Friday, May 21, 2010

Say Yes! to Organic East of the River

For the first time, the Fairlawn neighborhood, just on the boundaries of Ward 8 and Ward 7 and a few blocks from the Historic Anacostia neighborhood, will have access to fresh, organic products like its brethren on the other side of the Anacostia River. Yes! Organic's newest store will open in August, occupying all 7,500 s.f. of ground floor retail in Chapman Development's new affordable housing project, The Grays, at 2323 Pennsylvania Avenue, SE.

The Grays brings 118 units of subsidized rental apartments to those making at or below 60% area median income; so far, 45 units have been leased. Renters pay $1,155 for a one-bedroom, $1,386 for a two-bedroom. Computecture Incorporated designed the building, which sits on a plot formerly home to an unsightly strip of used car lots and a tattoo parlor.

The site is the 7th Yes! to open in the District. The District provided $7.5 million in construction loans and $1.9 million in affordable housing tax credits to the developer, and an additional $900,000 grant to get a Yes! store through the Supermarket Tax Credit and Great Streets Program. The new project will create 27 jobs over the next four months.

Chapman was also previously responsible for the Lotus Square Apartments on Kenilworth Avenue, NE. Chapman recently announced that he and Gary Cha, owner of several Yes! Organic Market stores, would be partnering to open five more stores in other District neighborhoods. Mayor Adrian Fenty called the new store just the latest addition in Cha's "Yes! Organic empire" (making up, perhaps, from has gaffe when he announced at the 2008 groundbreaking ceremony that the store would a Harris Teeter.)

Washington, DC real estate development news!

Adventures in Architecture

His website, like the similarly-named song, says, "Don't fence me in." It screams "maverick" and "irreverent," while making its point with humor but laser-like clarity: Here's my job as architect; here's your job as client. A blog, to boot, addresses the more cerebral side of kitchens. With all of that, and a lot more, Jake Bittner of Bittner Design Office is redefining the process of design.

"It's really hard in design to be critical of what you’re doing," Bittner says. "A lot of times when people design, they sort of convince themselves that it's OK. They say, 'I know I need a pantry, but this 12-inch one, it's OK. Even though this doesn’t quite look right, I guess it’s good enough.'" Bittner says the process is hard and takes practice and experience, and a lot of knowledge of construction and millwork – “…what you can and can’t do and how you want to manipulate space or the materials to make them do exactly what you want. Since the client doesn’t know how hard it is, and doesn’t necessarily have the background to judge what they’re getting, people can get away with doing a really bad design. It’s important to be hypercritical of what you’re doing,” he concludes, analogizing the process to food. “You wouldn’t put foie gras on a plate with French fries, just because you like them both. It’s not just about putting things you like together in one space. It all has to work toward a definite goal.”

Bittner talks about Grand Central Station as a frame of reference. “You walk into that space and it’s just powerful,” he says. “The volume is perfect, and the windows and the light. Maybe not so much now, but 20 years ago, all the signage and handrails – all the other accessories that went with it – were perfect. Most people aren’t going to notice the muttons on the glazing or that the handrail is 2 ¼ vs. 2 ¾, but you just get it. It works when it works.”

The Building Life

Reflecting on the time as a 7-year-old he’d sworn an oath to architecture, the New England born and bred Bittner revealed that in 1998, following graduation from architecture school at Arizona State University (ASU), he eschewed a life of mitered glass offices and power lunches. Instead, the newly-minted architect went to work as a carpenter for a Nantucket custom builder.

“I didn’t know construction,” he recalls, deciding that architecture school, as much as he’d embraced it, “just didn’t get me there.” With construction intrinsic to what he wanted to know about his profession, Bittner worked as part of a four-member team in the framing, sheathing, insulating, siding, tiling and millwork aspects of home building. “I would have been there for years,” he says, noting he left in 1999 “only because Nantucket housing is really hard to come by on a carpenter’s salary.”

A call to design a house from a Connecticut builder brought him back home, followed by digital rendering work (computer rendering was “really primitive” in those days, he recalls) and designing spec houses. At the encouragement of new bride Maggie, who’d asked him to “get a real job,” Bittner went to work for Southport, Conn. architect David Scott Parker, where he became involved in very high end residential work. Interiors were a large part of the practice where Bittner was exposed to antique and custom furniture, wall finishes, carpeting and draperies. “I learned all the real detailed stuff that goes into making a good space,” he says. An eventual move to Washington, where his wife, an event planner, had attended college, resulted in several years with AAI Poggenpohl’s mid-Atlantic distributor in Chevy Chase, Md., where Bittner says he got to do everything from sales to design to construction management, further broadening his architectural horizons.

The Writing Life

Because the road to architecture for Bittner never was, and rarely is, straight (he credits ASU with exposing him to the theoretical side of architecture, importing professors from Cranbrook and Columbia), instead of drawing his way into a project as most in his profession do, the process for him begins with a great deal of writing.

“My wife thinks I’m crazy,” he says of his own design process, explaining that at the outset of a project, he “writes pages and pages and pages,” admittedly “using words to dig,” which he ultimately edits (drawings and computer work eventually ensue). This helps him “get outside of the project’s core” - to really focus on the message. In architecture and design, he says, the message, or point of view, is essential. With kitchens and baths among the most challenging for architects and designers, according to Bittner, they are his favorite projects. Toilet, tub and shower have to be there, for example, but whether the room is a retreat: a place to collect oneself, or something else, will inform the design. “When you wake up in the morning, is it bright and light? At night, is it going to be tranquil and peaceful as you get ready for bed?" How this space is going to make you feel, Bittner indicates, establishes the room’s direction.

The Price of Dreams

Citing his unfettered New England roots and experience in all facets of the profession, Bittner maintains his “brutal honesty” in not underselling design work. “So often, a client will come to an architect,” professing all these great ideas with a $100,000 budget, he says. Bittner adds the architect makes promises, including completion within a year, but in the end the dream costs $300,000 and is nowhere near finished within the time frame.

“These really are people’s dreams,” Bittner says resolutely. “When they set out to hire a designer and build custom things, you’re dealing with very valuable things that I think are not respected by a lot of people. Those dreams go deep and the trust a client puts in you means you have to take good care of them.”

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Capitol Hill: Razing Townhouses, Raising Money

Fifteen historic homes on Capitol Hill have been pulverized to make way for what appears to be a surface parking lot. The townhouses (pictured below last year) happened to sit where the Louis Dreyfus Property Group plans to build Capitol Place, a 380,000-s.f. mixed use development with 302 residential units and 20,000 s.f. of retail.

In April, DCMud reported that Dreyfus had applied for, and received, an extension of their zoning application, giving them more time to find financing for the mixed-use project. But construction crews from Aceco, based in Silver Spring, are now tearing down the last bits of the century-old homes, and unconfirmed reports suggest the site may be used as a surface parking lot to raise money for eventual construction. Dreyfus could not be reached for comment. While the zoning application for a PUD extension was approved, the raze permit for the old homes was issued in June 2008, a permit that came with a two-year time limit.

The block misses the Capitol Hill Historic District - a legislatively demarcated zone which ends at F Street, NE - by one block. The demolition was an unexpected move given a recent conversation DCMud had with the Developer. Just last month, Robert H. Braunohler, Regional Vice President for Louis Dreyfus Property Group, left the impression that movement was not imminent. "At this point we are actively trying to raise money to go forward with a project that will be part condo and part rental," said Braunohler, added that the project does not have "a firm construction schedule."

Capitol Place was designed by New York-based Cook + Fox Architects. For more pictures of the demolished buildings, so our last story on the project.

Washington, DC real estate development news

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Obama Cool in the Age of Insecurity


If the good citizens of Annapolis ever decide to invade the District of Columbia, drunk, chewing on unlit cigars and armed to the teeth, they will make it no further than 99 New York Avenue, the fortress headquarters of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms. But until that day, the ATF building will remain the worst building in Washington D.C.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the federal government redoubled its efforts, begun after the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah building, to make sensitive government buildings more secure. In the fifteen years since Oklahoma City, bollards, planters, walls, and retractable security gates have replaced park benches, eliminated landscaping, and narrowed sidewalks around most federal buildings in Washington and around the nation. For most of our important ceremonial buildings, the GSA has cleverly concealed these security measures within the architecture. For instance, few visitors to Washington would ever guess that the low wall around the Washington Monument is the last line of defense against a dump truck packed with explosives.

But even in Washington, the ATF Headquarters, designed by Israeli/Canadian/American architect Moshe Safdie and completed in 2008, breaks new and disturbing ground for architectural insecurity. Driving along New York Avenue (because nobody would ever want to walk near this building) one is arrested by the colossal barricade trying desperately to fill up the block. The ATF offices cower on the south side of the site away from New York Avenue, like a dog expecting to be kicked. In between the barricade and the building is a lovely no-mans-land. Dead end steps lead down from New York Avenue into this secret garden as if the garden had originally been intended as public refuge from the traffic noise of New York Avenue only to be walled off at the last moment by neurotic security consultants.

On the south and east sides of the site, just steps from the New York Avenue Metro station, gateway to the burgeoning NoMa neighborhood, the bulk of the building is hidden behind a single-story security cordon, making 2nd street feel like an alley where a few of the cordon's undistinguished storefronts have been turned over to retail. But these spaces feel like they've been banished from the kingdom, left to live as undesirables outside the castle walls. The only unobstructed view of the actual office building is from the narrow N Street side, but even here the building is sequestered from the street by bollards and planters and too-tall walls and even taller fences and a pointless pergola.

The dead end steps, the DMZ garden, the inhospitable retail, the planters and bollards and pergola--on all sides this is an unremarkable office building subsumed by architectural paranoia, dressed up with empty urban gestures. So why is this building in Washington DC at all? Why not exile it to a remote site outside the beltway?

This was the strategy of the American Consulate in Istanbul, the first of the post 9/11 embassies, which New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman dubbed the place Where Birds Don't Fly. The suburban embassy is too hard a target for terrorists to bother with, but more to the point, its very inaccessibility has made it a symbol not of our highest values but our worst fears. The best that can be said of the Istanbul Consulate is that it is not in Istanbul at all, but far away from anyplace that matters, like the crazy aunt in the attic. But in Washington DC, the ATF has stumbled out onto the front porch, wearing nothing but a top hat and tutu, and is screaming at the neighbors about alien invasions.
Fortunately there is prescription for this architectural nervous disorder: Philadelphia architects', Kieran/Timerlake’s design for the new American Embassy in London. Perched atop a gently sloping berm and surrounded by a reflecting pool, the glass cube, swathed in bubble wrap, is alighted on an open colonnade at street level. The design for the new American Embassy is distinctly urbane and utterly unflappable: Obama cool. Posed conspicuously on the south bank of the Thames, surround by a decidedly urban neighborhood of office buildings, this building is not afraid of the crowds. It will be the life of the party. Home to the "High-Tech-Modern Architects," Richard Rogers and Norman Foster, London is a showcase of technological innovation in architecture.

But even in such sophisticated company, Kieran/Timberlake's design stands out. The bubble wrap insulates and regulates sunlight and features next-generation "thin film" photovoltaics, a technology pioneered in the United States. But more important than the transparent skin, is the openness at the street. The first floor colonnade is a stylish storefront, taking its cues from the transparent Apple Stores, drawing in shoppers from the marketplace of ideas. Openness, transparency, technology: these are the values that America's buildings should symbolize around the world, and the values that should inform our federal buildings here at home. The ATF building will go down as one of the starkest expressions of a dark age in American federal architecture, but there is light on the horizon.

Alexandria's New Community Space - Rockin' Out at Duron Paints

Alexandria's Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities is (RCPA) discovering that interesting things can happen when commercial property owners willingly part with their land because the city wants to use it and architects create a plan for said land, pro bono. The result of these two unusual occurrences is just now coming to fruition as RCPA seeks approval for a new community building and open space at 4109-4125 Mount Vernon Avenue near the entrance to Four Mile Run.

The City obtained the four lots through Alexandria's Open Space Program in 2007. The City had previously identified the spaces for their proximity to Four Mile Run and when the property owner approached the City, they agreed on a price ($4.8 million, including an escrow set aside for required environmental remediation), securing the space for future public use, according to Laura Durham, Open Space Coordinator for Alexandria. Once home to a Duron paint store, a dry cleaners, a check cashing business and a Pizza Hut, the spaces may in the not-so-distant-future become a temporary farmer's market and a community center. The Duron building is the only extant structure, the other three were razed between January 2007 and January 2009. Demolition of the three buildings on site cost approximately $150,000.

Durham explains that normally a public team would go through a public planning process and eventually hire a private consultant to do the site plan and engineering for a project. But the Mount Vernon open space properties are different. A group of architects from firms throughout the area, who Durham says like to call themselves Architects Anonymous, joined forces to create a concept plan. Officially called the Northern Virginia AIA Small Firms Rountable, Architects Anonymous (better than NVAIASMR), stepped into the process when the City deemed reuse designs for the site too expensive and was considering razing the fourth structure. The do-gooder architects explored adaptive reuse for the Duron property and proposed a design that would open up the interior space to allow for community gatherings and activate the outdoor space for community use.

The privately developed plan is now going through public review; the proposal "won't be the final's a really good starting point" said Durham. The team is seeking a special use permit from the City of Alexandria Planning Commission on June 1 to allow a public building on the site and, pending approval, will also require approval by the Alexandria City Council.

Durham says any plans for the site will be implemented in phases. Initial work would involve retrofitting the Duron building to bring it up to code. Additionally, the design team recommends constructing stages near the north entrance and a secondary stage on the east side loading dock to be used for outdoor performances. Other improvements would happen over time "as funding became available" said Durham. The open space will read like a series of "rooms of a park" with different public uses and with "significant landscape improvement over time," added Durham. The plan will seek to be "green," using pervious material when installing paving or other improvements. Other green options include a rain garden and using recycled concrete. Even the stage would be "green," the design calls for two large cisterns to flank the north stage, capturing rain water for site irrigation while supporting a canopy over the stage. The plans should dovetail with designs, now in the works, for the improvement of Four Mile Run.

Alexandria, VA real estate development news

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Revitalizing Mount Pleasant Street

As neighborhoods throughout Ward 1 - including Columbia Heights, U Street and the 14th Street Corridor - have developed and morphed, the Mount Pleasant Street corridor has, for better or worse, remained largely the same. Yesterday, the Office of Planning (OP) furthered a process to change that when it released the Mount Pleasant Street Revitalization Strategy draft plan for public comment. The plan seeks to support existing local businesses and encourage new investment on the half-mile stretch of pavement from Park Road to the intersection of 16th Street and Columbia Road. OP seeks to reinvigorate the commercial heart of Mount Pleasant, starting with short-term plans over the next 24 months and continuing with five and ten year goals. Residents and businesses can comment on the draft through June 18th.

First, blame Columbia Heights. The OP draft draws a correlation between the increase in economic development in surrounding neighborhoods with the decrease in business for the Mount Pleasant commercial area. Citing the 2008 opening of DCUSA and fire at the Deauville Apartments, the document draws a bleak economic picture of the Mount Pleasant commercial corridor over the past few years.

OP's study of the demographic, housing and commercial profile of Mt. Pleasant resulted in recommendations to consolidate retail uses in a core area and keep non-retail venues at the periphery. The current retail scene, it found, is dispersed and discourages shoppers from going beyond the immediate vicinity, resulting in the polarized patronization of local businesses. Bunching retailers and locating non-retailers, such as doctor's offices or a yoga studio, it predicts, will draw non-residents to the area and more potential customers to the retail core.

The three principles of the study: improve the corridor's economic climate; diversify commercial activity by attracting non-retail and creative uses to the area; and promote sustainable development practices to improve the physical condition of the corridor. From these principles come five goals.

The first is to capture more of the local customer base and create a welcoming environment for entrepreneurs. The plan suggests this could be done within 12 months by promoting the demographic and ethnic diversity of the corridor. Easier said than done, but the plan recommends creating a "small business manual" to demystify the various authorizations and permits needed to operate in the District (if only it recommended reducing the number of forms and permits actually needed). Additionally, OP suggests reworking the way liquor licenses are distributed and managed.

Next, the strategy seeks a PR campaign to promote unique qualities of Mount Pleasant - with increased signage and a marketing and PR plan like the one entreating people to vacation in Virginia, only smaller. "Mount Pleasant is for hipsters" could work.

Third, OP wants to make Mt. Pleasant Street a "Green Street" by encouraging local businesses to partner with government agencies to create rain gardens to control surface runoff, add bike racks, use recycled materials and add alternative funding for such initiatives.

Fourth, lure in non-retail businesses like health care offices, educational facilities and creative enterprises. The Creative DC Action Agenda offers a game plan for establishing creative corridors and arts-friendly regulations to make it easier for such uses to come to the area.

Finally, the plan seeks to assure existing businesses that they will not get the boot when new development comes online. The core of this goal is linking business owners or would-be owners with financing sources, such as non-profits, and create training for small businesses on funding and business operation fundamentals.

A Mayoral hearing will take place Saturday, June 19, 2010 at Bancroft Elementary School for those interested in learning more about the plan.

Washington, DC real estate development news

Rhode Island Avenue Has its Day

Rhode Island Avenue's improvement is underway. Seriously. Years of planning have dragged, private development has been promised, but flopped, and even the District government has given itself a full 16 years to pull its plan together, maybe. Despite the unfulfilled promise of the boulevard, today marks a major groundbreaking for Rhode Island's most ambitious project as developers break ground this morning on Rhode Island Station, a project conceived back in 2001.

With the help of a recent promise by DC officials to allocate more than $7,000,000 to jumpstart construction, Bethesda- based Urban Atlantic and Baltimore- based A&R Development Corp will kick off work at the Rhode Island Avenue Metro station. The 8.5 acre, $108,000,000 project promises 274 new residential rental units above 70,000 s.f. of retail. Couple that with the opening of the bike trail, earlier this month, better connecting Brentwood to downtown, and hope for a better neighborhood seems justifiable. Just ask the residents, who in a recent survey overwhelmingly rated "variety of goods and services" as "very poor." In "physical appearance" the area received 88 votes for "very poor," 81 for "poor," 24 thought it "average," and 4 vision-impaired souls deemed it "good". None opted for "excellent."

Maybe that perception will change now that the avenue's pioneers are beginning work, having struck a fresh deal with WMATA to build a 215-car garage next to the Metro Station in exchange for putting its development on the sprawling WMATA parking lot. Instead of pavement, the design by Lessard Group Architects will add street-level retail with sidewalk cafes and apartments above, when completed in 2013. Political speechmaking is scheduled to kick off this morning at 10:30.

Washington, DC real estate development news

Monday, May 17, 2010

Artists Line Up for Housing

The scene at Flashpoint art space in Penn Quarter at 7:45 this morning was a flashback - hopeful denizens waiting in line for the newest housing offering. The scene was not, however, a replay of the condo frenzy of 2005, but a new subsidized housing venue aimed at struggling area artists. Eleven eager applicants waited in line for one of 30 units designated as "artist housing" in the new Loree Grand nearing completion in NoMa, the first phase of Union Place, a new 212-unit apartment building at 250 K St., NE. Artist housing, Washington DCThe benefaction comes from a partnership between developer Cohen Companies and the Cultural Development Corporation (CuDC), encouraging "artists, arts administrators, and arts educators" with dedicated subsidized rental apartments. The CuDC began accepting applications today and will continue through May 24th. So who's an "artist?" To screen the uncreative, an independent panel of arts professionals will review three artistic competencies: demonstrated body of work and commitment to an artistic practice, active ongoing participation in the arts industry and potential for an affordable live-work unit to positively impact an artistic career. Commercially successful artists need not apartist housing, Washington DCply, as the unit allotments are based on need. But don't picture starving sidewalk caricaturists in tie-dyes; in DC "struggling" is a relative term. The CuDC is looking for painters, filmmakers, graphic designers, even "arts administrators"and educators, with incomes based on the DC Department of Housing and Community Development's income limits. That puts income minimums at $34,958 (have IRS forms in hand) for a studio and income maximums at $82,160 for the largest two-bedroom apartments. Cohen purchased the land for just over $1 million and has spent $45 million on construction costs with ADC Builders and GTM Architects, the general contractor and architect, respectively. The 10-story Loree Grand - one of the few multi-family buildings underway immediately east of the railroad tracks, will also offer 3,700 s.f. of retail space, which Eric Siegel, Executive VP at Cohen, says he hopes to fill with a food-wine-coffee shop along the lines of Tryst in Adams Morgan or Busboys and Poets.Washington DC affordable housing CUDC 

No retail tenants have yet committed, and Siegel dismissed rumors of a hot yoga studio. First-in-line Lisa Simmons camped in her Mini for the night to ensure her place in line (pictured at right). The DC native is a short-film maker whose focus is "urban dance in urban spaces." The self-professed nomad now floats between her mother's and boyfriend's places and leapt (well, slept) at the chance to be surrounded by other artists close to Union Station's transit options. Painter Matthew Mann heard about the housing through CuDC's Red Circle, which brings together artists and business leaders. Mann was in line so early for the appeal of "affordable space" that "wasn't derelict." Julia Suszynski and Katherine VanWyk, interns with the Shakespeare Theatre Company, are hoping for a new apartment when their subsidized intern housing runs out. Both heard about the housing through their current work and Suszynski said she thinks artist housing "is an interesting way to segment people." Both hope to qualify as arts administrators. Emma Fisher, Communications Manager with CuDC, said she was happy with the early turn out and expected more applicants throughout the day. Units should be ready for move-in by June. Rentals run from $999 to $1330 for a studio, and up to $1657 for a two-bedroom. Correction: The income guidelines quoted above are determined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, not by the District government. 

Shaun Courtney contributed to this story. Washington, DC real estate development news

Breaking Ground, Nuclear-style

Today marks the groundbreaking for the new U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) building at North Bethesda Center/White Flint Metro. Approximately 1,500 NRC employees will occupy the new 14-story building, across from the NRC campus, which has been designed by HOK to meet LEED Silver certification.

About a year ago, LCOR, in a partnership with USAA Real Estate Co., won out over several competitors for the opportunity to build the project for the General Services Administration and in October signed a lease that will make the new building home to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for at least 15 years.

The new government building will join LCOR's residential project, Wentworth House, which delivered in 2008. That project brought 312 units and a brand new Harris Teeter to North Bethesda, on a 32-acre site approximately halfway between downtown Bethesda and downtown Rockville. In total, LCOR's project are to bring eight highrise buildings to the area, encompassing eight city blocks (when subdivided), and will include 1,274 apartments at its completion, but little has happened on the site, which remains nearly in the state as it was when it served as a golf course.

The $131 million development is expected to take 27 months and building completion is expected in August 2012.

North Bethesda real estate development news

Friday, May 14, 2010

Arbor Place No More

Abdo Development's planned Arbor Place, an outer New York Avenue project first destined to offer up to 3500 condominiums, then retooled as a subsidized housing project, is now clinically dead according to the Washington Business Journal (WBJ).

Just last July, Abdo asked the DC Zoning Commission for consolidated approval of a Planned Unit Development (PUD) and related zoning map amendment. At that time, Abdo had significantly downsized the planned development and was working with the DC government to subsidize the first phase of construction. Abdo told the WBJ that the $1.1 billion mixed-use workforce housing project under current fiscal conditions was "next to impossible."

The 16-acre triangle bordering New York Avenue, Bladensburg Road, and Montana Avenue, NE, is now dominated by warehouses and dilapidated commercial buildings near the National Arboretum. In filing for last summer's Zoning Commission hearing, the developers admitted that scaled-down "new application reflects changes to market conditions." The original PUD called for approximately 3,500 residential units, 148,120 s.f. of retail, 4,294 parking spaces, one acre of open space and an overall floor area ratio (FAR) of 4.98. The drastically smaller new plan offered approximately 1,400 residential units, 1,254 parking spaces, 69,883 sf of retail, 2.71 acres of open space and a less dense FAR of 2.46. It would seem, not even a down-sizing could save the ill-fated development.

Washington, DC real estate development news

Industry Insight: Grant Epstein of Community Three Development

With a fresh Georgetown MBA degree in hand, earned at the end of his seven year stint as an architect with Torti Gallas, Grant Epstein is clearly not a man content to enjoy the quiet life. And still it seems ambitious that three years after starting his own development firm, Grant has two completed condo projects under his belt and at least three more in the wings. Grant spoke with DCMud about development, local architecture, and the pleasures and pitfalls of being one of the few developers to start new condo projects over the past few years.

Tell us about the background of Community Three Development. How did it come together?

Grant: I was an architect at Torti Gallas and Partners for seven years, and decided that I wanted a little more of the process of building. So I went to Georgetown, got an MBA, and Grant Epstein, Community Three Development, Washington DC, Torti Gallastalked with John Torti and Tom Gallas about starting this company. We created a business plan, and thought that our ability to visualize things before they 'were' was something of value, so we decided to start Community Three Development, the three of us. That was three years ago.

We really wanted to do projects that we thought other developers wouldn't do, ones that took historical sensitivity and design innovation and community outreach - things that were very complicated, because we thought our talents could really help in those situations, like with the church here [The Lofts at St. Monica’s]. It takes a lot of thinking and design and experience to craft something on the inside of this church that still looks like a church, but now has a new use.

What was the primary focus of your work while you were at Torti Gallas?

: I was doing town planning and I did a lot of work on transit-oriented development, military family housing, Hope VI work--basically making neighborhoods all over the country. I worked on Twinbrook Station and King Farm. I did a lot of work in San Diego, so I traveled a lot. A lot of it was community outreach, doing charrettes, finding out what the issues were in the neighborhood, learning about the vernacular architecture and creating neighborhoods that fit in appropriately.

You left Torti Gallas in 2004, before the downturn. Was that insight on your part about the oncoming drought, or had you always had your eye on development?
Grant: It had nothing to do with the oncoming drought. It was really about me trying to fulfill my goals professionally and personally and academically. In retrospect, it was a good time for us to learn. We got to learn while things were slower. We were going to make mistakes. As a developer starting out you can't make those big mistakes. Your first project has to be a success. That's a lot of pressure but because of the way the economy was, we could take it little by little and learn, be more cautious and conservative and make sure we were doing everything to make that project a success. In retrospect it was a good time to do it.

When did you start acquiring developable land?

Grant: After I finished business school. We bought our first property at the beginning of 2007.

And were there a lot of mistakes on that first project?

: Tons! Tons of mistakes.

Did that make you think twice?

: [Laughs] Yeah, I thought twice. As an architect you have to solve problems with design issues. As a developer you have to do that and you also have a lot more to grasp; sales, construction, the community. But all those things piled together, it's still solving problems. Designing things that solve those problems - that keeps me going every day. I come to work and it is different every day no matter what. Some days it’s really down, some days it’s really up...but I get to make that choice. I get to make those decisions that ultimately affect success. It’s stressful, but I think I'd rather have it that way than not.

You really love this.

Grant: I love it! I absolutely love it. I have a lot of friends who say "thank God it's Friday". I hate Fridays. Not because I don't want to go home, but because I didn't get to do enough this week. You don't feel that if you don't like your job. I work pretty much seven days a week. I wake up in the morning and there's another design problem to solve. I used to feel that way with architecture too.

Do you think a background in architecture is central to good development?

In our development it is. I look at details very closely knowing that we live in a builder's world where buildings are made of 2,000 parts instead of 20,000 parts like they were 50 years ago. So you've got to be more careful when you design the elements of the building. Having an architectural background I think allows me to see how to use those fewer elements in a way that makes sense and is efficient. I think it also allows me to see a broader picture in terms of all the stakeholders involved. As an architect you're really an ambassador for creation. You've got the community, economics, zoning, historic preservation, neighbors, market - all those things you're trying to get the design to say. As a developer you're trying to do those things as well, but you also have a financial stake in the matter which some would say makes it more serious. Architects are trained for those things and I think that makes you more qualified or more equipped to develop.

Tell us about your process.

Grant: I'm involved in every step from beginning to end, from acquisition to close-out and even beyond, as a developer should be. We do all the design in-house. We do it in a charrette-type format where we sit down either at the site or at our office and spend an intensive day trying to put up every idea we can possibly think of. Generally what that yields is the major issues. A lot of times the solution isn't readily known, but the issues are. Then we continue to refine and refine based upon those issues to come up with a strategy. We take that strategy and start to make it real. We basically do all the schematic design in-house in order to figure out all those issues and further details that come up. Then we go to the community. We say "look, this is what we're planning to do" because we don't live in a vacuum, we live in a community and it is one of the stakeholders in any project. We build the project and we sell it and move on to the next one, but the people in the neighborhood are with the project as long as they're here and it's important to them. We know that. We also work in historic districts so we work with historic preservation, zoning, planning, all right at the beginning so we can understand what the right thing to do is. It sounds altruistic, but if you do the right thing the end product will be fine. And we've proven that. So, then we have an architect, engineers, civil, mechanical, all work with us to do the detail drawings. I'm the point of contact with the contractor, so I basically do the oversight on the job. I'm there during the first stages of construction every week, answering questions, making further design changes on-site, and toward the end of the project I'm there every day, I do my own punch lists, I stage in-house, we do all the brochures, marketing, everything from start to finish we do with the purpose of making it a complete work.Grant Epstein, Community Three Development, Washington DC, Torti Gallas, DC retail for lease

What was your design philosophy as an architect and what is it now that you're a developer?

Grant: [Pauses] I think any architect who says their design philosophy is constant is lying. I think your philosophy matures throughout the course of your work. That's not to say you'll change from a modernist to a traditionalist, but architecture is an experience-based field. That experience is different for everyone and surfaces directly in the design. It's become more refined I think. The experience of doing residential units has taught me more about the way soldier buildings work. The bulk of the buildings in DC are soldier buildings like townhouses, small apartment buildings and the like. My education at Notre Dame highlighted public building design from a more academic point of view. I've come to understand a lot more about the nuts and bolts that go along with designing living spaces. I think that's allowed me to be more holistic in the design process. There's a big picture item about how a building is perceived from the street, but there's also a small thing about how the kitchen sink is next to the window so you can look out.

Do the architect and the developer ever spend any late nights arguing with one another?

Grant: [Laughs] All the time! All of the time! If you're a pure developer you're interested in the economic outcome, if you're a pure architect you're interested in the aesthetic that becomes the project. I'm not saying that architects and developers shouldn't play those roles, I think they need to wear both hats. If you're designing, you need to understand the economics and if you're developing, you need to understand the design. It's that dialogue I have internally that makes this fun for me. It's really the reason I chose to change fields. That dialogue keeps me going at night. It keeps me up at night... but it also keeps me going.

Given the dramatic drop in land prices during the period when you started developing, was there a window of opportunity to become a serious development firm more quickly?

Grant: I would tend to agree in a general sense that land prices went down, however in the district I think in the up-and-coming neighborhoods the opposite happened. We found that people were expecting 2004 prices in 2008. I think that still exists. There are some big parcels that yes, have gone down in value and are available but we like to go into a neighborhood and there are very few parcels that are in neighborhoods that are the right size and were drastically hit by the downturn in terms of land price, at least in our experience. You have to get the land at the right price. Because Washington's such a strong economy nationally, land prices are still elevated. We work very hard to find opportunities where land is at the right price to sponsor the development. It's a block by block situation in this city and a case by case situation.

How do you assess the current market and where do you think development goes from here?

The criteria for lending has obviously become more strict. There are definitely people lending out there. Most of the smaller regional banks are still excited to do development deals. Once you get over a certain dollar amount they can't handle it, so those deals are the ones that have really suffered. We've had relationships with financial institutions that have been wonderful in the past and they just don't have a process for lending anymore. I think they want to do business but can't. But even in this economy, if you've got a good plan and a good project and team, it's worth betting on. I think that our lenders see that... at least I hope they see that! Everybody's got to work harder to do what used to be done a lot easier. That doesn't mean it can't be done. I'd be lying if I said I didn't want it to be easy but it's not and we have to find a way to make it work, so let's figure it out together. It's painful, but it can be done.

Are you expanding in the area of commercial development?

I see a lot of empty office buildings and retail spaces around the city. I think there are opportunities everywhere, but I think there are more for residential development than commercial. I think that will change, but right now there's a lot of available space that needs to be absorbed before we build more. I think there will be a market for smaller commercial space as small businesses grow and start up again. And I don't think those are tenants who generally go into a 4,000 s.f. office space. Unfortunately it's directly tied to the lending and for the moment I don't see the lending becoming a reality, at least in the next few years. That's my personal opinion. I hope the commercial sector becomes healthy.

Grant Epstein, Community Three Development, Washington DC, Torti Gallas, real estate developerWhat attracted you to The Nine project?

Grant: The property I think was built in the early 1920's or 30's and it was a plumbing supply store. Over the years it changed hands a couple of times and in the 80's it was a barber shop. It got run down, neglected, unused for about ten years and it showed. What was most intriguing was the 1850's carriage house that was on that site as well, and the horrible condition it was in. It sits on Naylor Court which is one of DC's named alleys where people live, and which has a long and great heritage in that neighborhood.

I could see something there...that it could be. It had some very interesting zoning and site issues because it was a fairly narrow lot, but we did a charrette and we found a way to make a two-sided building that could help to bring some life back to Naylor court on that side. That was our goal. We completely rebuilt the carriage house with the original bricks because it was very unsafe. We even put in the steel beam and hayloft door using old pictures we'd found. Now there Grant Epstein, Community Three Development, Washington DC, Torti Gallas, architect, developerare two new residents who live on Naylor Court (pictured at left, pre-construction). A 4 unit building with about 3,000 SF of commercial space also allowed us to learn a lot. It was a fun project.

And M Street Flats?

Grant: M Street was a little different. It was an 1880's mansion that became a crack house, in the 80's, I believe. It was part of Operation Fix It in the 90's and they cleaned it up a bunch but it was still vacant. Somebody had Grant Epstein, Community Three Development, Washington DC commercial real estate, Torti Gallasbegun to do some development there to turn it into additional units without permits or plans. Obviously, they were shut down.
We bought the building and saw it as an opportunity to get creative with the zoning ordinance on this big lot. What we found after designing and designing it, was that there wasn't enough light in any of the units because it was a row house lot and the building was big, and we couldn't do it. We tried to think about it in a little different way, as a building with a courtyard in the middle where we could get multiple layers of light into the units and at the same time provide outdoor space, something that was very rare for condos in the city. So we found a solution that made ten absolutely unique units that had enough light to support them. It's one of the things, I think, that makes our projects a little different than others.

We'll do that at the [Lofts at St. Monica's] as well. That's why I think people like town houses. Even though they tend to look similar from the outside, inside they’re all different. They each have their own character. I think that people buying condos should have the same experience. Instead of walking down a corridor to unit 107 that's the same as 207, 307, 407, 507, your unit is unique, it's one of a kind. People can go through the building and find a unit they can identify with. It fits their lifestyle. That adds value. By having something unique as opposed to cookie cutter, people can have an emotion about it rather than a need or a financial decision. Those are important, but buying a house or a condo is a position of pride. We want people to feel that sense of pride when they choose to live in one of our properties. That's what I would want. This is going to be my house. It's not going to be anyone else's. I think people need that.

At St. Monica's, was it an obvious choice to re-purpose some of the architectural and design elements?

Grant: I think so. Some people won't want stained glass windows in their home. I don't think they should look to buy in a church then. I think there are people Grant Epstein of Community Three Development in Washington DC talks about real estate development, Torti Gallaswho will identify with the unique nature of each of the units. We want to keep the character of the church. It will always have the church form and we shouldn't be afraid of it. That was part of the appeal. This is a very fun project. The design issues are so complicated, because you're turning a commercial building or a public building into a residential building. The systems are completely different, the way the building was built is not the way you need it built for its new use, and how do you take advantage of all those things on the inside and make sure you don't destroy the hundred year old heritage that's part of this property? And do it all within a budget? It's a very complicated equation. Maybe I'm a glutton for punishment but I find that fun. Those are the projects we look for.

So what's ahead for you and Community Three Development?

Grant: We've got a number of projects in the works. If I told you about them I'd have to kill you.

Go ahead, give up some secrets.

Grant: [Long pause] Well... we've got something brewing on Capitol Hill SE, right now a condo project about the same size as St. Monica's. It's something that would start construction beginning of 2011 and deliver in 2012. We're looking for things in the 10 to 20 unit range. That's a size we think lends itself to our process, at least right now, and I think it's the size of deal that can work in this lending environment. We’ve got something working in Georgetown in the Glover Park area. It's along the same lines but more of a mixed use scenario. It would be about the same timeline as Capitol Hill. Those are a couple of them.

You have a lot of starts planned.

Grant: In this business you have to have a lot of balls in the air because a lot of them don't fall. We choose which projects to go forward with very carefully. We want to devote the right amount of time to them. We have a number of things in the works, but whether they'll start now or later, or ever, remains to be seen.

Finally, give us some examples of DC architecture that inspire you.

Grant: Well, as a classicist, all of the federal buildings that are classical. Their grandeur really inspires me. And living on Capitol Hill for ten years, it is amazing how different the facades of the townhouses can look. It's amazing the amount of craftsmanship that went into these houses on the hill. Detail that it's very hard to replicate today. So Grant Epstein, Community Three Development, Washington DC commercial property, Torti Gallasthe old townhouses, they inspire me. We've lost a lot in our new buildings, in the construction of them. It primarily has to do with the number of pieces that go into a house. There aren't many craftsmen that know how to do the details.

It also costs too much.

Grant: That's part of it too, but the people don't exist anymore... the trades don't exist. For instance, iron staircases. Two or three guys in the area do iron staircases the right way. Two or three guys! Back in the early 1900's there were forty! It's a big difference. At M Street we found the iron treads from an old turn of the century house and recast the iron posts in order to use the same style that was supposed to be there, but was missing. There were only a couple of guys who knew how to do that.

Now give us some examples of buildings that should be razed.

Grant: Oh, I can't do that...

You know you have a list.

Grant: L' Enfant Plaza. I don't know that it should necessarily be razed, Let's put it that way.

So we'll change "razed" to "re-conceived".

Grant: Yes. Re-conceived. L'Enfant Plaza is one that definitely fits that. It was built in an era where there were certain thoughts about how things would be in the future as opposed to how we relate to the past. Crystal City is another one. All of Crystal City. And I know there's a plan to redo that. It should be reconceived. It's a single use district. And it's not far from being something special. Some very minor changes, some increase in residential could make that into something that's truly spectacular. Could make it into Bethesda very easily. So...those are two.

The interview was conducted by Susan Isaacs 

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