Downtown Developer Toby Bozzuto’s Happiness Project: Building A Better Baltimore

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In 2013 Bozzuto Real Estate Development Group celebrated its 25th year, and simultaneously got a new president. Toby Bozzuto — son of Tom Bozzuto, who with his two partners built the firm into a multi-million dollar empire — took over the reins at the Bozzuto Group last year.

In the past three years, the Bozzuto Group has developed more than $1.5 billion worth of new projects and Toby has overseen the development of some of Baltimore’s largest and most successful buildings: Spinnaker Bay in Harbor East (in partnership with H&S Properties), the Union Wharf in Fells Point, the Fitzgerald in mid-town, as well as Towson Green, the Uplands and general contracting for the Rotunda redevelopment in Hampden. Again with Bill and John Paterakis’s H&S Properties, he is planning a much heralded 291-unit residential project on Lancaster Street in Harbor East (photo below), which he recently told the Baltimore Business Journal will be “absolutely stunning,” “one of the most beautiful projects we’ve ever been a part of.” Currently Bozzuto is about to break ground on Anthem House in Locust Point, a 275-unit building with 16,000 feet of retail space, all centered on the idea of healthy living – a joint venture with former Under Armour exec Scott Plank and Solstice Partners.

lancaster street:bozzuto

For a guy who never planned to go into real estate (his original career path was the music business) Toby Bozzuto has been a remarkable success. This year alone he was named Developer of the Year by the Maryland Building Industry Association for “excellence in development design and quality,” and named among Maryland Daily Record’s “Most Influential Marylanders.” He regularly lectures at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and at Johns Hopkins Carey Business School. He spends a lot of time thinking about creative design and the importance of place, ideas that are reflected in the Bozzuto Group’s most successful projects. And he is a vocal advocate of our new “design-centric culture,” in which issues of authenticity and individuality are key to building what the millennial customer is looking for.

In a speech two years ago at Gilman School (Class of ’92), where he went to high school (and played in a band), Bozzuto spoke to upper school students about his career path. He reflected on the battle cry of Native American chief Crazy Horse at Little Big Horn, “today is a good day to die!” — explaining that, for him, this means that you do as much as you can, every day, to make the world a better place. Baltimore Fishbowl spoke to Mr. Bozzuto to ask how that works in the development world.

Do people need good design to be happy?

I would say that good design has the potential to create happiness – beautiful architecture, like music or art, elevates the spirit. Like Woodberry Kitchen – don’t you feel happy there? If you walk into a Walmart, it’s not that uplifting, right?

 What is your favorite aspect of your job?

My favorite part of development is that you are creating real tangible things. We don’t do cookie cutter projects, so each time there is a different vision, a different approach, a different customer. Also, as a developer, you get to pull together a team. It’s like being a conductor of an orchestra — bringing together the right people for the job. The developer gets a lot of credit, maybe too much.

Given your interest in the creative side of the business, did you ever consider becoming an architect?

(Laughs) Every day. I have a total admiration for what they do. When I was about 16 my dad asked me to read The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. That book changed my life forever. The architect, Howard Roark, he built something he did not want to build –and then blew it up, because it was so inauthentic. That made an impression. My guilty pleasure is that I can work with architects — I can read about them, study them, and hire them.

What architects inspire you?

 Many different ones, for many reasons. Frank Gehry is one — I was fortunate enough to meet and talk with him recently. One thing I liked was that he was not afraid to talk about the business side. A lot of artists will say that their design will create beauty, but he had the audacity to say his design will create more value. In other words, people will be willing to pay more to live in one of his buildings. It’s true. And it was refreshing to hear him put it so directly. Another architect I admire, a landscape architect, is Maya Lin. She is just phenomenal.

You have spoken about the importance of authenticity and individualism in building for millennials — what are the tangibles of that?

 All our customers are seeking authenticity. We’ve grown up in a world of commercialism gone amok. Big box stores instead of mom and pop. Fast and processed food instead of homemade…We need to remember our history. For example, at our Union Wharf project we used beautiful local craftsmanship to remind ourselves of the shipbuilding history of Fells Point. Wood floors from stables at the Rosecroft Raceway. Metal wall panels from Gutierrez Studios in Clipper Mill. A sculpture from Corradetti glassblowing studio. The building is essentially a beautiful collision of wood, glass and steel. Not unlike a boat. You put in all these things that have reason or rationale and it creates a feeling of authenticity. And people will pay more for that.

How do you provide that at the low end of the market?

I don’t think authenticity has to be a high-end luxury apartment building. Think about Artifact, or Birroteca. Loaded with authenticity but not expensively constructed – or rehabbed. We’ve done affordable housing projects that we’ve tried to make beautiful — to give people the best that’s in the range of affordability.

Describe the new urban customer for a Bozzuto project. What are they looking for that they might not have cared about a generation ago?

A sense of belonging to a community or neighborhood. In The Death And Life of a Great American City, Jane Jacobs talks about the mistakes of urban planning in the past, which had negative results like suburban sprawl and a sense of isolation. She talks about Greenwich Village as a successful urban community. I think of somewhere like Annapolis Towne Centre as a version of that idea. A mixed-use experience, where you can live, shop and work nearby. That’s what we think millennials are looking for, and what we are trying to create.

What’s changed?

I don’t think people have changed. Human beings have a tremendous desire to be social and to feel a part of something, and cities have always helped provide the catalyst for that. Hotels understand this – the hotel lobby has always been a social gathering place — the apartment industry has just been late to evolve.

Tell us about Anthem House, your new Locust Point project.

 [In partnership with Scott Plank and Solstice Partners,] our focus on Anthem House is going to be that of health and wellness. The building will center on healthy living, with more than an acre of outdoor space elevated on the building, off the ground, overlooking the harbor. We were inspired by the High Line in New York. It will have an infinity pool, natural plantings and stunning views. Also, we are trying to address the social aspect — similar to the way a boutique hotel uses the lobby as a gathering place. So there will be retail in the lobby, a restaurant, a coffee shop – and a rooftop lounge with 360 degree views that’s open to the public. The idea is a larger community space, like a Starbucks, where you can socialize or work – alone if you like – but at least together with other people. To make the lobby more than just a conduit to your apartment.

Are people really returning to urban centers? What do you think of Mayor Rawlings-Blake’s goal of 10,000 new families in ten years?

I admire her goal and I am doing everything in my power to contribute to that equation! I think the shift away from homeownership and toward rental houses bodes well for urban living. But what goes hand-in-hand with that is the need for employers to recognize that people want to live near where they work. Urban offices need to come back to the city.

Are we in a buyer’s market or a seller’s market?

 I honestly don’t know. I’d still rather be a buyer today than a seller. The market has not fully recovered, and in fact I think we may be seeing a seismic paradigm shift from home ownership towards rental houses. I’m not convinced that pre-2008 home prices will return for a very long time, which I think is actually a more normal cycle.  Now, if city schools don’t improve, ultimately people will continue to move to the suburbs. On the other hand, they are putting it off a lot longer.

You have an interest in Eastern religion. How do you apply its values to what you are doing?

Partly, I am just a naturally curious person. Although I truly feel I am just a novice at it, what I like [about Buddhism] is the importance of emotional intelligence, deeper introspection into what it’s all about. We’re only here for a short time. “What can I contribute to the world while I’m here?” We try to run that idea through our business.

Well, you are one of Baltimore’s Top Places To Work…

And we’ve been in Washington Business Journal’s Best Places To Work for six out of seven years in a row. And I’m really proud of that. I think it says a lot about the excitement people feel about what we are doing.

There’s a book by Dan Harris called 10% Happier, about “finding peace without losing your edge.” Is that an issue you can relate to?

I think it would be wonderful if some people lost their edge! It reminds me of the new Lego movie character, “the Evil Lord Business” … A business person does not need a cutting edge to succeed. Emotional intelligence is one of the most valuable commodities in the workplace, something we actively seek in hiring new employees.

What was the best advice you ever got? Did you follow it?

My father often told me “don’t forget where you came from.” My relatives were very poor immigrants from Italy — farmers. I stand in awe of the amazing people I work with, and yes, everyday I think “this could all be over tomorrow.”

What’s a surprising truth that you have learned in your lifetime?

Life is not necessarily fair. If you can embrace that, acknowledge it, you can move past it and maybe change it. That life is fair is simply a myth, for any of us.

You were an English major at Colgate. What fiction are you reading these days?

I just finished The Goldfinch. It took forever. I read one fiction book, then one business book, and one philosophy book –hoping something will stick! Now, it’s a new book about Google – nothing too exciting.

Baltimore wants to know. What was the name of your band?

Oh gosh. In high school it was Northern Lights. In college, Restless Native.

 



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