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In some of the largest rezoning initiatives to come down the pike in recent years, public/private partnerships have been at the helm of the resultant developments. These have included the transformation of Downtown Brooklyn; the evolution of Jamaica, where the New York City PlanningCommission rezoned 368 blocks last July; and the forthcoming development of the area surrounding the James A. Farley Post Office and Penn Station–now also known as the Moynihan Station project. Another common element to these projects has been the participation of Washington Square Partners, a Manhattan-based firm that has been involved in both the public and private sides of the equation. The company has acted as an advisor to municipal government on land use and planning and, on the other side, as a partner with other developers on projects that tap into the potential of underserved neighborhoods. Real Estate New York sat down recently with Paul Travis, founder of Washington Square, to discuss the past, present and future of both the company and redevelopment in the city.

RENY: Tell us a little about the company and where you focus.

Travis: Our focus is on public-private partnerships, and on that level we work on both sides—on the public or nonprofit side if you will, and then on the private or development side. In part, Washington Square is probably a reflection of my background. I worked under Mayor Ed Koch as a vice president of the New York City Economic Development Corp. and ran the Times Square project for him, and then I was at Forest City Ratner for a decade doing the MetroTech project in Brooklyn, which certainly is a prime private/public partnership project. We’ve been in business 14 years, and we’ve been involved in a number of large projects. They range from the real estate master plan and rezoning for Cooper Union around Astor Place and Cooper Square to the rezoning of Downtown Brooklyn a few years ago on behalf of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership (which is a city/private organization) and advising the state on the Farley Post Office.

On the private side, we were involved in the largest retail project in Jamaica and I was a partner in the construction of River Plaza, the first shopping center in the Bronx in about 25 years. Now we’re partners both in the site opposite the AirTrain in Jamaica and the City Point project in Downtown Brooklyn. They all can be characterized as projects that involve both public and private action.

RENY: What did you intend to bring to the table when founding Washington Square?

Travis: My main thought in starting Washington Square Partners 14 years ago was that very few development advisors had actually done development of any type. Therefore, when they were advising, they were doing it very much from an outsider’s point of view. We could bring the view of a developer so that the other side understood what really needed to be done. That works two ways: in some cases, we might tell our client they need to do more to entice the developer. In other cases, they can get more out of the deal than the developer’s offering because of our knowledge of the development world. We felt this was a niche that really no one had done yet, or very few had done yet.

RENY: What draws you to specific projects?

Travis: In my career, I’ve been involved in some very large rezoning and redevelopment projects. Each of those, when they started out, had areas where there were very significant issues, but the core advantages of those areas could really make a change. Times Square in the early 1970s and early 1980s had an extraordinary crime rate—-much higher, actually, than any place else in the city. The number one and number two subway stations for crime in the city were, at the time, the Seventh Avenue and 42nd Street subway station and the Eighth Avenue subway station. There were vacant buildings all over Times Square. But if you looked at it, you would say, “Wait a second, this area has incredible access and incredible strengths and it’s a really exciting place to be.”

Certainly the MetroTech Center project was based on the thought that there was going to be a tremendous growth in the financial services industry, and New York had to find a way to capture that office need. When we took over the site, a third of Downtown Brooklyn was vacant; there was open drug dealing on the streets. But again, when you looked at it there were so many core advantages that we believed it could work. So that’s what draws us over and over again. Certainly, you can’t look at the Penn Station area without saying, “That’s clearly going to be a place for major growth.” It’s obvious that it hasn’t achieved what it can.

That’s certainly what drove us to the Bronx. When we started in the Bronx, we were at an enormous risk. We took three years to acquire a site, and we were turned down by every development company we talked to as a partner. They said we couldn’t achieve retail rents that would justify the construction. But we were convinced that there was an enormous market in the Bronx that hadn’t been tapped—and still hasn’t. I think the Bronx is still the most untapped market in New York, in terms of how much capacity there is versus how much has been built.

RENY: Of the projects you’re involved with right now, which is getting most of your attention?

Travis: City Point in Downtown Brooklyn, certainly. It’s 1.8 million sf, so it’s a very large project, by any standards, and it’s very complex. It’s like the Time Warner Center, in that you have retail, with office on top of it and residential on top of that. It will be the largest 80/20 project to be built in the boroughs by far—a very large component of affordable housing, which is a very challenging task these days given the current market. There’s a subway stop that we’re going to build a new entrance to, and a myriad of other issues. So that’s an enormous focus for us, with many skilled partners involved. It’s very much a project that the change in Downtown Brooklyn makes possible. You could not have done that project 10 years ago. The retail would not have been strong enough and the residential probably would have been impossible.

RENY: You implied before that the Bronx is underserved with retail. Where do you see that changing?

Travis: In the Bronx, you’re going to see continued growth both in Riverdale and Kingsbridge. The entire West Bronx, from Yankee Stadium all the way up to Fordham Road, will see a lot of growth in the next 10 years. That’s going to be not only retail, but also there’s a tremendous gap in middle-income housing. There hasn’t been a lot of new product in many years.

I believe there’s going to be another trend of outlying office growth in Downtown Brooklyn, Jamaica and the Bronx—and no doubt some of it in New Jersey again. New York has re-asserted itself as an office location, and whatever the economic issues may be this year or next year, that doesn’t change the core characteristics of what’s happening in New York. Creative firms want to be here, corporate headquarters want to be here and financial services is still based here. When I worked for Chase in 1975, all the experts said the two cities that are going to overtake New York as financial centers were Chicago and Los Angeles. Last time I looked, there wasn’t a national bank based in Los Angeles. So I think we’re going to see an office boom like the residential boom we’ve seen in the past 10 years.

If you talk to 20-year-olds, they live in Brooklyn. If creative firms wanted to attract them by putting offices in Downtown Brooklyn, 20 years ago they would have said, “How do I get my employees to work there?” But the dynamics have changed. It’s exactly what I felt about Astor Place 10 years ago, and it’s what’s happening in Hudson Square right now. As demographics change, where people want to work changes. That’s why I’m bullish on Downtown Brooklyn, Jamaica and the Penn Station area. You’re going to see a lot of growth, and it’s going to be office growth. That will be the next wave.

RENY: Finally, what’s on the horizon for Washington Square Partners?

Travis: We’ll continue to work on more of the larger public/private partnerships. As the economy gets more difficult, there will be more of those. And I think you’re going to see more international players in New York. All the reasons that have made it more difficult for local players have made it very attractive for international players again.

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