Name: Jamie Weinbaum
City: Washington, D.C.
Product Types: Primarily residential, with some ground-floor retail in mixed use
* At the time of the interview, Weinbaum was with Ditto Residential and preparing for a transition to MidCity within a few weeks.
What did you do before you were a developer?
I came to Washington for law school 18 years ago and then worked for a federal judge for two years before going to two different international law firms where I was in a government contracts practice and in a contracts and construction practice. From there, I’d been doing some real estate investing of my own, and I found my passion there, so I set about finding the right opportunity with a real estate development firm. I set out networking like crazy and joined every organization I could and got really involved with ULI and NAIOP, and after eight solid months of breakfasts, lunches, dinners, coffees, I ended up with three offers.
What motivated you to make the leap into development?
The best way I can put it is that I looked at real estate development—and continue to do so—as something that was a means of a more fully integrated life. By that, I mean that my interests, my passions, my drive is around the kinds of topics that I’m fortunate enough to work on day-in and day-out. The urban environment, the built environment, construction, housing, design, cities, communities, politics. . . . The idea of working on those things every day as opposed to just reading about them was thrilling to me and still is.
Where do you turn to get a fresh perspective or experienced insight on a prospective or existing deal?
If I’m looking at a deal, I’m looking at best practices that I read about in Urban Land magazine—to give you guys the plug—but there also [are] things that I might hear about . . . creative things that I might have already thought of and considering whether this is an appropriate platform to apply those things.
I’ll give you an example. I believe the development community in major metropolitan areas, such as Washington, is building for a certain class of people and leaving out another class of people, and I don’t mean the traditional difference between market rate and affordable. What I mean is that the land prices and construction costs in the District are such that if you’re going to build in an urban, infill area, you’re going to build a Class A product. And if you build the traditional layout, you’re going to have a 700-square-foot, one-bedroom [unit], then you’re going to need to charge more than $2,000 per month for that one-bedroom. So all of the developers are chasing the lawyer who makes six figures, and we’re all marketing at that kind of a renter in the multifamily rental product.
Meanwhile, there’s a whole subset of renters who are not looking for official affordable units, but are who I might call the “Craigslist renter”—the kind of renter who works for ULI and makes $50,000 a year and can’t afford to spend $2,200 on a one-bedroom to live in the Shaw neighborhood or the 14th Street corridor. No one is building for those individuals. Those are the kinds of people who are looking for Class B, or Class C, or English basements, or group houses to live in. There’s a disconnect between the kind of product that’s cropping up all the time and a lot of people who just can’t afford that product. That’s a problem.
At Ditto, one thing we worked on is how do we create a product that works for them and their lifestyle? We’ve been thinking creatively about space, so we unveiled a building called Oslo (which ULI did a Case Study on), which is a shared-housing concept. It has very large apartment units. Each apartment has either three or four bedrooms, each bedroom with its own en-suite bath, and then they share the living room, kitchen, and dining room—all in a very high-end, beautiful new building with a glass curtain wall and beautiful finishes. It’s allowing people who can pay $1,300 a person to live in a new building by thinking creatively about space.
That, to me, was looking at broader trends that are happening in the industry and thinking through how we can be receptive to those trends when we think through design.
What does being a successful real estate developer mean to you?
It means being a steward of the city’s growth and evolution. It means being observant of what this place, that we all share, is today and will be tomorrow.
What skills or traits do you think are most important to make the leap into real estate development?
I think being curious and being well rounded in your thought is important. You don’t have the luxury of saying, “I only like one aspect of this process.” Not if you want to be in development. There are a lot of industries where what you do is specific, and you do that one thing, and you do that well, but you have to be able to do many things in development.
What skill or trait did you lack at one point, and how did you overcome it?
I think construction knowledge is something that I’ve lacked and tried to make up for. I made up for that by asking a lot of questions. Reading a lot. Being on site. Doing. You have to learn by doing. You have to be unafraid of being in the mix while you’re learning it. You don’t have the luxury of going off to school to learn it. You have to learn while you do it by making mistakes.
What was a memorable mistake?
I don’t think that I asked enough questions during my first job when I was a construction manager. My first impression was that I had to attend meetings and generally keep momentum going, but I needed to get deeper into the weeds of how the structure would work.
What’s your favorite city to visit and why?
I’m particularly excited to visit Los Angeles again because it’s unlike East Coast cities in that it’s spread out and a little bit mysterious. There’s something so different because it goes against some best practices of TOD in that it’s kind of sprawled, but it’s not sprawled in a way where you think of a close-knit city that sprawls and becomes potentially less interesting. The further you get from Washington, you get into Loudoun and Prince William [counties], and there aren’t going to be pockets of incredible coolness to them. They’re likely to be more suburban. But I feel like L.A. has these nodes that are interesting and spread out from one another. The last few times I’ve been there, it’s been surprising.
About Entrepreneur Profiles
Entrepreneur Profiles are conversations with real estate development professionals who, in most cases, have recently made the leap into the industry whether as young individuals fresh out of school or as mid-career transitions.
With a focus on small-scale developers often doing incremental and transformative work, these are quick and easy to read profiles to raise awareness of these professionals. By telling their stories, the Urban Land Institute hopes to inspire the next generation of small scale entrepreneurs to transform their own communities. See all of the Entrepreneur Profiles.