An Interview With: Jair Lynch
He may be at the helm of a rapidly growing real estate services company currently developing more than $125 million in projects, but when people first meet 34-year-old Jair Lynch, what many really want to know is: How does it feel to be so good at a sport that you made it to the Olympics -- twice? In fact, Lynch won the silver medal in gymnastics in 1996.
They might be surprised at the answer. As it turns out, it isn’t standing on the winners’ platform that sticks out most in Lynch’s mind. “My best memories are of training with my teammates, learning about life, and making friendships with athletes from around the world,” he says.
So how did Lynch, a DC native, end up in real estate development? After attending public elementary school and Sidwell Friends, Lynch headed off to Stanford, where he majored in civil engineering and urban design, all the while continuing the athletic training he started at the age of eight. Stanford offered “the perfect combination of athletics and academics, which was the start of understanding how to achieve two goals at the same time,” says Lynch.
It was a concept he would continue to incorporate in his life, training for the Olympics while putting in long hours for the real estate development arm of Silicon Graphics. Returning to DC in 1998, Lynch turned down offers in the budding local tech sector. “My passion had emerged to want to work in neighborhoods,” he says. “So I took my corporate experience and started my own firm.” His company started as a niche business helping non-profits and the DC government develop property and community centers, and today has evolved into a full-fledged development firm with 18 employees.
Lynch recently talked with Christina Breda Antoniades for Bisnow on Business.
What did your Olympics experience teach you? My overall gymnastics experience taught me to attack every task and every goal with tenacity and no fear. Talent is only part of the battle. It’s hard work every day that gets you closer to your goal. I was fortunate to learn the dualism of competing as a team and as an individual. As a company we’ve put teams together so that you can work together and protect each other, but we also let people work as individuals to grow and shine.
Your company started out as a niche player. How did you branch out? We started investing in the same neighborhoods that we already were working in, so we would have five or six projects—housing, a recreation center, a school, commercial facilities. A great example is the work that we’ve done in Congress Heights where we have six projects, which taken together help create a live-work-play- learn environment. Typically what we’ve done has been infill developments in emerging neighborhoods. As we mature as a company we’ll be developing entire neighborhoods from scratch, because that helps people connect. We do planning, realty, equity capital, development and construction, so we can provide solutions to entire neighborhoods instead of just a product. We are focused in the District but looking for strategic opportunities in inner suburbs as well. Our goal is to build the organization from a start-up to an institution.
How? We invest in our people for the long term. We are building the capability to do large scale projects. Our systems are derived from the techniques of the companies who have mentored us from day one. It is important to look forward constantly.
What do you like about this business? The value that can be created based on ideas—one minute you have a vacant lot, the next you have a building that serves a purpose and creates prosperity. I like working with communities and having the ability to incite hope in places that have long been disenfranchised. For example, with partners, we recently tore down 13 abandoned buildings that were neighborhood eyesores and built 126 new rental homes. In a neighborhood where disinvestment has caused the erosion of hope, it’s the kids are who really suffering the most. They lack opportunities to expand their worldview and basic services such as education and recreation. I often saw them throwing rocks at buildings and playing around construction sites after there were closed.
What did you do about that? Well, on the project I’m thinking about in Congress Heights, we engaged Ballou High School and started our Construction Site Visit program. We gave the kids a broader worldview by introducing them to development. Our lawyer, our architect, our contractor, our financier all interacted with them. We even had a contest to let the kids rename the apartment complex, and they decided on the “Royal Courts Apartments,” because they are the Royal Knights. Their homecoming king and queen made it official at our ribbon cutting ceremony, and we had a bunch of the students there to talk about their experiences on the project. It really cemented a sense of pride.
What’s your most interesting current project? I would have to say Solea, at the corner of 14th and Florida, which is the gateway from Greater U Street/ Shaw to the Columbia Heights neighborhood. We’re the lead developer and it’s a mixed-use, mixed-income project with retail below and housing above. With it we are introducing the concept of professional live-work space to the neighborhood, recognizing that many people living in apartment buildings are actually working out of their homes. There are a lot of single practitioner law firms or architects or web designers. There are two typologies. One is a “live above,” where your work space is on the first floor and you live above with an interior stair, and the other is a “live-work flat” in which people don’t mind the fact that their live space and work space are permeable. These types of units are have sparked a tremendous amount of demand without our even marketing the project. The other part that’s interesting is that we recognize that gentrification is not simply an issue of people being displaced from their housing. It also greatly impacts small businesses. So where retailers were paying $25 per square foot in an emerging neighborhood, once a large national retailer comes into a neighborhood they set the price at $48 or $50 a foot. You could imagine that everything else starts to creep up. We are providing affordable local retail ownership opportunities, retail condos, so they can be part of the regeneration of the neighborhood and not be displaced.
Which commercial project are you proudest of? I think the Thurgood Marshall Center, one of our first projects. This is a mixed-use building that involved the rehabilitation of a national historic landmark in the Shaw neighborhood. It has 28,000 square feet of office space on the upper floors, 6,000 square feet of museum and conference space and 6,000 square feet of school. That combination in a national historic landmark was a great project for us. The building goes back to 1912. It was the first African-American YMCA, and now it is being regenerated into a lively community icon because of its multiple uses.
You work a lot with minority and small businesses. Is that on purpose? It is part of our business objective, and we strongly feel that if you talk about being part of a community it’s not just about the people who live there. It’s also about the businesses that are located there, that provide anchors for the community. We’re very proud that we’re able to be very inclusive in using local and small businesses. You can save time and gain security by incorporating the human capital working on the front lines. Because the drywall company is from that neighborhood, and knows that everyone will hold them responsible for their work, there’s pride put into workmanship. You gain speed on actually getting a construction project done, and over time your project continues to gain and appreciate. Now the drywall company that’s a few blocks away revitalizes their office building and then the school down the street revitalizes their building. You’re creating a way that the community can grow.
What trends in commercial real estate locally are you seeing? I think what’s going to be a big trend in the commercial side is long-term holders of real estate becoming educated on the benefit of green building technology. We understand there may be an upfront capital costs but there’s a long-term benefit. You can save on operating costs, boost your net operating income, and potentially boost the value of the property.
Where do you see opportunity in the area? This is something that we’ve been talking about for the last six months or so. We are very conscious of the fact that Washington, DC has strong growth potential, but we are also concerned about the eroding middle class. We think that’s important because if you have that middle class disappear, you have a Carmel and Calcutta scenario in which you have a very small affluent class and a very large working and lower class, and that causes problems. We want to to support not only the housing, but industry as well, making sure that living wage jobs are available to folks who want to live in the District. That’s also why we want to participate in revitalization of the schools. I still think that there’s a tremendous growth in the neighborhoods, places like McMillan Reservoir, Poplar Point. All of these new neighborhoods being created are going to be how Washington moves to a new level. We look to be part of that revitalization. :)