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An Interview With: Bob Youngentob

Washington, D.C.
An Interview With: Bob Youngentob

An Interview With: Bob Youngentob

Along Route 1, about six miles inside the Beltway and a mile and a half over the District line, EYA has assembled 20 acres and is actively at work on a major new mixed use development called “Arts District Hyattsville.” Bob Youngentob and Terry Eakin founded developer EYA in 1992 to do urban infill residential, and today they build about 200 to 300 units per year, grossing $130 to 150 million in sales. Youngentob says, “We’ve really stuck to our hedgehog principles and not ventured far from that mission. We like to do projects that are inside the Beltway in urban locations with access to existing retail and infrastructure.” Indeed, they summarize their vision as, “Life within walking distance.” About 95% of what they do is urban row homes, with an occasional condominium community or even retail when it’s an amenity to a community. And they typically buy raw ground and go through the approval process to create their product. Youngentob, 45, originally from Boston, came to DC when he was 13, went to Lehigh University, worked several years as a banker, and got a Harvard MBA in the course of which he spent a summer at Trammel Crow and “fell in love with real estate.” Afterward, he went to work for a joint venture of JBG Companies and Holladay Corp, then worked with Holladay before co-founding what until November was called Eakin Youngentob Associates and now simply EYA. The Bethesda-based company with 110 employees is perhaps best known for Fords Landing, Chatham Square, and other communities in Old Town, as well as Harrison Square on U Street in the District, and Monument Place in Clarendon.

Bisnow on Business: What’s special about your development in Hyattsville?
Well, it’s already a vibrant community, yet one of the situations where over the past 15 to 20 years there’s been very little new development. It’s not dissimilar from our experience in downtown Silver Spring or Wheaton or even the U Street corridor. We have this opportunity to come in and help revitalize the area. It offers people the chance to be close to downtown DC, to get the experience of an urban neighborhood, but not pay the high prices of downtown or some of the more expensive areas of Montgomery County. We will actually have row homes starting in the 300’s.

What are you building there exactly?
It’s both sides of Route 1 for about two-and-a-half city blocks. You’ll see live-work units, about 30,000 sq ft of retail, some office on top of the retail, some condominiums with retail on the ground floor, and then just behind the frontage along Route 1, we will have approximately 300 row homes. We’ve been working on the west side first, and then we’ll be starting the east side in about a year, working through the Prince George’s County approval process, working very closely with the City of Hyattsville and the local community. They’ve been very supportive.

How did you get involved?
We started working on the this about two years ago when we first came in contact with the property through the Michael’s Companies and the former property owner, Bert Lustine and the Lustine Chevrolet dealerships that occupied this section of Route 1. The master plan process had started, and there are actually pictures of some of our former communities contained in the planning documents, so it was a natural that when they contacted us and asked if we had an interest in working on this site, we quickly got excited about it.

What have you worked on that’s similar?
The community we did down at Harrison Square in the U Street Corridor at 13th and V Streets, for example. We were very early in the U Street revitalization and really provided one of the catalysts for a lot of the retail and additional residential development that took place there. This, we hope, will be a catalyst for a lot of other revitalization activity, both along Route 1 and elsewhere in close-in Prince Georges County. There’s a lot of activity already starting to take place. University Town Center, which is about a mile from the site, recently announced the signing of a new grocery store anchor and a new movie theatre. You have two Metro stations within a mile of the property. All the activity from the University of Maryland College Park is very close by. So I think we’re just one piece of a puzzle that’s really going to make this area completely different from what it is today.

How is it being financed?
We typically finance our deals with a combination of equity and bank financing. We’ve had one equity partner, Westfield Realty, who we have worked with for the past 13 years, and we work on every project together.

What’s been the biggest challenge of this project?
As in any urban site there are obviously challenges with environmental concerns and engineering concerns, like tying into existing utilities. Also getting to know the Prince George’s community and having them get to know and trust us, because this was our first development there.

Why is this called the Arts District, and how will you reflect that?
Hyattsville is a very eclectic area that already has an established arts community, and I think as the planners from Prince George’s County were working through this process, they were trying to identify attributes that already made this area special. I think it makes perfect sense, and we’ve tied into it completely with the style of our architecture and the naming of the community. We’ll have public art scattered throughout the development, and we’re working with the community to help identify local artists to use.

Who is your architect and what’s the style?
We use Chris Lessard at the Lessard Architectural Group to do almost 100 percent of our work. We work very closely with Jack McLauren at Lessard. He runs the town home and single family group and is our lead architect. We kind of struggled for a while as to what the appropriate architectural style should be. We were looking for the ability to recreate an urban industrial main street. So there’s a combination of Art Deco and an industrial loft feel. We’re using a lot of brick and a lot of standing seam metal on our bays. We’re actually projecting our bays out at angles as opposed to just a regular square bay, to give it an eclectic, artsy flavor. I don’t think there’s any coined architectural style that you could apply to it. It’s a mix of what you might find in a real 1930’s, 1940’s industrial main street area.

What parallels come to mind of this kind of revitalization in the Washington suburbs?
Certainly the revitalization of downtown Silver Spring, but that was funded with a significant amount of state and county money. This is primarily being done with private funds. Obviously Hyattsville won’t be the same scale as downtown Silver Spring in terms of the amount of retail, but I do believe that the opportunities for people to benefit from a tremendous increase in real estate value are similar. There’s also a parallel in the objectives Montgomery County has for downtown Wheaton.

Why did you not get or seek public funding?
The community was identified by the State of Maryland for a “Priority Places” award, so it has received specific attention from various state departments. It’s moved through the approval process quicker than it might have otherwise. There is also some county money going into streetscape improvements along Route 1, but it’s not the same magnitude as the many millions of dollars poured into downtown Silver Spring.

Why did EYA move from Rosslyn to Bethesda?
We liked Rosslyn and we started our company there, but I think we felt Bethesda was more consistent with the kind of the lifestyle we look for in our communities, where you can walk out the door and have a choice of a hundred restaurants to go to for lunch, easy access to Metro, and really a sense of place and community. Also, we had the ability to create the office layout in a model more consistent with the culture of the organization, so we have much more open and collaborative meeting spaces and works areas. The colors are much brighter. It’s a lot more fun, and I think it really ties into the culture of the organization. We even built a kitchen/lounge area with a bubble boy hockey game and a flat screen TV.

You guys sound like a tech company.
I think people enjoy the informal nature of the environment. You can wear jeans to work on Friday. And we really try and have fun and celebrate our successes as much as we can. As everybody knows the real estate process is a long and arduous process, you have to celebrate your successes at little steps along the way. It’s not uncommon for a project to take us six or seven years from the first time we see a piece of ground to the time we deliver the last units of the job. So, whether it’s at the initial approvals or when we break ground or open our sales trailer, or even at the end when we sell and deliver our last unit, we try to celebrate with little events and parties. We’re actually in the midst of a very exciting program called EYA’s “Ticket to Broadway,” where we’ve challenged our entire organization on sales. If we break our sales goals for the year, then we are all going to New York City with our spouses or significant others to take in a Broadway Show. We’re going to charter the EYA Express, a special Amtrak train, to get us there. So every time we write a sale, we all march to the back of our office to the tunes of “There’s No Business like Show Business!” and we put a new star on our tally board to keep track of our progress to Broadway.

Did you want to be a Broadway producer or something?
No. The connection was that we’re opening four new projects this year and we view each of our openings like you would open a Broadway production, where there’s so much prep work that goes into it. And the reality is when the curtain goes up and that sales office opens, like the critics the market kind of tells you how you’ve done. More importantly, this empowers everyone in the company, regardless of what department you’re in, that you can have an impact on sales. Whether you are in accounting and talking about our communities to friends over the weekend, or a site technician in the field and you see a prospective purchaser driving into a site, just looking up and smiling and saying hello and being able to offer a helpful piece of information can help impact sales. Everybody’s involved, and we hear stories about our people recommending our communities not just to their friends, but to strangers they meet on the street. :)