Jun 5, 2024

Episode 132

David Barry


New Jersey native David Barry studied law before getting into real estate development—focusing on redeveloping shipyards and truckyards—alongside his brother. When the W brand was being developed in Hoboken, New Jersey, Barry entered the hospitality side of the real estate business. Today, he counts Chiltern Firehouse in London, New York’s Chelsea Hotel, and Caldera House in Jackson Hole, Wyoming on his client list.

Barry has always been a curious person and interested in exploring new frontiers, which led him to founding Urby in 2012, the hospitality-inspired urban housing concept centered on modern design, high-end amenities, affordable pricing, and programming.

Simplicity is key to the success of Urby, which is currently found in six locations with four more on the boards in Philadelphia; Washington, DC; Miami, Florida; and Jersey City, New Jersey.

As he looks ahead, Barry recalls his greatest lesson learned: Don’t get caught up in the noise and chatter of the present, but think longterm and plan accordingly.


Stacy Shoemaker Rauen: Hi, I’m here with David Barry of Urby. David, thank you so much for joining us today. How are you?

David Barry: I’m doing great. Thank you for having me.

SSR: Yeah, thanks for joining us. Okay, so we always start at the beginning. Where did you grow up?

DB: I grew up in Maplewood, New Jersey. You know where that is? It’s near the Oranges.

SSR: Yep. I’m a Jersey girl as well.

DB: Yeah, I lived in Jersey until I was 18. I grew up in Maplewood, went to public high school there called Columbia High School, and then went to Columbia University after that, no affiliation. I graduated there as a history major, and after that, went to law school at Georgetown and briefly practiced law, briefly, for a few years.

SSR: How’d that go?

DB: No, I loved law school, to be honest. It was very interesting. I didn’t love being a lawyer. I liked business better.

SSR: Yeah. So how did you get into the real estate hospitality world?

DB: It started through real estate, let’s say that, and I had gone to law school. My brother went to the NYU program, Schack program. We were pretty close in age, and had a understanding of real estate. My father was also a lawyer and had done some development around affordable housing, so I grew up with a bit of knowledge around that. And so my brother and I got together a few years after I was out of law school. At the time, it was the mid-90s, and so we were going through, at that time, what was a recession of the early 90s and the FDIC crisis. And so we were able to get involved with some pretty cool redevelopments.

And so I really started doing a lot of place-making, redeveloping of old shipyards and truckyards and things like that. And did that for about a decade and then opportunistically, with some of the things we had been working on, got into hospitality originally through doing a W Hotel in Hoboken, when that was still Starwood before Marriott and Barry Sternlicht was still running it. And so that was kind of our first introduction of, quote, “Hospitality,” from real estate specifically.

Harrison Urby’s Coperaco Café, designed by concrete, in New Jersey; photo courtesy of Urby

SSR: I know that was a big project for Hoboken. It was one of the first larger high-rise hotels, right?

DB: Yes.

SSR: Yeah. What was it like starting to dabble in lifestyle hotels? Because then you went on to work on The Standard and Chiltern Firehouse?

DB: Yeah, Chelsea Hotel, Caldera House we have in Jackson Hole and some other hospitality properties or kind of straight hotel, I’ll call them hotel properties. W was super interesting, it was very early in the W story. I think we were only say the eighth or ninth W to open. At the time we brought them to Hoboken or signed them from Hoboken, it was like a big deal. People were like, “I can’t believe you’re getting W to come to Hoboken.” At that point in time, they’d been in New York and San Francisco and a few major cities. It was an amazing project. They had a lot of energy. Sternlicht was really creative and brilliant. At the time, we chose Gwathmey Siegel to work with as architects, Charles Gwathmey. It was one of my best things in life that I got to work with him for a few years before he passed, amazing architect. And gave me a lot of respect for just the built space environment and how that plugs into, and is in some instances, different than, quote, “Hospitality.”

But that was a really interesting project. We did a joint venture with the Port Authority of New York, New Jersey to get the property. We had to change the zoning to get the rights to go higher and kind of do something that was more landmark, and learned a lot on that. That property had 225 hotel rooms and 40 condominiums branded by W at the top. So it was great. It was super complex, learned a lot. And from there, got really interested in both hotels and then the mix of hospitality onto other aspects of real estate, particularly residential.

SSR: So from W, did you do other projects before you started working with Andre Balazs on Standard and Chiltern Firehouse?

DB: I did some smaller hospitality hotel projects. One of them, actually not too far from where you are, we redeveloped Pier Village, if you know that one in Long Branch. And that was a really interesting assemblage. We had to buy a lot of properties and redo the beach and create retail and apartments, and we did a hotel there at the time called Bungalow, which was a boutique hotel as well, that we managed and did ourselves. So that was another interesting kind of tangent on it. And from there, I started to get really interested in experience on real estate, the hospitality world, food and beverage. Around that time, I also signed Mark and Eugene, Mark Birnbaum and Eugene Remm at that time, to do our food and beverage at W Hoboken before they had had any clubs, any restaurants, and ended up becoming an original founding partner of theirs in Tenjune and Catch and a bunch of other places.

So I really started to get interested in this whole aspect of hospitality as applied to real estate, even broader than just say like Hotels. But to go back to your question about working with Andre, we originally started looking at what is now JFK Terminal 5. It was the Saarinen building, and we had done an RFP for that together. We came together because I had experience working with the Port Authority of New York, New Jersey who owned that property, and he had obviously at that point, vast hospitality experience. And so we did a cool partnership on that. We didn’t end up going forward on that, but we ended up buying the old Cooper Square Hotel on the Bowery and 5th, turning that into Standard, East Village, worked on Chiltern Firehouse from there. And so, one thing led into another, into another.

SSR: And what was it that drew you into hospitality?

DB: I’m a curious person and I’m always looking to explore new frontiers, I guess, to pioneer new frontiers. And so in a sense, I had this moment where, well, there’s a couple of things. I had a moment though when I walked into the Delano originally in Miami, I’m going to shift for a second. And it was so mind-blowing. It was like around 1995, 1996. And it just got me thinking like, wow, there’s this incredible ability to use a combination of the built space environment with how you approach people, and the brand values that you drive through this property to create emotional resonance and attachment in the guests or residents or users. And I think that was really in its infancy in the 90s, I feel like there’s things that contributed to why this is a much bigger trend right now. But when I saw that at the Delano, when we started to work with W in those early days, working with Andre, working with Mark and Eugene, there was so much more creativity and frontier to explore in what we would call the hospitality world than straight residential at that time.

With that said, residential is probably the most important asset class of all real estate. I mean, you need to live first and foremost before you can stay or work or anything else. And it’s really important, and community is such an incredible part of it, and learning how to make people feel secure and comfortable, but inspired at the same time. And so, it’s a long way of saying that I took this challenge of the emotional connection that I saw being applied in hotels and food and beverage in some of these other spaces and thought about how do I take that and apply it to residential framework?

SSR: And before we get to now, but what was it like working with your brother?

DB: Working with my brother was great. I mean, we had a really productive relationship for many, many, many years. It’s got its challenges like anything, but we were a yin and a yang, and we worked together very, very successfully. Powerful.

SSR: You guys worked together for what, 20 years?

DB: Oh, yeah, at least, probably more. And we still work together on plenty of stuff. Urby, I’ve taken in a separate direction, and like all great creative endeavors or partnerships, there’s times when people want to explore their own pieces, but we had and have a very powerful partnership.

SSR: I’m just always curious about family businesses. I don’t know if my sister and I could do that. 

DB: Yeah, I think Mike and I have always had a lot of respect for each other, and we grew up in this business together in a sense. It was really organic, really natural. We had complementary strengths. Sometimes they overlap. But I think it was just, if I had to say one thing about it, it was like we always respected each other and treated each other fairly. Even if we were getting in a disagreement about something, it never went beyond the merits of that disagreement, if that makes sense.

SSR: So you saw the power of experience and you want to take that into residential. So tell us about Urby and what you wanted to create and why was it the right time when you did launch it? When did you launch it? 

DB: It’s a little bit of a sliding scale, but I would say we opened our first one, I think in 2016, probably launched it about 2012, give or take. Went from an germinated idea, well, I’ll tell you about it. So I launched Urby thinking about this confluence of doing residential better with values and a point of view, I would say, which was sorely lacking in the residential and specifically the multifamily environment. I’ve thought deeply about this. I think there’s reasons why real estate in general tends to be not super innovative. It’s capital intensive. It’s often dominated by either institutions or multi-generational families because there’s so much capital required. It’s hard to start out in that. The more you get to this operational side, and hotels are very operationally intensive, the more startups and new ideas can come into play.

But with residential specifically, I saw this opportunity where, not just in the New York market, but through Instagram and Facebook and these different mediums, people were democratizing design. They had a much better idea of what was going on in Milan or what was going on in New York, and yet apartments were still this generic beige-on-beige build it and they will come mentality. And so what I saw in boutique hotels, again, lucky enough to work with some of the great stars of that in history, I think in terms of Barry, Andre and Sean MacPherson at Chelsea right now, and some of the designers. And it really inspired me to think through how to do this in the multifamily environment where so much product was being built. It’s so important for people. It’s where you spend the most time, get the most emotional recharge, and yet, very little credit was being given, or very little effort was being expended towards making this a better experience for people. And so I took that as a challenge.

SSR: And so what was your vision? How did you want, I mean, besides design, obviously, but what else did you… How did you want to rethink it?

DB: So I thought there was two major pieces that, as I conceived this, that needed to be redesigned. One was the built space itself, which instead of just trying to be everything for everybody, instead of, I said before, beige-on-beige, or just kind of creating these generic boxes, I really thought through how have the needs of residents, modern residents, changed over the last 30 or 40 years? Because I don’t think the development of apartments had changed much at all. And so things like valuing light and air, we have really good building systems these days, everybody likes natural lights. So the flow through of how we designed our apartments, natural materials, taking a point of view on the apartments where we were thinking about how modern construction materials allowed more light, air flow. People didn’t need as much storage in some ways because of on-demand things. And so we were able to put more room into the living spaces and not so much traditional storage perhaps because the way we had lived changed. There was a bunch of other theories that we studied on that, like how has a person today changed from 40 years ago? That was just inside the apartment. We also looked at the social spaces quite a bit. And by this point in time, you had started the rise of social media and disconnection of humanity through these digital platforms.

And that’s obviously come a long way even since 2012 or 2015. It’s extremely relevant right now with the debates over TikTok and Facebook and all these things that manipulation and depression and things like that. But way before that narrative got as blown up as it is now, that was something that I was focused on, which was the humanity of residential projects. And so we also spent a lot of time engineering the social spaces. How do people use these? Why are boutique hotels able to create these energetic cores? And in apartment buildings in multifamily, this doesn’t exist. And the fact is there’s some keys to that. But the boutique hotels, as they were called at the time, would put cafes mixed in with the lobby, they’d kind of open it up and allow that to be a place to socialize, a place to work from home or from traveling.

When I looked at it, I said, “I’m going to do that, I’m going to take a page out of that playbook and create energy around the entrance to allow community to build.” Multifamily, by its very definition, is transient. That’s why we have multifamily rental because it gives us the ability to be mobile and be in Austin one day and DC the next, in a sense, and take a new job. And so my challenge was, in a transient society, with a product that is, by its nature, a bit transient relative to say for sale, how do we create community in there? How do we create the right environment for that? And so part of it was the apartments, part of it was the social spaces and making sure they felt alive and energized and that people understood how to use them, how to connect in them.

And so we are doing a lot of programming in them as well. We’ve had deep thoughts on programming. I don’t do programming for programming’s sake. We do it either around cafes and serviced environments where people understand that, or we do them outdoors where people understand that kind of concept; in a park or what have you. Or we do it around fitness. So we’re like specific how we do our programming to bring people together, break the barriers down. I’ve always been really conscious of the fact that homes are places you have to feel really secure, really safe, really protected, really recharged. Hotels, you can take a risk, you can be a little bit crazy, a little bit wild, but that doesn’t work. And so we have to be really careful about how we infuse energy and design into a residential environment. You’re going to live there for multiple years potentially, and you don’t want any experiences that are not at least either good, great or neutral, at best.

Negative experiences are really bad in that situation. And so we really thought about how to create that community using built space. And then I think I didn’t really talk also about changing the attitude of the staff and how they interact, of our team. I think a lot of residential platforms, it’s just clipping coupons. It’s like, do you owe rent? Do you have a broken sink? Oh, no, okay, don’t bother me. And so again, learning from what we had learned in hotels, boutique hotels, it was like, how can we create a connection here? How can we use little opportunities either around the cafe in programming, or just how we interact with them? How can we do it better to make you feel more human in that environment? And those two things together are what really define how you feel in a space or hospitality.

Harrison Urby’s Coperaco Café, designed by concrete, in New Jersey; photo courtesy of Urby

SSR: Right, and it makes sense. Why hadn’t this been done before? Why wouldn’t you try to bring them together and give them spaces? Because I’m sure the residences are beautiful, but they’re not massive. So giving them that extension of their own residence.

DB: Yeah, absolutely. And I think another important thing that happened in the 21st century, as I’ll call it, is the rise of renter by choice. So if you looked at where product was in the 20th century, most people preferred to own. And if you were renting, it was like, “Okay, one day I’ll get out of here.” And so that was the old mentality. That changed with Millennials coming into their twenties, urban areas being revitalized, technology allowing more mobility. So a few different factors come at once, and they say it changes the way people look about rentals and says, “Oh, wow, I’m a renter by choice. I want to rent. I value this mobility when I’m in these years twenties or thirties, it gives me opportunity to take new jobs and create careers in different places and explore.” So I don’t think Urby could have happened in the same way 30 years ago as it does now.

I don’t know that boutique hotels were ready to be discovered in that way even before the 90s and the beginning of the internet, and being able to get information about brands and places more reliably than… The reason for being, in my opinion of a Marriott or Hyatt or Hilton is, a commoditized version of heads in beds. It’s like boxes that you know will be centrally located and safe, and you’re not going to have mice or get in trouble or what have you. But I think there was this shift where the democratization of information, starting with the very early stages of the internet started to lead to this exploration and reviews where you could first start to create these boutique hotels. And then second, what I just talked about into renter by choice.

SSR: Where did you decide to open? What was your first property? Or which was your first property?

DB: The first property that opened was Staten Island, which was really interesting. I’ve always been asked, “Would I have done that again? Opened the first one in Staten Island.” And I kind of do believe that all things happened for a reason on some basis. And Staten Island had its challenges. It’s not Brooklyn, it didn’t have the same easy climb, I guess, that was happening in some of those more central spaces. But it did give us an opportunity to test this concept in an environment where we were able to experiment with a lot of things. And I think we were able to also get some recognition at that time because we took such a big swing with that in Staten Island, and everybody was like, “This is crazy. Who would do this on the North Shore of Staten Island at that time?” And we got through that with perseverance and hard work. And it’s fine, but it was a struggle. That was our first one.

SSR: Was it just the right deal that came to you? I always am curious, the chicken or the egg, was it just the right property? Or how did that deal come to you?

DB: So I conceived of this, and we talked about it before in this concept of place-making. And Staten Island, I bought from the EDC of New York City, and it was a big multi-acre space on the river. It had a train stop basically on the site that connected to the ferry. And so in my mind, I was like, wow, this is a really interesting place-making opportunity. And it’s an ability to test this concept of Urby, and putting hospitality and creating community. So it was something that it just made sense at the time. And ironically, I think it got us a fair amount of notoriety in those early days. And it was a big challenge. But it wasn’t thought through that much other than I liked the fact that it was waterfront and it had mass transportation links. It was part of New York City, had amazing views. It met all the tests on it.

SSR: Yeah, checked all the boxes, it seems.

DB: It checked all the boxes. But Staten Island, it’s still an island and it’s still parochial. And so it was more challenging. And I actually learned with the next project, which was Jersey City, which is more in the flow. It’s got more connections. It’s kind of right on the other side of Manhattan. That just took off like crazy. It was not a struggle. It was the minute that opened, it was like, wow, so much momentum on it. And so those were two really interesting early projects to start with because in the one, it was like, wow, this is harder than I thought. The second was almost like, this is easier than I thought. And then Harrison ended up becoming like, what’s the baby bear? Or whatever the last one is. That was just right. And then we go from there.

SSR: Well, I think then, to your point, everything happens for a reason because you kind of learn from one, another one was a little bit easier. The third one, you could figure it all out. And I read somewhere that you guys also had a lab of sorts at the beginning to test your research and development.

DB: The laboratory, yeah. Yeah, so when I first was conceptualizing this, I was really into the apartments themselves and how we could make them smaller but feel bigger. And there was a really core reason for that, which is, if you want to try to solve the housing crisis and get housing to be more affordable for people in general, you need to figure out ways to reduce space, in a sense. That’s the easiest way to take cost out of an apartment. And so my math was, if I can take some space out of the apartments, but still, by using clever design, make them feel better, that’s going to be really successful.

And so we were taking some risks, and to that, before we did 500 of these at once, we first built up two of them in a warehouse, two life-sized mock-ups where we were using different techniques and space and flow. And then I did a 48 unit, what I call, laboratory in Jersey City where it was not a full-fledged Urby product that had the cafe and a big gym and things like that. But it was an ability to test in a smaller environment, some of these more cutting-edge, forward-thinking apartments. So we did that first and then had people move in, did a lot of surveys, got some feedback on that. Just made sure it worked. And from there, went further.

SSR: Anything surprising that you learned from that exercise?

DB: I think simplicity is something I learned from that exercise. Early on, it was easy to layer on complexity. What if we do this and what if we do that and what if we do this? So when you’re talking about saving space, it can be things like, “Well, why don’t we make a type of Murphy bed that pulls up and space-saves?” Or, “Why don’t we go with smaller appliances? These kids don’t cook anyway, and we can save here and there.” But I think there’s a limit to which you have to make this simple, people have to not be doing work every time they get home to their apartment and figuring, how am I going to get a full chicken in this oven? Or, I don’t want to make my bed. Live like we normally live. And I think in the beginning I was perhaps taking a very ambitious, aspirational kind of viewpoint of how people might live.

The architects we used specifically, I got them from Netherlands, Concrete. And that was a process where I was very interested in the fact that New York was New Amsterdam before it was New York, that the Dutch had this frugalness to their design, and they use a lot of transparency and light, and they had a very communal, socialist kind of mentality. And I don’t mean socialist to contrast with capitalists necessarily, but they share sugar bowls with each other and they kind of don’t mind public spaces that everybody uses. And so just funny enough, when we first did Staten Island, I didn’t even put a security place or a door person because I was like, “Oh, the barista will just check people in or answer their questions.” And it was really naive in this way.

I mean, we’re still in an environment where people demand some level of service and convenience. And so figuring that balance out was something I learned from the lab. I think we had gone… As you always want to do, taken some risks. A lot of them were really great, threw a lot of stuff at the wall, and then had to eliminate some of the stuff that wasn’t resonating.

SSR: Yeah. How did you find Concrete? I love them. But how did you find them?

DB: I interviewed four or five different architecture firms. I was kind of determined not to use an American firm because, I mean, I love America, it’s not that. I feel like we don’t use space particularly well because our history is such that we can always expand west and take more space. So because part of my core concept was using space better, figuring out how to make that smaller space feel bigger. I was looking at European and some Asian architects as well, some Japanese architects, I had interviewed. I even interviewed a Chinese architect that was very proficient in Hutongs, like these little kind of alleyways and things that had small apartments attached to them. But in the end, I felt that the European-American blend was easier to understand than taking say Japanese, which is really different from the American principles, and trying to make us live like Japanese.

I thought maybe we had a chance at living a little bit more like Dutch or Europeans. But anyway, so that’s how I found Concrete. They were at the time doing CitizenM architecture, which was interesting to me, spatially. I don’t know if I agree with all the interior design decisions necessarily, but I think in the early generations of that, they had done some really clever things with space and with prefab or modular construction techniques. And so that’s been a really successful partnership. We’ve been together for 10 plus years. They’ve done pretty much all the Urby projects we’ve done.

SSR: That’s amazing. And talking about amenities, have they evolved since you started? I mean, you started this, call it 10 years ago, with the idea 12 years ago. Have you had to rethink what amenity spaces matter? Or are they just kind of shifted a bit in the decade that you’ve been working on this?

DB: Yeah, so with regard to amenity spaces, it’s funny, I almost don’t even refer to them as amenity spaces, but I know why you do. Because one of my problems with the residential or multifamily industry is what I call this amenities arms race. And it was something that I thought was kind of thoughtless and kind of splattered all over and didn’t really resonate, and was just for marketing brochures. And so from the beginning of Urby, we were pretty tight with how we looked at this. So if you go to Jersey City, which is 762 apartments, it’s a cafe integrated into the lobby, it’s a kitchen, we call it our communal kitchen, where there’s a little bit of an ability to do some private parties or some events. And it’s really simple. It can’t be more than 300 square feet, it’s just like a little intimate room.

We devoted a whole floor, almost 9,000 square feet to the fitness area, which we still always, what I’ll say, overbuild or over-invest in fitness because I think it’s really important. And in that instance, we didn’t have an opportunity to really go deep on the landscaping part of it, which is our next kind of pillar. But that’s where we started out. It was really that simple. I didn’t have golf screening rooms, I didn’t have children play rooms, I didn’t have weird offshoot rooms that people dream up for golf simulators or recording studios. And look, some of this stuff can be interesting if you really think through, you want to do a recording studio, do it in Nashville or New Orleans, think through how it’s really going to work, and put the soft infrastructure or software in to complement the hardware.

And so from the beginning, I think we were pretty purposeful about these and thought that this was sufficient to create community in a sense that less is more, because when I go into 98% of, quote, “Luxury residential apartment buildings,” and I go into their amenity areas, I get my soul sucked out, I’ll be honest with you. I think they’re horrible. I think they get some designer that’s not connected to anything, to put a TV next to a kitchen, next to some co-work and next to a this… Nobody knows how to use it. Somebody’s playing Dominoes, somebody else is on some loud Zoom calls, somebody else is in their pajamas. It’s crazy because nobody knows how to use those spaces.

And so it’s something I really kind of pride myself on with Urby is like, we’re really simple in those common spaces. We do them well. We do them in a way that people can understand because they’re on the ground floor and they’re service or they’re fitness or they’re the landscaped areas outside. So I’ve made one or two mistakes, to be honest, where I’ve listened to some surveys where someone says, “Well, if you only had one more room that did this.” And we did one, I’m not going to tell you where, or two actually, and kind of quickly pulled that back.

The courtyard at Harrison Urby in New Jersey; photo by Robert Tsai

SSR: And when you say the outdoor spaces, it could be anywhere from a garden to a really cool pool area, right?

DB: Yeah. I think the outdoor is really important, particularly in an urban context. So we try to make them oasis. I have a great landscape architect, Bas Smets. We’ve been working together for 10 years. He’s really accomplished at this point in time, he’s doing the redo of Notre Dame in Paris, which is a huge deal. He did the museum in Arles for Maja Hoffmann called LUMA. And he’s a fantastic guy, Belgian guy. So yes, pool and grills, those are necessary community-builders. And frankly, a pool is something, like people like it. If you have it, no question about it, it’s a really great summertime advantage. But I think specifically in terms of how we look at the landscaping, it’s about being a respite. We try to do kind of raw nature where we can, so it’s a little bit less manicured. We, whenever possible, try to get on terra firma, do big trees that are really rooted into the ground.

Gardening. We’ve done multiple properties where we, in the early years, we use an urban gardener, and it was a little bit more of an entrepreneurial commercial garden like at Staten Island. The better model for that actually is letting residents do their own gardens. It’s super fun. We split them up into 50 or 60 plots. It’s been monstrously successful with people doing their own gardens, and it’s another way where people connect and they get in touch with a little bit of earth in an urban environment. So we really look at them as oases I would say, is how we think of outdoor areas.

SSR: And I think too, just looking at some of your design, I mean the tall windows, and there’s greenery used throughout, it doesn’t feel apartment-y. I think you guys are always trying to connect to the outside, even through interiors.

DB: Yeah, for sure we think a lot about bringing the outside in, absolutely valid. With our big windows, and often even things where we’re continuing the plants from the outside to the inside, that works better in some environments than others, but it’s really important for us to bring that natural light and natural materiality and infuse it inside and outside. I think one of the things, like an inspiration to me, I talked about the Delano before, when it first opened, and it was crazy. It was so mind-blowing how different it was than anything else at the time. I think The Standard in Miami also holds a really special place in my heart. And what I find amazing about that, to talk about the outside in and the inside out is, most places in Florida or in Miami, you go into the hotel and it’s like big doors open and you go from 93 degrees and humid to 62 frigid box air conditioning. And it’s a really stark experience.

And what I always loved about Standard, Miami is the way that the fans, the natural airflow, the plants, the pavement, it just all kind of mixes where you never really feel like you’re exactly inside or you’re exactly outside due to tree covers and things, and the vitality of the indoor spaces. And so that’s something that’s always stuck with me, where I can go to Standard, Miami and get off the plane and in 15 minutes put on a bathing suit and some flip-flops and a T-shirt and feel like I’ve been there for two days already because it feels so kind of natural and free and non-contrived.

SSR: And fitness is a really big part of what you’re doing as well, speaking of wellness, and they’re not separated. I feel like the spaces are integrated into the mix of the other spaces.

DB: No, that’s a really great point. Really, it starts with, we put a lot of value on fitness and think it’s a real benefit to the community, to our residents. And so we put them in prominent places, often at times we’ll free-stand it even, or we’ll put it certainly in the flow of things where the courtyard is, where people can see it. And it’s just fun. It’s interactive. It reminds people that it’s there. I think it shows our commitment to wellness in general as well. Harrison, for instance, might be an example where we built this whole separate pavilion for the fitness. It’s right off the courtyard. It really moves and flows into the outdoors. And so all I can say is, we really value the fitness areas. And I think a lot of other developments and a lot of other multifamily, they just, it’s another box they check, “Okay, 3,000 feet, boom, treadmills, okay, stick it here.” Wherever the non-valuable real estate is, instead of making it a part of this community.

SSR: And then for the cafes and restaurants that you have, do you use local purveyors or do you guys operate all those, or how does that work?

DB: We have a few different third-party relationships. Some have multiple sites and others are one-off. We do run one internally. I think the thought process behind it, and having done hotels for a long time, it’s always complicated to whether to outsource, in-source, or how you really run that food and beverage. Food and beverage, very specific. It needs a leader in there that really cares. It’s very hard to just mail that in. Not that we’re mailing anything in, but there’s something to be said for when there’s a proprietor that’s really, really sweating the details of food and beverage because it’s all about the little things at the end of the day. And so the third-party relationships I think have been the best solution for us because we get… And why we don’t just take a single operator is, sometimes the particulars of one site may not be exactly the same as another site.

One site may have lots of walk-by traffic and can kind of do a sunup until sundown. Another one may be a little bit more secluded. And so sometimes it lends itself to different concepts. At all times, we’re trying to look for what’s going to energize this community. It’s always a public-facing cafe. Private cafes do not work, really hard stop, when they just become these little corporate dead zones. I think a lot of people think that’s going to work. I’ve seen buildings even on Central Park South where they do… I forget the name of the one that does the Jean-George Restaurant internal to the people that live there. But it always feels like dead as fuck, to be honest. Sorry if I’m not supposed to say that. I don’t know how you are in the swear zone, but I think you need a public-facing cafe. You need the public to come in and energize that.

So we start with, okay, what’s the public going to appreciate as well as our residents? Who’s in the best position to create that asset that’s going to serve our residents and the public? And if that operator is doing a good job and they can take two or three or four, that’s even better, because we can start to work a little platform around that. Preference is third-party operators, usually local, no super national chains. We really look for quality people to help us enliven that community who believe in the mission of the greater neighborhood.

SSR: So you have six open and you have a handful in the works. And it seems like you’re kind of expanding right, South, like DC, Philly, even Florida, Wynwood. Why do you think now is a good time to expand or why do you have so many more projects on the boards now? Or at least the same amount as you have open almost?

DB: Real estate development is a longterm industry. It’s something that you have to look at, where is the market going to be? Do I want to be here in three years or five years or seven years from now? And it takes a long time to get things approved and to get things built-in. I would say, it’s not so much that we have more volume per se going on now, but as we were able to display proof of concept in our primary market like New York Metro, it opened up opportunities to go into some of these other markets that we had not been involved in yet. So Dallas was one of them. We opened there and are opening a second phase soon. There’s Tampa, Philadelphia, DC, Miami, and these are markets that I know, I’ve been to many times. I went to law school in DC. I’ve been to Miami a million times. Of course, Philadelphia is very close.

And so we’ve been building out because we think the value proposition that we have in the New York Metro region can apply to many other cities that have a combination of growth, economic growth, and or cultural strength. So, many of these were planned for a long time, and notwithstanding that the markets are somewhat choppy right now because of interest rates and everything we read about that I’m not going to bore you about. But I think it’s ironic that if we were having this discussion two and a half years ago, I don’t mean it’s ironic relative to you, but if we were having this discussion two and a half years ago, it’ll be like, “How much faster can you expand? Why are you expanding so slowly?” Now, because the noise around real estate is, “Oh my gosh, mortgages are up and there’s defaults and things like that.” But I look through that as well. I mean, this too shall pass. This is America, we’ve got a ton of demand. People need to be housed here. We’re not creating enough housing in quality areas. And so we’re really excited to have all this underway.

In fact, we’re looking at starts, that we’ve been working on for a while, but we’re looking at starts for another phase of Jersey City. We’re completing Journal Square, but we’re about to start Jersey City. We’re starting Hoboken, which is also in our main market here. And what I think is cool about the Urby Grand is it’s really flexible and able to be represented many, many times across the major metro area, because the way we live, if you’re a hotel, okay you can have one or maybe two, maybe three locations. The big brands of course have different strata, like a Hampton Inn, a Hilton, or whatever. But for us, I think the person that’s living in Long Island City is different than the South Bronx, is different than Jersey City, is different than Stanford, is different than Hoboken.

And so there’s a really great opportunity not just to do many different ones within a major market, but to have those start to create synergies where events that we do, hiking trips we do, some of the marketing, even the way our team is able to operate, hey, move from Stanford to Newark now, such a big deal, has been really successful. And so what I hope to do with the markets that we’re in now is also do multiple Urbys in those markets; Southern Florida, Texas, DC.

SSR: Looking back, you mentioned, you were very fortunate to work with some pretty awesome hospitality people. You mentioned Barry Stern Sternlicht, Sean MacPherson, Andre Balazs. What did you learn from them, working with them?

DB: I think I learned so many things, it’s hard to even describe. But if I had to summarize a few of them, number one, it’s about the little details. So big picture is important, but when you get into this level of connecting people, there’s no end to how refined and deep you can get on details of whether it’s design and build space or what the uniforms look like or the design of a menu or how somebody greets somebody. So there’s an incredible attention to detail that does not exist in the more traditional multifamily space.

And that would be a big one I think that I learned. I think there’s a ton of imagination as well. There’s this fearlessness and imagination. And this, it’s not just the details, it’s also like the symphony of the whole thing, the cinematography of it, if you will. What all those guys have in common, and certainly Sean or Andre, if I look at them is, is the whole experience is what makes it. And if 5% is off brand, off value, that needs to be addressed. And so there’s a real discipline and holistic-ness to how and why these guys behave and why they’re incredibly successful in their industry and create these assets that stand the test of time and are just as relevant today as they were when they opened 5 years, 10 years, 15, 20 years ago.

SSR: And it’s hard to do that.

DB: Yeah. I think another thing I learned is they really are good at mixing and matching designers, artists, lots of creatives together. So it’s a real potpourri or bouillabaisse of what goes on. And it’s hard to tell at some point in time whose idea it was. Of course, some take more credit than others, but it’s really a collaboration. There’s a lot of ideas that kind of go in and create this beautiful dish, if you will. And so that experience of boutique hotels and food and beverage and investing along these different things, gave me much more inclination and desire and confidence to work across different designers and disciplines. So besides Concrete, we’ve got lighting designers. I’ve got Shawn Hausman who does cafes. I got Bas Smets, Oscar, who works with Shawn a lot. I’ve done stuff with Commune, with Annabelle Selldorf. All these different amazing creatives that come from so many disparate views.

And you’re always taking what they’re doing and the values and shaping it a little bit. And learned a lot about, and been really good at, respecting the ego of the artist, but at the same time creating a synthesis where it’s explaining, “Look, but I need this out of you.” I’m not going to tell you I like green instead of red, generally. But there can be cost implications or just how our clientele reacts to something, it may be too ambitious, they may not understand it. And sometimes we take the risk and sometimes I let them go and just see what happens. And that’s what creates this friction, this little tear in the matrix or something like that, that makes it interesting. And you double take it.

The study at Harrison Urby; photo courtesy of Urby

SSR: Is there one part of this process you like the most? Is it finding the place, seeing it come to life, working through the design?

DB: I don’t know if there’s one thing I like the most. I do really love the beginning stages of a process. I like to come up with the concept. I like to think about the concept and really work about that place-making concept thing. And I really like the design process, particularly through DD. Through design drawing. So from schematic, conceptual schematic into DD, is really great. Once we go from DD to CD, construction drawings, I get a little bit more bored. I got guys that can deal with that. Construction administration, don’t even start me on it. I don’t even want to be there.

And then once it opens, there’s that kind of adrenaline that kicks in at the end when you’re getting ready to open it and you see the thing. And then what’s really interesting is I think once it’s opened, and you’ve kind of breathed the life into it, and it’s a few months old or a year old, I don’t want to say it’s anticlimactic, but being a curious person, I’m like, “Okay, what’s next?” It’s cool that we did that and we care about the quality, but for me personally, I love to think about what’s going to be the next thing.

SSR: Do you ever watch people in your space, as a curious person, to see how they use it?

DB: Yes, we do. You can never do that too much, I think. It’s really easy, as I do often, to get busy and caught up with just so many things and not spend enough time at the properties. That’s actually one of our company resolutions for 2024, was really getting more people that are in the development kind of HQ environment to spend more time at the properties. I think you learn an incredible amount. It’s really hard to get that information without spending some time there because surveys don’t really work. I mean, you can take a thing here or there from it, but really you just have to feel it and see what’s happening and draw your own conclusions. And I think I’m also always down to take risks in these things. I’m curious, and I really do believe that this country, and our cities in general deserve better, than most of the dreck and garbage, honestly, that’s being produced by a lot of these institutions.

I think the exterior architecture tends to be horrible. I think the interior inspiration tends to be crummy. And I think somewhere along the line, this responsibility to community to create a place that does make place, that is a credit to that community, exists. When I look at a lot of the negativity around words, which you don’t hear quite as much in this context anymore, but around the word like gentrification. I think that’s bad planning and architecture. It’s not really displacement typically, it’s that the projects they’re coming in are making no effort to knit into the fabric of what is there. And little things like how we program our retail spaces. And it’s not just programming. It’s giving startups an opportunity by giving them cheaper rent with better build out than you’re going to give the CVS or the J.P. Morgan Bank because those guys are good credits, they can bill it out themselves. But guess what? It adds zero to the community at large, in addition to our own community there.

So that’s in some ways, maybe internal to me, but it’s also what I saw and further reinforced by all this hospitality experience I had, that every little thing matters. So putting DOMODOMO, who’s an amazing quality sushi tenant, incredible in Jersey City, we stretched for them. I had to make a real play to get those guys from New York, and now they love it, they’re going to operate… It hasn’t been announced yet, actually, but they’re going to operate our cafe in Journal Square as a new concept, which I’m not going to quite get into yet, but it’s going to be really cool. It’s not a sushi place, it’s another version of that. And so I’m always stretching to get the most quality operators, creative partners into the mix so that the sum is greater than the parts.

SSR: You never know which one is the detail that resonates. And so it’s trying to create all those details, but in a curated way to create that kind of magic that you’re looking for.

DB: No, you’re right. You never know what’s going to be the special sauce. And it’s organic as much as anything else. I kind of look at it, we’re tilling the soil and putting the fertilizer down, but eventually there’s going to be a lot of other elements like the sunshine and the rain and things that you can’t control that are going to go into the mix. And so it’s true, it’s imperfect, I think. Perfection. I’m not sure it exists for starters, and if it does, it’s kind of boring. So I think what’s cool about this is to throw some of this non-perfect, imperfect, idiosyncratic, little things that get people to turn their head and wonder, “I wonder why they did that.” Or, “I’m not sure that makes total sense, but wow, that’s interesting.” And I try to bring that through the design sometimes.

That part about mixing and matching some of these designers and architects and kind of making them work together and play nice. And part of that is when I respect them each and then have them talk to each other about something, there’s respect between them often. And so we get to find really cool middle grounds.

SSR: That’s awesome. All right. Well, I hate to end this, but we always end the podcast with the title of the podcast. So what has been your greatest lesson or lessons learned along the way?

DB: Wow. Let’s see. It’s funny, I do my own podcast, it’s called Business Untitled. I got to send you the link, actually. We started, it’s with two friends of mine, Mike Novogratz and Mel Carter. And it’s really about sharing entrepreneurism and financial literacy sometimes to underserved communities. And it’s been really fun. So we have this thing at the end, we call Ounce of Gold. So we always ask this kind of question.

SSR: I like that.

DB: I think for me, the greatest lesson, or at least the center that I come back to a lot is, and people say this about me, but I try not to get caught in the noise and the chatter at what’s going on right now. I think the world is awash in information. We’re deluged with it. And even when you look for curation, it can be confusing, because you have to understand who and why and where. And so I would say I read books more than I do like newsfeeds. Not to say I won’t look at something, but I really try not to get caught up in the news of the day or the week or even the month, because the things that are incredibly important and take up all the news time today are going to be completely different than what will take up all the news time in six months.

But yet, these projects I work on have three-year timeframes for completion and are going to be here for the next hundred years. So I need to think through that. And so I really try to do a lot of that and a lot of internal thinking about more major trends of where I think the technology or society or this country or whatever you have might be in 5 years or 10 years and kind of plan accordingly relative to that.

SSR: Well, thank you so much. It was such a pleasure to catch up with you and hear all about Urby and can’t wait to see the new locations open up. So thank you for taking the time.

DB: Thank you very much for having me on.