Developer Q&A: Douglas Development Principal Norman Jemal
Douglas Development is the dominant landlord in the East End submarket with over 40 properties in its portfolio.
It owns a series of historic retail properties in Chinatown, several office buildings near the Metro Center and Gallery Place stations and multiple development sites. It is nearing completion on The Advisory Board's new 756K SF headquarters at 655 New York Ave. NW, in partnership with Brookfield, and it plans to break ground soon on a 235-room AC Hotel by Marriott at 601 K St. NW. Bisnow caught up with Douglas principal Norman Jemal to hear his thoughts on the neighborhood's transformation and to get the latest on the developer's projects.
Bisnow: When did Douglas first start acquiring properties in the East End neighborhood? What did it look like at that time?
Jemal: We started in the early '90s. It was barren. It was like a wasteland. There was no Kimpton Hotel, there was no Spy Museum, those buildings were just shuttered. The Verizon Center wasn’t yet built; it was a vacant lot. Where DLA Piper’s offices are at 500 Eighth you had a surface parking lot. The site of CityCenter was a convention center that was undersized and underutilized. That’s just to name a few of the bigger sites.
Bisnow: If the area was a "wasteland," why did Douglas decide to acquire properties in the neighborhood? What was the vision at that time?
Jemal: Well, to be frank, it was clearly my father’s vision. He believed that, and he was right, that when they dug the Metro site they closed off the streets and essentially killed the retail. He believed, he said for many years that the building of the Metro killed the streets and the vibrancy. So he looked at it, and at that time, many of the banks were liquidating assets they took back during the banking crisis. You had the RTC basically charged with getting rid of assets that were on their balance sheet at virtually any price.
If you think about it in the early '90s, the confidence in the city wasn’t there. Marion Barry was the mayor. They couldn’t clean the streets. It was called the murder capital of the world and people were able to buy things at spectacularly great prices.
Bisnow: When was the turning point where the East End began to improve?
Jemal: I would say I think, at the time it was called the MCI Center, was clearly a big turning point. Clearly the MCI Center was a tremendous change in the East End. It’s funny, the confidence in the city was so low that even after they started digging the hole for MCI Center, people still didn’t believe the city would actually be able to pull it off. Gallery Place Metro is the hub of the hub-and-spoke system in our transportation system.
Bisnow: What’s the latest on The Advisory Board Co. headquarters at 655 New York Ave. NW? Have they begun to move in?
Jemal: They’re in the process of building out. So the base building is substantially completed. They’re under construction. They’ll move in spring of 2019.
Bisnow: What went into the design of that building to make it stand out while also preserving some of the historic street-level facades?
Jemal: You’ve got these spectacular old buildings and these old facades, and glass is clearly the trend in terms of space and what people are desiring. We wanted to not just build a glass box but to have something that has depth and texture to it. The terra cotta with the glass picked up very well with the historic facades and the character of the buildings of the site. We engaged some wonderful and brilliant architects, and our team with Shalom Baranes executed spectacularly on a magnificent building.
You look at what else is happening around there, you’ve got Arnold & Porter at the old site where NPR used to be. You look at where 655 New York is and there were a couple restaurants on the block. For the most part it was old industrial buildings and vacant lots and buildings that have gone derelict. For the most part, the roughly 2-acre site was pretty vacant. Then of course you have the old NPR site where currently you’ve got RPM [Italian] and Devon & Blakely and SoulCycle. Then we have a site where AAMC is located. It was a lot of vacant lots and old buildings that were one and two stories. You look at the gentrification and the retail and restaurants and services that follow. It’s a really fabulous cycle.
Bisnow: What do you think it says about how far the neighborhood has come that it can attract major corporate office tenants like The Advisory Board, Arnold & Porter and Venable?
Jemal: A big part of that is just people want to be where there’s retail and an employment base. Many more people live in Shaw, Bloomingdale, 14th Street and other neighborhoods. These folks are doing a lot of research on where employees are coming from. It’s sort of about being where the office meets the neighborhood. Mount Vernon Triangle and East End certainly do those things.
Bisnow: You’re also planning an AC Hotel by Marriott at 601 K St. NW in Mount Vernon Triangle. When do you plan to break ground on that?
Jemal: I would say it would break ground before year-end. I’m very excited about that project.
Bisnow: What about the location was appealing from a hotel standpoint to help you land that AC by Marriott flag?
Jemal: Well it’s a block away from the new Apple Store. It sits in the midst of all these law firms. It’s a block away from the convention center. It has an offering that will appeal to the convention center traveler and the tourist and people that just want to experience Washington, D.C., for what it is and what it has to offer.