Exclusive Q&A: The Ratkovich Co's Clare DeBriere Talks The Bloc And The Future
The Ratkovich Co COO and EVP Clare DeBriere has worked in the industry for nearly 25 years and has spent her entire career there. Bisnow caught up with Clare to talk about her work, The Bloc, women in the industry and the future. Clare is among the all-star panelists at Bisnow's Los Angeles Multifamily and Mixed-Use Forum starting at 7:30am Wednesday at the Montage Beverly Hills.
Bisnow: What first attracted you to the industry?
Clare DeBriere: I worked for an architectural firm for a year after college. My mother knew I would never make it as an architect, because I don’t have the personality for it. My mother said if I worked there for a year, she would pay for graduate school. So I thought, who wouldn’t take that offer? That’s exactly what I did, and I hated every second of it. When I left that job, I called Wayne Ratkovich (who had helped me get the first job), and he said, "Why don’t you work for me for the summer while you’re looking for a job?" I said, "Sure, no problem."
That’s how I ended up working for the company, but it was really that I took a class at UCLA in the history department. It was the history of architecture, and it was about city building and the profound impact that physical buildings and the build environment can have on how people live their lives and can, ultimately, dramatically improve their lives. That was what made me want to be an architect. I wanted to be a city builder. I wanted to do this. I wanted to change people’s lives. I wanted to do good. As it turns out, I was much more inclined to do it from the developer’s seat than from the architect’s seat. And, gratefully, Wayne gave me the opportunity to do just that. (Clare is pictured with her husband, Christopher Barnett, in Austin.)
Bisnow: What did you initially do for the company?
Clare DeBriere: I did everything. I started as an intern basically, then did property management. I did construction management, leasing, development, financing. I kind of went through all the rungs of the development world. The nice thing for me was that it was during a recession, and so there were a lot of cutbacks in the company during the time I was there. But I was cheap labor, and I was willing to do anything and learn anything. I basically got the best education in development that anybody could get. That’s sort of how we train our team here now. If somebody starts with us as an undergrad, we start them as a property assistant and expect them to do that for a couple of years before they decide if they want to stay in property management or move into development management.
Bisnow: What was it about the job you liked?
Clare DeBriere: I liked that everything we worked on was different every day. All of our projects, even though they had shared values, they were all very different. I loved that the company’s mission is to profitably produce developments that improve the quality of urban life. I loved that before we took on a new project, we always asked ourselves if that project was going to fulfill the mission of the company. There were some that would have been profitable for us to do, but they wouldn’t have fulfilled the mission, and so we didn’t do them (Clare is rappelling off The Sheraton at The Bloc above, raising money for ShatterProof!).
Bisnow: Why do you think there are so few women in the industry?
Clare DeBriere: When I first started, 25 or 26 years ago, I read the LA Times sports section every morning just so I could have something to talk to the guys about at lunch because I was the only girl in the whole office other than a couple of administrative people. That wasn’t easy. When I was in graduate school, I think there were only four or five girls in our class out of 50, I guess. It’s hard, but it’s something you get totally used to. I am perfectly comfortable, at this point, walking into a room and being the only woman, because it’s happened my entire career. It doesn’t happen as much anymore, which is fantastic. I was lucky working for Wayne, because Wayne is one of those very few amazing people who doesn’t care about your gender, or your race or your religions or your sexual preferences. He just wants the best people around who are good, ethical, moral, smart, creative people. That’s what he looks for and doesn’t really care about the package it comes in, and so we have a bunch of senior-level women in our company now—people of all races, every minority you can imagine. We have everything covered because we never had a prejudice or a bias in our company. Our company was never an “old boys’ club.” So I was very lucky that was the environment that I grew up in in the industry.
I’m on the advisory board of Urban Land Institute. We have a very active women’s leadership initiative to make sure when we have a panel, there’s a senior-level woman asked to fill a seat on that panel. Let’s not just fill the seats with the easiest, typical people. Let’s find people who haven’t had the opportunity to present before. Let’s really reach out to people and get that diversity. You can see the change in the ULI Young Leaders Group—there are a ton of wonderful, smart, driven young women entering this industry, it’s close to 30% and that’s a pretty remarkable change from when I started.
Bisnow: What has been the strategy for your company?
Clare DeBriere: The strategy for our company is to follow our mission, and that mission has led us to some of the most interesting and, ultimately, most successful projects this city has ever seen. We set some really high standards for ourselves, and we look for developments like The Bloc. Before we bought it, it was a disaster. It was the dirtiest, darkest, most prison-like project imaginable. Everybody hated coming in here when they were forced to go grab something from Macy’s. It was a horrible place, and we’re turning it into one of the most amazing urban places that this city has ever seen. That feels really good, and it will be extremely successful. We did that at Hercules campus down in Playa Vista. We had these buildings that were literally collapsing on themselves—these beautiful, historic buildings that no one knew what to do with, and we knew exactly what to do with them. We told a story that this was a place for innovators: about "magic concrete," and the "innovation fairy" living at the site—that it was the place where innovators go to work, to build, to create. And all the innovators came. The first tenant that we signed up there was Google/YouTube. So it’s looking at places that we can really change the urban environment and create really wonderful places for people—creating places that make people happy that people are going to enjoy.
Bisnow: What can you tell us about The Bloc?
Clare DeBriere: I can tell you the biggest challenge is that it is a renovation of over 2M SF on a city block. We’re tearing up everything—every stairwell, every building system, every transportation system. There’s nothing that’s not being touched on this. Because it’s a renovation, you’re going to get surprises. Doing rehab is a lot more difficult than building from the ground up, so, not unexpectedly, we’ve had the challenges associated with that. We know that they’re coming, but sometimes it makes you want to pull your hair out. But what’s been really amazing about it is we created this vision of what we wanted the place to be, and it’s literally turning into it as we speak.
If you look at the renderings we have of the hotel, you cannot tell the difference between that rendering and standing in the newly renovated lobby of that hotel. It is absolutely as beautiful, if not more beautiful, than the renderings we had of the hotel. It’s absolutely exquisite. The lobby of the office building is just about getting finished. Seeing that vision that was so clear coming to life is such a thrill. The great thing is that the tenants we’ve been selling space to are totally buying into that vision. So we have some of the most amazing office tenants that we were able to bring into this project in the middle of a construction zone.
I mean, a massive construction zone, and being able to lease to Nordstrom’s Haute Look, which took two floors in this building; Golin; Blend Media; DLR Architectural Firm; Studio 111; Media Alpha. High-tech, creative companies have moved in. We’ve gotten Levin & Associates, a wonderful architecture firm. Newmark is here. Keller Williams, ULI, BOMA, have all moved in. We’ve been just incredibly successful. I think we’ve leased almost 300k SF over the last year that we’ve been under construction to some of these absolutely phenomenal, creatively leaning, and innovative office tenants. We’re so far ahead of where we thought we’d be. It’s really taking shape now. We’re probably within three months of the grand opening.
Bisnow: What other tenants will you have on the property?
Clare DeBriere: The retail tenants we’re a little more close-mouthed about, but we have a state-of-the-art LA Fitness going in. That’s an amenity both for the office tenants and the hotel. There is a post office there. Residents of South Park will be able to get there much more easily. BrandsWalk is a fantastic fashion retailer. It’s a lifestyle store. They have all sorts of tech products. It’s a really fun store, and it’s absolutely beautiful. Free Market is this generation’s Fred Segal. They have Miansai, Clare Vivier, Apolis, Warby Parker and Wittmore. They have all of these amazing tenants in their store, and they’re creating this entire lifestyle from home goods to high fashion to shoes to eyewear to glassware and they do amazing events as well: book shows and trunk shows. GNC is going in. There’s a beautiful jewelry store called Jewelry Pavilion. Macy’s has their flagship store that has had an entire facelift. They’ve completely redone the store, so it’s now an official Macy’s flagship. Mr. G’s Toys is an adorable boutique toy store. T-Mobile. Davio’s Steakhouse out of Boston, New York and Philadelphia is an Italian Steakhouse with a focus on quality of food, service and comfort. We have District Restaurant. We have Killer Café, which is a classic diner that’s going to serve the office tenants, the retailers, the hotel guests, and it’s open 24 hours. We have a Starbucks there that is going to be open 24 hours with a full-service restaurant and beer and wine. Popbar is my favorite. It’s a darling concept out of NY. They’re in great, little boutique spaces. They are wonderful. There’s a Robek’s, Urban Oven. Those guys were a food truck. This is their first brick-and-mortar store. They’re going to be 24 hours. TLT is another one that is great comfort food. The post office and LA Fitness will be the first to open in March.
Bisnow: What percentage is it leased?
Clare DeBriere: The retail is about 70% leased, and the office is probably about 60% leased. We had to restack the office building before we could lease it back up, so we had to go through and terminate a number of leases.
Bisnow: What are some of your other projects?
Clare DeBriere: We have our Alhambra campus, which is a 1M SF campus in the City of Alhambra. It’s retail and office, primarily office, and we are just starting to entitle our residential, which I think is really exciting. We’ve always called The Alhambra an “urban community,” and now we’re adding the last piece of that urban community. Then, we have 5900 Wilshire, which is one of my favorite buildings and is directly across the street from the LACMA. The lobby of that building is one of the truly most beautiful public spaces we’ve ever created. Then, our Hercules campus, but that’s 100% leased.
Bisnow: What do you think the future of multifamily looks like?
Clare DeBriere: We only develop real estate in Southern California. My perspective is very narrowly limited to what’s going on in Southern California, but I can tell you people are not going to stop coming here. Whether they’re living in single-family homes or in for-sale or for-rent multifamily, we’re going to need to create places for people to live. And those places are going to need to get denser as the number of people increases, and they need to be developed around transit because we, as a state, invested—and actually the federal government as well—invested hundreds of millions of dollars in a transportation infrastructure that was really painful to build for the city, and it continues to be painful all down Wilshire Boulevard. But that being said, the transportation infrastructure is going to make the greater LA area become a place that will be livable for hundreds of thousands more people in a very comfortable way if we can figure out how to develop residential around transit hubs. In places where there is transportation infrastructure, amenities, schools and police departments, fire departments, hospitals, etc. If you can look at building higher, denser residential in those areas like what we’re doing in Alhambra, it will, I think, make all the difference in the world.
Bisnow: What is the future of mixed-use development?
Clare DeBriere: I think the more we can look at our built environment as being something fluid, the more strength we have with it, the more dexterity we have with changing usage. So if you look at a Class-A office building on Bunker Hill, that might not be the best place for an office building anymore, but what are you going to do with a 60-story building that no one wants to work in but they may want to live in? If you can take that office building and take the top 15 floors and convert those to condominiums or to apartments, how great would that be?
How fantastic if we could have the dexterity to be able to change uses in existing buildings. The City of LA adopted an adaptive reuse ordinance that really allows developers and property owners to do that. I think the more we look at what the best uses are now, the more successful mixed-use developments we will have in the future. It needs to be done in a proper way. You need to have appropriate parking and transit and fire protections. But assuming that all of that is done correctly, having mixes of uses in buildings is a fantastic way to use your buildings. If people who live there don’t need their parking spots during the day, people who work there do need the parking spots during the day. They don’t need them at night when the residents need them. So I think there’s a lot of natural symbiosis between all those uses, and the more we think about that and how we use our building stock we have already and creatively adaptive reusing them, the stronger our cities will end up being.
Bisnow: Where do you think we are in the cycle?
Clare DeBriere: I have lived through two recessions. The nice thing about that is I know that they start. I know they have a peak, and I know they end. Then, it becomes the “good old days,” and then we have another recession. I have no doubt we’ll have another recession. It’s the cyclical nature of this business and of the economy. I think our economy is in relatively good shape. I think people have been a lot more cautious during this positive time in the market than they have in the past. I think there is going to be another recession. I don’t think it’s going to be in the immediate future, nor do I think it will be a deep one.
Bisnow: What do you like to do in your personal life?
Clare DeBriere: I love traveling. My husband and I are both huge travelers. He is a chef, so we generally look for far off places that have Michelin-starred restaurants and try those, and then the next day go out and eat the best street food that there is. We do a lot of traveling and dining and wine tasting and, because of that, a ton of hiking and outdoor activities. Hiking in Griffith Park with our two dogs. Those are some of my favorite things.