion, people familiar with the matter said last month, making the building one of the most expensive in New York City.

California Focus

Irvine Co. is best known as a developer of master-planned communities in Southern California, with few properties outside the state. Last year, the company purchased 300 N. LaSalle St. in Chicago for $850 million. It set a record for the city, poised to be broken by Blackstone Group LP with its proposed $1.5 billion acquisition of the Willis Tower, Chicago’s tallest building.

The MetLife Building and three Chicago towers account for all of Irvine Co.’s investments outside California, according to Young.

Bren, California’s wealthiest real estate mogul, has built an empire with 39 million square feet (3.6 million square meters) of office buildings, about 50,000 apartments and more than 40 shopping centers, according to Irvine Co.’s website. Bren, 82, has a net worth of $15.1 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

“We don’t typically talk about or disclose specific investments that we make because we don’t know how long we’ll have those investments for, whether it’s fixed income, stocks or real estate,” Young said.