Bisnow Tribute: Remembering John Ritchie
We caught up with Ritchie Commercial prez Mark Ritchie, son of local real estate legend John Ritchie, who passed away last month. Mark revealed the unknown mark his 89-year-old dad—who the family lovingly calls JR—is really leaving on the brokerage world.
We headed to no better picturesque spot to chat with Mark than Fort Point. His eight-year-old daughter Bennett is holding JR in the pic (his prez shot on the '66 S.F. Real Estate Board), so we're capturing three generations of Ritchies here. (Mark is an avid surfer, but he calls this spot too dangerous and territorial for an "old grey-haired long boarder" like himself; he prefers Santa Cruz.) He got real fast about his dad. Sure, he was most well known as S.F. planning commissioner during the '70s approvals for the Financial District skyline, but his legacy also includes being a pioneer in the brokerage biz. He's what Mark would call an open-minded conservative progressive. JR was an Army brat and moved around dozens of times growing up, but he found his true home in a city like S.F., where social change happens first.
The Yale grad was the first commercial broker in the US to hire women, people of color, and openly gay people at Ritchie and Ritchie, Mark attests. He has an inkling as to why: JR was raised partly in Honolulu and was one of few caucasians in school. Mark clearly inherited that trait from his dad; the firm—now Ritchie Commercial—is half women and the San Jose office is almost all women. Back when the concept of brokerage started in the '50s it was all about industrial (office came later). Ritchie was the first local firm to open a branch office, planting flags in the no-man's lands of Oakland, Redwood City and San Jose, with eight West Coast offices at his peak. JR also essentially co-founded the first Colliers franchise in the late '70s, then called American Realty Services Group. He never bought into the super-institutional model that brokerages like Colliers would later become. (Above, an old newspaper article about a then-46-year-old JR.)
Mark remembers his dad as dapper (he commonly sported a red bandana), with a photographic memory and comfort around the common man. (He treated his barber like his brother.) One time he "adopted" a homeless guy in the city and paid for his plane ticket to his parents' house to try and straighten him out. He didn't have an avaricious bone in his body, preferring community involvement over cash. Being a preservationist in the '60s was somewhat opposing for a broker, but JR was all for it. He co-wrote legislation to create the concept of a historic district, which essentially saved Jackson Square from the wrecking ball and gave him the title of a Living Landmark from then-Mayor Joe Alioto. He also helped shape neighborhoods through early brokerage out of unchartered territories, like Dogpatch and Hunter's Point. A big antiques collector, he wrangled friends in the biz to move to an area now known as Showplace Square, brokering their first deals down there.
The Transamerica Pyramid was one landmark he got approved as commissioner, but not all were fan favorites. Mark just got a call out of the blue from famous city planner John Dykstra who approved the Yerba Buena Center and Moscone Center with JR. It was a huge controversy at the time because a whole neighborhood of old SRO hotels had to be torn down. John's never seen anyone like his dad, refusing to take sides. Mark also remembers his dad as eccentric and charismatic (so does his mom; she agreed to marry him after two dates). The pair quickly became a real estate power couple, as she built a mansion brokerage biz from scratch. JR was one to splurge on cars, owning an enviable collection that included Mark's favorite: a 1937 Cord Custom Beverly Berlin Sedan originally driven by the son of the car co's founder.
Mark admits the last cycle left an unbelievable dent on biz. Pre-2008, he had five offices and 75 brokers and staff. Now, with three offices and 25 brokers, he's a third of the size, revenue, and headaches. Many of his clients are private families who don't want to work with big brokerages. He calls his firm the last corner drugstore fighting Walmart, and being small lets him control his own deals intently. He recently brokered the off-market sale of 246 1st twice within 18 months, which happened quietly in the middle of the city. He's waiting for the boom to hit Downtown San Jose, which he predicts is just now upon us. The 8M SF submarket, though at 17% vacancy now, is a small one compared to Silicon Valley's 200M overall SF footprint, and he expects space to go quick.