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REIT COO Starts New Firm Focused On Uplifting Through Mixed-Use Development

Robin Zeigler, founder of MURAL Real Estate Partners

Robin Zeigler, the former chief operating officer of Cedar Realty Trust, has left the REIT to launch her own firm focused on providing underserved communities with opportunities through mixed-use development.

MURAL Real Estate Partners, which stands for Mixed Use Revitalization Approached Locally, is already contracted to advise on a major D.C. project: the first phase of Cedar Realty Trust's Northeast Heights mixed-use development. 

The company is also planning to invest $500M in its own development pipeline, and it is working with joint venture partners and institutional investors to underwrite its own projects, Zeigler told Bisnow.

"In D.C. and in other places, the areas that are looking for and seeking minority talent and minority owners, minority developers, obviously is very attractive to us," Zeigler said. "There are lots of very talented minority development companies, but we think we are on top of that list, as well as others, and have the experience."

The 258K SF Northeast Heights project in May 2020 landed the D.C. Department of General Services as its anchor tenant, with the District committing to bring the agency's 700 employees to the project, which also includes ground-floor retail. The development team secured financing for the first phase in May 2021, and it is expected to deliver this winter. 

The project also includes a second phase, which will combine and redevelop the East River Park and Senator Square shopping centers. Zeigler said she is “hopeful” MURAL will also be a part of that phase.

The under-construction Northeast Heights project at 3924 Minnesota Ave. NE, pictured in March.

The D.C. government updated its request-for-proposals process for development on city-owned projects in 2020 to give additional weight to minority-led firms. Since then, multiple Black-owned firms have landed big D.C. projects, such as Frontier Development & Hospitality winning the bid to build a 1,200-unit project in Hill East. Zeigler said she hopes she can capitalize on opportunities like this. 

She said the urge to start her own firm came in part because the "cadence" of working at a publicly traded REIT, which requires that the C-suite bring progress on their developments to their investors every 90 days, doesn't always lend itself to finding quality partners in mixed-use projects that can serve underinvested neighborhoods.

"In my view, the world needs certain types of leadership to take things in a certain type of direction, and it is certainly easier to do that in a company that you own and you have control over versus some of the constraints that may come from a White male executive team, from a public company standpoint," Zeigler said.

She said she founded MURAL to help identify and address community needs like attainable housing, fresh food, workforce training and small-business incubation in underserved areas. Ziegler said in a release she wants to help "build value alongside communities — not just within them."

Zeigler's background in real estate will be an asset for the new venture. Before serving as COO of Cedar, she spent 12 years as regional chief operating officer for Federal Realty Investment Trust. Her career began at Ernst & Young, where she was in accounting, but she transitioned to the world of commercial real estate from there.

"As a COO, I’ve been running companies for a very long time," Zeigler said. "So if I can run someone else’s company, I can create my own."

At MURAL, Zeigler is bringing along familiar faces from her previous workplaces to help lead the firm. Newly appointed Vice President of Development Jessica Tan joins MURAL from Cedar Realty Trust, where she oversaw the redevelopment of mixed-use shopping centers in the mid-Atlantic. She has 13 years of experience in real estate development.

Vice President of Property Management Melanie Ramos joins Cedar after 15 years of managing mixed-use properties at firms like Federal Realty, Bozzuto and Cedar Realty Trust.

Vanessa Rodriguez will join MURAL as senior vice president of marketing, PR and community relations. Rodriguez most recently spent seven years in marketing at The Howard Hughes Corp. Before that, she worked with Forest City Washington from 2004 to 2008 and Federal Realty from 2009 to 2015.

Zeigler said the all-female leadership team didn't happen on purpose. Rather, she found that the people she wanted to work with in her new venture all happened to be experienced women. She said that is a testament to how providing opportunities to people from underrepresented backgrounds in commercial real estate can lead to a strong talent pipeline.

"The way that we get more of that is having more women and minorities in positions of leadership that have the ability to hire and train and continue to grow the industry," Zeigler said. "The more minority and females we have in the industry, I think it's just one thing begets another."