Big builders and developers such as Alliance, AvalonBay, Related, and Lennar might build the most apartments. But these firms haven’t cornered the market on appealing multifamily.
In fact, in many cities across the country, some of the most original housing comes from small boutique developers and local architects. Not all of these small developers started out on the development side of the business. Some, in fact, got their start working for developers as architects. But instead of delivering someone else’s vision, now they’re delivering their own.
“I feel we do much better work because we have the power to do whatever we want because we’re the one [making the decisions],” says Jorge Mastropietro, a New York City–based architect.
Mastropietro isn’t alone. In Washington, D.C., Suzane Reatig and her daughter, Nooni, are making a name for themselves by creating small projects that match the vibrancy and diversity of the neighborhoods in which they’re located. And in Southern California, Jonathan Segal not only builds lucrative, award-winning projects; he teaches the next generation of architects how to build for themselves.
Jorge Mastropietro had been both a developer and an architect in his native Argentina. In addition to building numerous two- and three-unit townhomes, he constructed a 100,000-square-foot apartment building with 120 units.
After the Argentinian economy collapsed, Mastropietro decided to move and arrived in the United States in 2002. He soon found a job working with Rafael Viñoly Architects in New York City. The job gave him the opportunity to continue creating buildings, and it paid the bills, but Atelier felt something was missing.
“When I was with Rafael Viñoly, what I missed was being on my own,” Mastropietro says. “I missed leading my own company.”
In 2007, he decided to break out on his own. His first projects were small—single-family home and condo redevelopments. In 2008, he completed 526 Manila Ave., in Jersey City, N.J., a 3,000-square-foot townhouse converted into design-forward duplex condominiums.
“To be a developer, you need to have different relationships,” Mastropietro says. “You need to find banks that trust you. You need to be working very closely with brokers. You need to meet with businesspeople who want to invest money with [you].”
While Mastropietro works on two four-unit buildings on Long Island for another developer, he’s still developing his own projects. In 2013, he completed 93 Bright St. in Jersey City, a new, modern, sustainable, four-story building with four units.
Currently, he’s working on 54 Bright St. in Jersey City, a five-story project (plus a basement) with four living units. The project is designed for sustainability and energy efficiency.
“Most of my investors want to do condos so they can put their money in today and get it back in two or three years,” Mastropietro says. “But I’m always open to new possibilities.”
A thirst for artistic freedom drives some architects into the world of development. While that was certainly a motivating factor for Washington, D.C.–based architect Suzane Reatig, it wasn’t the most compelling reason she decided to start building small apartment projects; rather, it was the economy, combined with some opportunity.
“Our profession fluctuates a lot, so there are times we have to be creative about how to get work,” Reatig says. “One of the options is to create your own work. Things were changing here in our neighborhood and there was opportunity.”
After finishing an eight-unit project called Ridge Street Row, Reatig stopped doing development for a while. But now she has several small projects—four units and eight units—in the works.
The transition isn’t actually that hard for Reatig and her daughter, Nooni (a designer/developer at the firm), since they often work with nonprofits, which usually don’t have a lot of experience with the development process.
“Most of our clients are nonprofits, so we pretty much do everything,” Suzane says. “We even helped one client get the loan.”
The pair doesn’t do big projects but prefers instead to focus on producing housing that matters. But that doesn’t mean the Reatigs shoot for fancy bells and whistles in their work. They know profitability matters as well.
“For development, you have to have a balance,” Nooni says. “If it’s only design-based and not numbers-driven and feasible, then you don’t have a project. If it’s only numbers-driven, then you just get a typical product and it’s kind of like, ‘What’s the point of the architect being a developer if you’re going to do the same thing that anyone can do?’ ”
While preferences can change as the years pass, the Reatigs want to create something that’s sustainable. “We want to look at the whole picture and how it will create a better quality of life and a better lifestyle and a building that people will stay in and grow in to create a community,” Suzane says.
While a lot of architects take the traditional route—working for developers before becoming one themselves—Jonathan Segal took a different path.
“I was on the board of directors in downtown San Diego and I was trying to hustle a guy to do row houses,” Segal says. “He was a little rude. He said, ‘Don’t be stupid. You don’t want to be an architect. Do your own development.’ ”
Not only did the guy, Charles Tyson lll, offer advice, he also presented Segal with an opportunity: Tyson’s mother had a 7,000-square-foot piece of dirt in San Diego and Tyson offered it to the young architect for $350,000. Five months later, in 1989, Segal closed on it, developed it himself, and never looked back.
His last project was 38 units, and his next is 54. Like Mastropietro and Reatig, he’s focused on small buildings … with good reason.
“Our business plan is to try to avoid community involvement,” he says. “In San Diego, there’s a maximum density you can build [to] in different zones that allows you to go through [zoning] administratively and not [have to address] community involvement. I’m not willing to give in, like a traditional developer is, on the architecture.”
And he’s taking the lessons he’s learned over the past two decades to a new generation—teaching a master’s degree class in real estate development at Woodbury University in San Diego. His commitment to guiding the next generation of architects is part of the reason Segal was inducted into the prestigious Wm. S. Marvin Hall of Fame for Design Excellence in 2014.
His main lesson for young architects aspiring to develop is to be conservative.
“Be prudent, and when you make some money, put it back in the piggybank,” Segal says. “Take baby steps.”