Developer Q&A: Insight Property Group Partner Trent Smith
Insight Property Group in late 2016 delivered The Apollo, a 431-unit apartment building with ground-floor retail at 600 H St. NE. The project brought Whole Foods to the H Street corridor, plus several local retailers and a 32K SF WeWork co-working space. Insight is now constructing another mixed-use development farther down the corridor, a 33-unit affordable building with retail on the site of the former R.L. Christian Library at 1300 H St. NE. Bisnow caught up with Insight partner Trent Smith to get the latest on those developments and hear his thoughts on the corridor's transformation.
Bisnow: How has leasing gone at The Apollo since its late-2016 opening?
Smith: It has been fun. We're ahead of schedule. A big building with 431 units usually takes two years to lease up, and we're on schedule to do that inside two years. We're at almost 70% occupancy right now.
Bisnow: Has the opening of Whole Foods in the project's ground floor been a significant draw to the building?
Smith: It's tough to quantify. We have so many fun things happening in the building and around us on the block and the extended block. People always ask what is the benefit of having Whole Foods. It's obviously a big benefit; we saw traffic pick up. I lived in the building for eight months, I was on the H Street side staring at the Whole Foods patio. I was able to see the slow build of H Street foot traffic in just eight months.
I think it's really going to continue in the next 60 days with six new businesses opening within a block. That's going to continue to add to the story. Whole Foods feels like it has been really robust. From everything we've heard, it's really exceeded their expectations. It's a combination of Whole Foods, WeWork, The Wydown, Solid State Books and The Daily Rider. It's tough to point to one thing or another driving revenue or traffic, it's a combination of all those things working together.
Bisnow: You said you lived there for eight months, how was that experience?
Smith: My colleague Maury Stern lived there for six months before me, and he moved out and I moved in. It was both stressful and beautiful at the same time. We're always making lots of mistakes in the middle of a lot of positive things. It's neat to be on the ground seeing how the building lived, seeing where we can improve upon things for the next project. I lived there with my family — a couple kids, my wife, a dog — seeing it from a different perspective than people typically do. It's amazing on my iPhone notes app I have 500 lines of items filled with lessons learned to improve for next time.
Bisnow: Can you give me some examples of the lessons you learned during your time living there?
Smith: One place where I have the most amount of items we would tweak is in the dog run. It was a bit of an afterthought. It's an incredibly thoughtful and beautiful building with so many public areas. We have a very nice large dog run, doing all the right things in the marketplace today, but there are at least 20 things I'd design differently having experienced it firsthand in the morning and at night, multiple times a day. I'd start to really focus on that space more. It's inherently a place where the most community bonding occurs naturally.
The Wydown has great community in the lobby space, but the dog run people use multiple times a day and there are forced interactions that need to occur because it's a small space. Dog owners are typically friendly with one another. We really want to focus on improving that area in the future. I was blown away with how much all of our spaces are being used, the outdoor kitchen areas, a lot of times I wasn't able to find a little table to sit with my family. Another amenity that surprised me for its community building benefits was the communal garden on the roof. There are 60 to 70 garden lots that were all used when the building inside was 50% occupied.
Bisnow: Moving on to your next project on the corridor at 1300 H St. NE, how did you get involved in that deal?
Smith: We were originally not involved in the RFP process. It was Ben Miller's RISE Development and H Street Development Corp. in 2012 and 2013. Eventually RISE turned into Fundrise and became an equity platform. So both partners reached out to us to see if we'd want to step into the entity and help bring something to life on that special corner.
Bisnow: That 13th and H Street NE intersection is one of the busiest on the corridor, with a number of popular bars and restaurants on the surrounding blocks. How ideal is the location for a development like this?
Smith: It is really the Main and Main corner of nightlife for H Street, but it also is where the farmers market is, it's a really important streetcar stop, it's across from the Atlas Theater, and it has incredible views of the Capitol once you're above the ground floor. It's a little smaller than we'd typically do at Insight, but it's such a gem we thought we'd create a jewel box we could all own forever.
Bisnow: What will this project look like? What makes it unique?
Smith: It's a 100% affordable project. We went to the District a couple years ago and presented a plan of converting the project to 100% affordable. The ANC and DMPED supported us in the effort. The 33 units are a combination of 50% [area median income] and 30% units. The retail is 6K SF of market-rate retail.
Bisnow: In an area like H Street with rising property values and rents, how important is it to create affordable units in the neighborhood?
Smith: We couldn't be more excited about the idea of bringing 33 homes with views of the Capitol on a corner that has all these attributes. It's really a unique opportunity we have because the District was a partner and we entered into a ground lease. It is difficult to make the economics work, but because of the partnership we were able to do it and create a win-win for the neighborhood. The neighborhood is asking for affordable housing, the city is asking for affordable housing, and we think it's the right thing to do.
Bisnow: What type of retail are you looking to bring into that ground-floor space?
Smith: Really not dissimilar to what you've seen us do at The Apollo. We're trying to look and find neighborhood-serving uses that currently do not exist on H Street. We want to provide something additive so residents can avoid having to hop on the streetcar. Ideally we can find local operators similar to what we've done at The Apollo.
Bisnow: When do you expect to deliver the project?
Smith: By the end of this year.
Bisnow: It seems like H Street's development is progressing down the corridor, with The Apollo and Anthology around Sixth Street and Rappaport's mixed-use project around Ninth Street and now this project at 13th Street. How does this project fit into the corridor's development wave?
Smith: Traditionally it's been a barbell shape of activity. It was originally centered around Atlas with Joe Englert's special places that were a regional draw, and more recently the eastern end of the barbell, now the middle area is finally starting to fill in. Rappaport's site spans Eighth to 10th Street. That has been a dead zone, where you walk faster to get between the eastern and western ends. That project coming to life over the next year will be important to filling in the one-mile stretch of H Street.
Bisnow: How do you envision the future of H Street looking and feeling once all of the planned development is completed?
Smith: It is our desire, as owners and hopefully good stewards of the properties we have, to keep activating the ground floor of the spaces and all the ground-floor places and uses added onto the corridor. There are things the surrounding community wants that may be unique and not canned. A lot of the draw and attraction beyond the historic context in L'Enfant's plan is those uses. Whatever we can do to ensure we're doing new and exciting things and adding to the story that started a long time ago, that's what we keep trying to do. H Street is big, a mile long with a lot of retail spaces to fill up. The places we control we continue to make the best effort.