Philip Kafka is President of Prince Concepts, which he founded after selling his company, Prince Media. Philip spent six years building the New York based billboard business, developing and marketing sign locations across Manhattan, Brooklyn, San Francisco and Los Angeles before he sold it to LAMAR, the largest billboard company in the country.
Philip decided to focus on Detroit for his next gig as real estate developer. He started buying real estate in 2012, in neighborhoods that no-one else wanted to be in, buying abandoned lots and land. Prince Concepts has now acquired and owns seventeen acres of land, renovated 62,000 square feet of formerly blighted industrial property, imagined and built 20,000 SF of new housing, created 15,000 SF of thoughtful public space, planted over 300 trees, and won nine national and international awards for its completed projects.
The vast majority of this development has taken place, and will continue to be, in Core City. Philip believes that consistent, dedicated, and focused work within a specific area is how the unique character and value within the Detroit neighborhoods comes to life.
Prince Concept’s first ground-up development project, True North, was named 2017’s Multi-Family development of the year by Architects Newspaper, was a winner of a Progressive Architecture award, and was one of six finalists for the prestigious Mies Crown Hall America’s prize; it was one of just two finalists from the USA, the other being the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History in Washington D.C.
Kafka also serves on the board of MoCAD in Detroit, and has frequently been a guest critic and lecturer in the architecture departments at the: Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, Fay Jones School at the University of Arkansas, Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, University of Michigan, and Wayne State University.
Read the podcast transcript here
Eve Picker: [00:00:09] Hi there. Thanks for joining me on Rethink Real Estate for Good. I’m Eve Picker and I’m on a mission to make real estate work for everyone. I love real estate. Real estate makes places good or bad, rich or poor, beautiful or not. In this show, I’m interviewing the disruptors, those creative thinkers and doers that are shrugging off the status quo in order to build better for everyone. And speaking of building better, I’m very excited to share that my company, Small Change, is now raising capital through a community round that is open to the public. Small Change is a leading equity crowdfunding platform for impact investment in real estate. For as little as $250, anyone 18 and over can invest in Small Change, helping to fuel our growth as we disrupt the old boys club of capital that routinely ignores so many qualified people and projects. Please visit Wefunder.com/smallchange to review the full details of our raise and to make an investment if you can. And remember, investing is risky. Don’t invest more than you can afford to lose.
Eve: [00:01:40] Being a developer without believing in architecture and its fundamental principles is like being religious without believing in God. This is Philip Kafka’s take on architecture and real estate. He’s my guest today, and I think you will be as wowed as I am. Philip has taken a position on rebuilding Detroit that is inspirational, innovative and rare. He’s working in forgotten places on land that no one else believes has much value. His projects weave together commercial buildings and community space to create sculptural places you just want to be in. And his unique approach has earned him accolades. I just want to visit every single one of his projects, listen in to be inspired. If you’d like to join me in my quest to rethink real estate, there are two simple things you can do. Share this podcast and go to rethinkrealestateforgood.co, where you can subscribe to be the first to hear about my podcasts, blog posts and other goodies.
Eve: [00:02:53] Hello Philip, I’m really excited to talk with you today.
Philip Kafka: [00:02:57] Hi Eve. It’s great to be here. I’m excited to speak with you as well.
Eve: [00:03:00] So I’m going to start with a quote I read. You’ve been heard to say, being a developer without believing in architecture and its fundamental principles is like being religious without believing in God. So, I’d like you to tell me about that.
Philip: [00:03:14] Well, yes, I have said that. And what I mean by it specifically is that I think about always what is the essence of what I’m doing. And I think that as a real estate developer, I’m in the business of making space. I’m not in the business of making assets. I’m not in the business of making returns or of creating density. I’m in the business of making space. And to me, architecture is the practice of crafting space. And so, if I first wanted to be a developer, I had to understand architecture so that I could then create good space and create a great product.
Eve: [00:03:51] It’s a pretty unusual way for a developer to think, unfortunately. I wish more of them thought like you. You know, I’m an architect by training.
Philip: [00:03:59] Okay, great.
Eve: [00:04:00] I’m definitely on that side. But your work is really stunning. And Quonset huts become amazing residences, abandoned land, gorgeous parks. What’s your philosophy about the spaces that you decide to create as a real estate developer?
Philip: [00:04:17] Well, my original training is in philosophy. That’s what I studied in university. And so inevitably, my interest in real estate, it’s a vehicle for me to express my beliefs. And I’ve been fortunate because I started as an entrepreneur in New York City, not doing real estate. I was in the advertising business. I started a billboard company, which in a way was real estate. I was developing walls for advertising space, always knowing that I wanted to get to what I’m doing now. I made my way to Detroit. And it was Detroit’s unique conditions, which helped craft my specific philosophy. And my specific philosophy is, develop a minimal amount of leasable space to subsidize a maximum amount of public space or quality space. And when I say quality space, that’s unique living residences, interesting experiences, places to work, places to eat. Again, I believe that my product is space, and so I’m always trying to figure out a way to create the most inspired spaces I possibly can, whether that’s outdoor public space or indoor private space. And I’m trying now to stretch my mind and figure out how I can create indoor public space as well in an interesting way, not just as a lobby or as a passage to other private spaces, but really try to wrap my head around it because I think it’s an interesting challenge. So, it’s Detroit that allowed me to develop that philosophy because land and real estate was so inexpensive relative to, I guess, I don’t like to get into things I don’t really understand, but relative to the macroeconomic factors of the city, land was so affordable relative to the opportunity there that, let’s just say, for example, I paid $20,000 for an acre that should have cost me $500,000. And if I was doing a $2 million project, I then had 480,000 extra dollars that I could then invest into the quality of spaces both indoor and outdoor, without offsetting that cost to the people who are living there, working there, or just enjoying the public space. Does that make sense?
Eve: [00:06:28] Oh, absolutely. Yeah, the numbers give you room to do something more, but is that what drew you to move to Detroit? Just the potential?
Philip: [00:06:36] Yes. Like I said, I was a student of philosophy in university and in my life, I’ve been a student of history. And when I looked around the world, I only saw two cities, really significant cities that shared the condition that Detroit has. One was Detroit and the other was Berlin. And that condition is that these were both cities whose infrastructure was built with grand ambition and whose population did not max out its infrastructure. So, Berlin was built for 8 million people. I believe it was intended to be the capital of Europe after Germany was going to conquer everybody, and it only has four and a half million people. So, there’s a lot of space, there’s infrastructure for all those people, but there’s space, there’s things to do, and that’s why it’s such a creative city. Detroit was built for 2 million people, and it only had 700,000. So, I visited a lot of cities when I was living in New York. I went to Pittsburgh, I went to Philadelphia, I went to Cleveland and Columbus, St Louis.
Philip: [00:07:33] And I just found that even though they were all part of this consortium, which is known as the Rust Belt in these old industrial cities, which I love the muscle of those cities, there weren’t any that really had the conditions of Detroit, which were a former heavyweight champ that now basically had big shoes to fill. But it had the shoes. It had the stature to be great again, already built, and it wasn’t there yet. So, I’d never seen anything like it. And through studying, I realized that there were really only two cities in the world like it, and I thought it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to be part of that amazing genesis. But that’s only the physical side of it. There’s also the historical and cultural side of it. Detroit’s a predominantly African American city. It has great, rich historical roots, great culture that has a history of innovation. From the Model T to reinforce concrete. Detroit is, it’s inspiring to me. So, I couldn’t help but want to be part of it.
Eve: [00:08:30] So your company, and by the way, I got to add here, my husband is a historian and philosopher of science. So, he’s in the same business, very creative, but he did not end up being a real estate developer. That was me. So, your company is called Prince Concepts, and you started it really not very long ago, maybe 12 years ago, ten years ago.
Philip: [00:08:53] I originally started as Prince Media Company because my first billboard, like I said, that I developed in New York City when I had my company was on Prince Street, Prince and Mulberry. And I just took the name of the street that was kind of the backbone of Soho, my first location was there. I was living off of Prince Street at the time in New York City. And so, I put the name Prince Media Company on my billboard company. And after I sold that company, I had it for six years. I sold it in the summer of 2015, and then I just named my real estate company, Prince Concepts. I’d been buying real estate in Detroit while I had my previous company. Once it was successful, I started buying real estate in Detroit about 2013, and then I just carried the name. It’s not significant. Other than that, it was where my business roots kind of began in Soho.
Eve: [00:09:36] Right. So, it’s significant to you. So, how large is your portfolio now?
Philip: [00:09:41] Now I’ve developed about 30,000, when I was finishing this project, I’m in Texas right now, finishing up a project. It’s an aberration from my typical development zone, but I’ve developed maybe 45,000 square feet of new construction and I’ve renovated about 100,000 square feet of previously kind of derelict industrial buildings. And then I’ve actualized about 30,000 square feet of just land into public spaces. And then in Detroit, my work, I started with one building that was a little bit off the beaten path. It wasn’t so adventurous. It wasn’t quite in the thick of things when I first bought it in 2013. But it also was kind of close to some action, and that was my first project. It was a restaurant that was architectural, and it was very successful.
Eve: [00:10:28] What restaurant was that?
Philip: [00:10:30] It was opened as KATOI, and now it’s called TAKOI.
Eve: [00:10:33] You know, I ate there when it was in its original form, and it was amazing. Yeah, I have to come back to its reincarnation as TAKOI.
Philip: [00:10:41] Yes.
Eve: [00:10:41] Because it burned down, right?
Philip: [00:10:44] Correct. It was open for 11 months and then somebody broke in to steal some alcohol and burn the place down to cover their tracks and we rebuilt it. It was a challenging six months because I was in the middle of my next project, which was True North, at the time as well. But we kept it going. We kept the team together and we were able to rebuild the restaurant. It’s been open ever since and doing well. My next phase of projects were in an area about 5 minutes from there and it was an area that was, there were three operational houses in like a 20-acre area. And I bought a lot of land, and I bought a lot of abandoned buildings. And it was an area that anybody in real estate, since we’re talking about real estate, told me to stay away from. And this is, that advice is one of the things that’s continued to inform my philosophy and help me make distinctions as to what I actually do. But I started to buy real estate there and then that was my first Quonset Hut project, is how I activated that area.
Philip: [00:11:36] I built a True North, and that was a live work community using Quonset huts, which was then very generously awarded throughout the architecture community. And it kind of opened up a whole new world to me as to how architecture can be such an electrifying. I believed in it prior, but it’s like it’s like you can have faith. If we go back to the religion quote, you can have faith, but it only gets stronger after it gets tested. And if it passed those tests, then you really start to believe in it. So, after True North is when I really began to believe in architecture and its power to inspire people, and to bring them places they otherwise maybe never would have gone.
Eve: [00:12:17] So, where did the inspiration for Quonset huts come from? It’s not what someone would think is going to have a beautiful end goal, but the projects that you’ve built are really pretty extraordinary.
Philip: [00:12:30] Thank you.
Eve: [00:12:31] I’d like to know how you thought that through, yeah.
Philip: [00:12:34] So, it was twofold. So, like I said, I had an interest in space. I knew that space was what I was trying to make. That was what was interesting to me. I wasn’t looking to build apartments or just to build density offices, just units that I was going to rent. I was interested in creating spaces that were going to inspire people to want to be somewhere where everyone else told them they shouldn’t go. So, I knew I needed quality space to make people say, well, you know what? I’m going to take a risk and live over there because the quality of space that I can get there is far superior to the quality of space that I can get over here. And so, I was seeking that. And then that collided with, like I told you, I was reading about Berlin and its history of housing after World War II and how the city was being rebuilt.
Philip: [00:13:23] And I saw an image of an American army base outside of Berlin built with Quonset Hut. And the two paths that I was that were in my mind kind of collided when I saw that image. And I said, wow, I’m going to investigate using the Quonset hut to create quality space. And then I started to think about hiring architects, and I knew that it was going to need an architect’s touch to make it very special. See, the thing is, the Quonset hut is interesting as a tool, but it’s not the essence of what it gives me. I don’t build Quonset huts. I build space, and the Quonset hut is just the tool that allows me to do it well and interestingly, and to make it accessible price wise for myself and for my tenants.
Eve: [00:14:05] You’ve also stretched yourself, and I think hired one of the most remarkable landscape architects to help you create that space, right? Dirt, who I also interviewed, Julie Bargmann. So, the spaces really are gorgeous, absolutely gorgeous. So, you’re turning really derelict and unwanted pieces of property into an asset for the city. And everyone, everyone who lives there. Right, they’re not private spaces. So, anyone can wander into the green spaces that you create. Is that correct?
Philip: [00:14:37] That’s absolutely correct. And, you know, this is a, again, like I said, Detroit’s unique conditions helped inform and cultivate my development style and my philosophy. Som I’ll give you an example. I have another beautiful restaurant and I have other bakeries and cafes that surround this beautiful public park. Now, some small minded people, I hate to say that there are small minded people, there are magnanimous people, there are big minded people, there are ideas and thinkers, and then there are people who want to focus on negatives. They can look at my work and they can say, wow, you’re building these restaurants where there were three operational houses in the neighborhood. Those three people, they might never be able to go. And that is true, but that’s okay because this is what a city does. It services so many interests. That’s okay because that restaurant is okay in that neighborhood if it subsidizes public spaces that beautify the neighborhood and are accessible to everyone. Now, that park, we put benches on the front of it. It’s where people who are on their way to the bus stop, if they’re 10 minutes early, 20 minutes early, stop and take some sun and enjoy themselves and have a little conversation.
Philip: [00:15:48] So, it’s so interesting for me to see how, when I build a project, it only has eight apartments let’s say. Eight apartments cannot change a neighborhood, but the public spaces that they subsidize certainly can. And so, it’s that marriage between being extremely generous with the people who pay me rent, let’s say. I’m talking about business. But then also being equally as generous, if not more generous with the people who don’t. And I’m in a very unique situation because I own so much land in one area. I have 20 acres in that area that I can be extremely generous with the area, and which means I can be extremely generous with the people who don’t pay me rent, which means that I can actually make something special. And so, it was very important to me to make the public spaces as notable, if not more notable than the private spaces. And that to me is what makes the work interesting, is when I can figure out how to subsidize those spaces and fulfill everybody’s interests. That’s the real challenge of the work, and that’s what most developers complain about, to be honest, is that they can’t service everyone’s interest. And it’s true. It’s very hard and it’s frustrating sometimes. Development is hard work, as you know. But when you’re able to kind of get into that territory that you never thought you could get into, it becomes very interesting.
Eve: [00:17:10] So, you know, you said one thing I’m going to disagree with, and that’s you know, you can’t really change a neighborhood with eight units. But I disagree. I think that you can change a neighborhood by showing people what’s possible. You know, because most people are scratching their head over what to do with all of this vacant land. I’ve driven through those neighborhoods and they’re decimated and they really have to be reimagined, right. So, you’re starting the reimagining process, which is very exciting, I think.
Philip: [00:17:39] I think that your critique of it is correct. But I will say this, too, is that what I found in development is that a lot of developers, I hate to be critical, but I’m just being realistic. They don’t push to get to the essence of what it is that I’m actually doing. So, I could build eight of the most inspired apartments. And honestly, I even see this from architecture students who come and visit from all over the country, all over the world, really. First questions they always ask me, no matter how inspired the spaces are, is, what is your return? What did this cost you to build, and how much are you getting in rent? And I’m like, you’re Architecture students. Like there’s an idea here. This was the middle of nowhere just three years ago, and all you want to know is how much it cost me? You can go ask the developer in downtown that, like, you know, there’s so much more here. And I finally started to realize, if I wanted to get people to pay attention to the real true elements of what it is that I was doing, I first had to talk about the things that they never think about, the trees and the public space, to get them to notice that the things that they do care about, which is the return, You know, like, I always say that Caterpillar with my second Quonset Hut project. When I describe the project, it’s this simple. It’s a project that planted 186 trees and eight apartments. That’s it, that’s the project. 186 trees and eight apartments. And at first developers are scratching their head, you know, that’s the project? And yes, that’s the project. It’s about the trees. The eight apartments are really a vehicle by which I can subsidize this beautiful woodland.
Eve: [00:19:12] The trees, right.
Philip: [00:19:13] But I have to do that to get them to start to expand their mind a little bit. Not that my way is the right way, but we all want people to kind of maybe see the world in the way that we do.
Eve: [00:19:25] I completely agree with you because I think, unfortunately, the built environment has succumbed to being a financial commodity for people to make money on.
Philip: [00:19:35] Yes.
Eve: [00:19:35] And it really shouldn’t be. It’s all about the space between the buildings, right? Streets we use are pleasant or unpleasant because of the way we place buildings on them, right. So, I totally get it. It’s pretty inspirational.
Philip: [00:19:51] Thank you.
Eve: [00:19:51] But when you start work on a project, where does your inspiration come from for each project and how much does history count and the neighborhood?
Philip: [00:20:01] Well, this was one of the things that was so interesting that you and Julie talked about in your podcast with Julie is, and Julie taught me this really, I kind of understood this intuitively when I began my work, but Julie was the person that I worked with that really helped me understand this explicitly. And this is Julie’s quote. A great project emerges, it doesn’t descend. And that captures like the way that I try to work in terms of respecting history and respecting place is that there’s so many elements that inform a project and then that is mixed, the existing conditions, I like to say. Existing conditions have to do with materials that I have access to, to the history of the place, to the economics of the place, to the demographics of the place, to the trades that I have on hand.
Philip: [00:20:46] Like, if I have a welder on site, a really good welder, I’m going to work with steel. And if I have a great mason, I’m going to work with BLOCK. And if Detroit is a city that’s rich because it has a steel history and it’s easy for me to get welders, I’m going to work with steel and there’s so many things that a city’s existing conditions inform about my projects, but it’s not my project until those existing conditions then marry my mistakes. And so, the things that I would say inform my projects the most are the marriage between existing conditions and the mistakes I previously made. So, it isn’t like an idea just comes out of nowhere. One of the reasons I started with a Quonset hut was I had no construction experience, and this was something that I could look at a YouTube video online and make. So, I figured this is something that I can do.
Eve: [00:21:34] That’s great.
Philip: [00:21:36] That at the time, my lack of experience at the time was an existing condition that I had to deal with. And the Quonset hut was a really nice consequence to that existing condition, in addition to Detroit’s industrial history. And then Edwin Chan, the architect that I worked with on True North, he was also so respectful of the scale of the neighborhood and the scale of the block. That project was built across five lots. It’s eight Quonset huts, ten units, in between an old industrial garage and a regular single-family house. It was an area where manufacturing zone met residential zone. So, the Quonset hut at the scale, which is an industrial tool, at the scale of a home, was kind of the consequence that we derived. And we implemented things like Detroit has a great porch culture, for example. We did a stoop on the project, so that people would live the same sort of lifestyle from this project that they do in the rest of the neighborhood, but in this futuristic looking place. And so, it was so important for us to take elements of what was around us, elements of the path of the neighborhood, and kind of mix it into this salad that becomes the project.
Philip: [00:22:48] And so, right now I’m the general contractor and I typically am usually, I’ve worked with, I’ve collaborated with other contractors, but usually I build my own projects and I’m down in Texas as the general contractor, finishing a project. It was Landscape Architecture by Julie Bargmann or Architecture by Marlon Blackwell. And it does use Quonset huts as well. And there’s a lot of mistakes that I made on the project. Being here every day, working with the trades and understanding how things get done or if things don’t get done well, is such a rich source of inspiration for my next project. And wherever it’ll be, it will be in Detroit. That project will be a consequence of all these mistakes and lessons that I’ve learned from being on the battlefield, so to speak, and the existing conditions of the neighborhood itself as I develop. That was a long answer, I apologize.
Eve: [00:23:41] No, no, it’s great. I’m just smiling because I’m enjoying it so much. So, does a Quonset hut save you money or not in the end?
Philip: [00:23:51] You know, in the end, what I would say is that it doesn’t. What it does, though, is that for the same price per square foot, let’s say, that you would build a regular method of construction. You get a more museum quality space. So, the Quonset hut is not less expensive if you really want to make it architecture, there are intelligent ways to use it. Every project I’ve done so far, I’ve done three Quonset Hut projects, each with a different architect, each kind of exploring different avenues. And I’m learning more and more about how to use the tool in the most effective and efficient way possible. I haven’t mastered it yet, at all. But what it consistently does, in spite of whether it cost me less or not, is that it continues to give me inspired spaces that are very novel for a comparable price that would already exist. And so, that’s a win.
Eve: [00:24:45] That’s really important where you’re working, because you have to have a special draw because I’m sure, you know, most real estate agents in Detroit are telling people to stay away from those neighborhoods, right. You have to find a way to really entice people to come and feel like they’re part of something special.
Philip: [00:25:04] Correct. I mean, at that point is one that I also belabour quite a bit, which is there’s this umbrella that’s real estate. And then underneath real estate there’s a lot of different trades within that field. I think that too often, real estate investment and real estate development are co-mingled is the same thing. And I want to make a distinction consistently in my work and in the way I speak about my work that there’s such a big difference between investing in real estate and developing real estate. Investing in real estate, what you’re really buying. You’re not buying space; you’re buying an audience. And oftentimes that means that you’re going into areas that already have demand and there’s no onus on you to create the demand. You’re relying on everything around you to make people want to rent space from you. So, it has nothing to do with the space, but more to do with the audience that you bought. To be a real developer, in my opinion, humbly, to be a real developer. And this is what I’m trying to be at all times. I want to go somewhere where people don’t necessarily want to be, and I want to create a product that makes them want to be there. And then you bring people to an area they otherwise wouldn’t have gone. That is development, you know, And I think that too often people mistake development with investment. And they’re two very different things. In development, you’re investing your capital in the product and the idea. In investments, you’re investing your capital in the audience that already wants that place. And so, I want to try to be a developer, continue to be, which will continue to challenge me and try to bring people to places that they otherwise wouldn’t have thought to go or live in ways they otherwise wouldn’t have thought to live or eat things that they otherwise wouldn’t have thought to eat, or even just to have the sensitivity. If I can inspire somebody that never would have picked the flower to pick a flower and one of my parks, that’s a win. That’s development, you know what I’m saying?
Eve: [00:26:53] Yeah. Oh, no, I know exactly what you’re saying. So, you know, I agree with you. And what you’re imagining is a way of life for a few people. And eight is not very many. Right. That might want to really stretch their own boundaries in a very special way. So, yeah, I totally get it. I have to ask, though, I think you’ve already answered this. Is this the reason why your projects are, tend to be small interstitial projects and not really big ones? Are you contemplating a 40 unit building or a 60 unit building or a little village?
Philip: [00:27:28] Yes, Well, it’s a good question. And I think that I want to work in a scale where I can continue to try new things. And the bigger the scale gets, the less margin for error you have. A 10% mistake on a $10 million project is $1,000,000. A 10% mistake on a 2 million project is 200,000. As a businessperson, I can probably find $200,000 somewhere to fill those gaps and eat the mistake myself. It’ll be a little bit more difficult to find $1,000,000 somewhere. And so, I’m experimenting all the time, trying to be a developer. Because as soon as I start to create things that I already know how to create and that there already is a demand for, I’ve become an investor and I’m still energetic enough to not go to that place yet. So, I’m able to keep the projects interesting and inspired because I want to keep experimenting. That’s one thing.
Philip: [00:28:24] The other thing is, like this project that I’m doing in Texas right now, it was a very interesting experiment because I’m taking a philosophy that was cultivated in very unique conditions, which is Detroit, and then bringing it to Fort Worth, Texas, which is a very different kind of place. And it was an opportunity that was brought to me, and it was a great chance for me to explore architecture. And my dad is the one who brought it to me. He owns some land in Fort Worth, he’s not a developer, and he was asking me to develop it with him. And I was hesitant at first because I didn’t know exactly how my philosophy that was very Detroit specific was going to translate. And the scale is bigger of the project. And if I’m honest, the scale got too big too fast. And that’s a consequence of the market that we were working in because there’s so much more demand in Fort Worth. And so, our experiments didn’t pan out as much as I’d like. And the project isn’t as vibrant of a manifestation of, let’s say, the philosophy that I cultivated in Detroit. Is it a phenomenal project? It’s phenomenal. It’s dramatic. It’s like Julie designed this amazing primordial landscape and these futuristic buildings that Marlon Blackwell designed just rise out of it. It’s a monument. Did it respect the existing conditions of where I am in development at the time? Probably not. It was too big of a scale for me, and I would maybe work my way up to it. But the bigger the projects get, the less I can experiment and kind of discover new answers. You know what I’m saying?
Eve: [00:29:49] Oh, I know exactly what you’re saying. So, I’m so jealous. It sounds like a blast. I have to ask, has anyone influenced your work or is this you experimenting and building ideas on your own?
Philip: [00:30:04] Yes, we have so many opportunities to have so many mentors. They are all around us. Their work is all around us all the time. In Detroit, I live in Lafayette Park, designed by Mies van der Rohe. It’s a very special place. The landscape architecture is phenomenal. They’re these little pristine glass box townhouses that exist in this amazing urban woodland that is such an amazing place to live.
Eve: [00:30:26] That’s a huge inspiration. Yeah.
Philip: [00:30:29] Huge. I wake up every single day and learn lessons from it, from the fact that there were no pure clean ceilings with no recessed lights or air ducts in them, the proportions of the eight-foot spaces and how you make that space. These really tight proportioned spaces feel so generous and grand with full glass walls and how every wall is either a full window looking outside or a perfectly proportioned art wall. It’s like, there’s so many lessons there that I learn all the time. And then every season is a new lesson to learn because the majority of what you’re looking at is the exterior. It’s just, it’s so inspirational to live there. But again, I’m trained differently. I find great inspiration. Joseph Campbell was a mythologist and a professor who was a great inspiration to me. When I need confidence in trying new things, I always pull out his work about mythology and understand where my roots are and what I’m trying to do. And the more difficult it becomes, maybe the more important the work actually is. And so, he’s a great inspiration.
Philip: [00:31:31] The people that I worked with I learned so much from. I mean, Julie has been a great inspiration to me, an amazing teacher. She’s so wise and she’s so renegade. And it’s like, you know what Julie’s like? She’s like a jazz musician that somehow worked her way into, like, a classical orchestra, and they love her. You know, like, she just plays jazz all the time. But like, the classical musicians, like, want to play with her and like, she’s elevated beyond, she really understands the music. And it’s amazing to work with her because of that. Then again, two of the other architects that I’ve done significant amount of work and exploration with are Edwin Chan in Los Angeles and a young architect named Ishtiaq Rafiiuddin, he started his own office with my projects. We’ve done a lot of work together. I’ve worked with him more than anyone else, and he used to work at OMA prior to having his own office. He designed KATOI and he’s done a lot of projects with me. He’s so wise and he’s so holy, and I feel very lucky. And along the way, I’ve worked with other very talented people who I learn a lot from. My projects have been awarded, and I’ve had the chance to meet some great thinkers. There’s little tidbits of wisdom all over the place. I named, I guess, my most significant inspirations for my work right now. And that will evolve, I’d say, probably.
Eve: [00:32:50] And will change at the time.
Philip: [00:32:51] Exactly.
Eve: [00:32:52] I want to ask, who gives you pushback? You know, most of the world is pretty traditional and your work is definitely not. So, who gives you pushback and why?
Philip: [00:33:03] It’s a very good question. Detroit is a city, like I said earlier, Detroit is a city that’s always been about innovation and new ideas. And that’s kind of written in its DNA. It’s I think it’s very different trying to do an experimental project in Detroit than it would be trying to do it in Richmond, Virginia, for example. Richmond, Virginia is a city that had industry and had an interesting rich history, but not a history of ideas. And the fact that Detroit is a city with a history of ideas is very important because it opens people’s minds to new things. And that’s the history of the place. The pushback that I often get in Detroit, let’s say, is a social pushback. I’m going to a neighborhood that I wouldn’t even call it a neighborhood that is low income. It’s a neighborhood that was totally abandoned. Like I said, there were three operational houses there across 20 acres when I arrived. The rest were kind of abandoned, burned out houses and just overgrown lots and land, abandoned industrial buildings which I’ve renovated. But I still get social pushback because there’s a theme in development that there’s gentrification. People throw that word around without even thinking about what they’re saying. And like I said, I’ve worked hard to address these qualms by doing really good work.
Philip: [00:34:18] And so, for example, there’s a great Argentinean restaurant that’s a world class restaurant, literally a James Beard finalist this past year. So, one of the best restaurants in America. It’s not accessible to every person. It really isn’t. I mean, that’s a place where you go and you have an excessive dinner for anybody, for even a working person. It’s a nice place. The criticism I get is, why would you build that restaurant? Well, it inspires people and it’s aspirational, sure. But more importantly, that restaurant, the way I fight back to that criticism is it subsidizes public space. It subsidized a 110-tree park right next to it and a 75 tree park across the street from it. It beautifies the neighborhood. So, I’m always trying to address that sort of pushback and criticism all the time. That’s the most significant criticism I’ve received that I actually listen to. But the thing is, I always say that my projects aren’t good enough if they only inspire the international architecture community but alienate the local community. And they’re not interesting enough if they only make the local community feel comfortable but don’t inspire anyone greater than that.
Eve: [00:35:26] Yes.
Philip: [00:35:26] So, it’s hard work to do both at once.
Eve: [00:35:29] Very hard.
Philip: [00:35:29] And like, I can tip one way or the other. If I tip too far in one direction, I’ll start to get criticism from, because now that the architecture community watches our work, I’ve got people who will critique, work that isn’t inspired enough or isn’t thoughtful enough in that realm. And then because I’ve been sensitive to the local community, if I go in a direction that isn’t sensitive enough, I’ll start to get criticism from them. Now, I love that because it really makes me think every time I start a project, like my brain has to be employed to figure out how to navigate that territory. And I love that. So, if I get criticism, I don’t blame people for giving it to me. That’s a new bit of information that I can use to inform my next project, you know?
Eve: [00:36:16] Wow. So, do you have anyone following in your footsteps?
Philip: [00:36:21] It’s hard to say because, see, here’s the thing about developers. There’s a project in Columbus, Ohio, that used True North as an inspiration, and they did a Quonset Hut project. I haven’t visited yet. I need to go see it. But I saw they didn’t plant any trees. There’s no public space. They extract the wrong essence. They thought the essence of the project, and this is what we were talking about earlier, they thought the project was about the Quonset hut. No, the Quonset hut was just a tool for me to be able to create exceptional indoor and outdoor spaces. And so, I see people who see what we’re doing, and they extract the wrong thing from it. You know, the thing that maybe is the most obvious, but I really can’t wait till the day, till somebody else copies me and says, we just built eight apartments and planted 186 trees. It’s like, that’s when I know that I’ve actually changed something. I haven’t seen that happen quite yet. What do you think? By the way? You have your eyes on it. Do you see other things brewing with this sort of attitude?
Eve: [00:37:28] Depressingly, no. I’ve taken a ten-year hiatus from real estate development myself to build this crowdfunding platform, and I’ve learned a lot about what other developers do in the process. And there is so much built that is just built to be the same. Now, to be fair to developers, they’re trying to make a living and banks are geared towards lending always to the same. Even in a market like Pittsburgh, it’s very hard to break out and do something different and find the financing for it. So, I think the world of real estate development is set up to make it very difficult to do what you’re doing. I think the fact that you’ve chosen a city so thoughtfully where you can experiment is the key, and most people don’t have that luxury. So, I don’t want to blame real estate developers. I actually think the world of finance is probably more to blame for the constant drumbeat of buildings that just don’t build better cities.
Philip: [00:38:32] Correct. But if we’re really exploring this intellectually, too, I think the world of finance in a way, is to blame. I also think that our education system is to blame because it used to be in the early 20th century, if you were a lawyer, you had a true inclination towards the law. If you were an architect, you had a true inclination towards architecture. And before there was an economy and education, people were really, really, really drawn to what was really interesting to them. And now you have people who aren’t even interested in space doing real estate because there’s an economy in it.
Eve: [00:39:05] I think that’s right.
Philip: [00:39:06] And I think that education is in part to blame. And you have people practicing architecture that don’t even have an inclination towards architecture. I don’t know. There’s a lot of things that lead to that. And at the end of the day, unfortunately, real estate has basically just been put into a category of, it’s an asset class, it’s something to hold in your portfolio.
Eve: [00:39:28] It’s an asset class. It’s not, it’s the place where we live, right? It’s where all of us live. And it should be much more than an asset class.
Philip: [00:39:37] Exactly.
Eve: [00:39:38] So, yeah, a little bit depressing. Did you expect all the attention and awards that your work has received?
Philip: [00:39:47] I did not, no. I didn’t at all. And sometimes it’s still kind of surprises me because like, what do they say when you know how the sausage is made, you don’t really want to eat it. And so, I know how the sausage is made in my office and I know where the ideas come from. And as much as I try to make them inspired, I still consider myself an amateur. And I really don’t think that I’m anywhere close to a level of mastery in what it is that I do. But I’m inspired because my ideas are what are getting the attention and I’m not running out of them. I’m getting more all the time because I’m in the field. When I’m in the field building and working, not even working with architects, but that helps a lot. But I go to architects with ideas because of my failures as an amateur developer, I go and I say, I made this huge mistake here, but I thought about how to fix it while I was there. So, let’s design this beautifully and figure out how we’re going to do this and how we’re going to use this. So, I’m very surprised by the attention that I get and the recognition because I consider myself an amateur with a lot to learn. But at the same time, I have a lot of confidence in my ideas and that’s why I spend my life and my capital and my time developing them. So, I’m optimistic that my work will only get better as long as I continue to wake up with will and ideas. It’s hard sometimes in development. It’s really difficult to work. There’s like this ethereal world where there’s ideas and then there’s.
Eve: [00:41:18] The reality.
Philip: [00:41:19] The actual world. There’s reality where, like, you have electricians that just don’t want to be bothered with being told like where you want the switches and how you need the lights to line up.
Eve: [00:41:30] I had a fight with one of those just two days ago.
Philip: [00:41:34] Yeah. So, you know all this and it’s hard to reconcile the two worlds, you know what I mean?
Eve: [00:41:40] Yes.
Philip: [00:41:41] But I have an amazing team in Detroit, and I work with great architects, and they keep me inspired with their ideas, too. I’m far from the only person that brings ideas. I collaborate with people that have amazing world class ideas that helped me take my vision to a whole other level that I couldn’t have even imagined. And so, it isn’t just that I’m winning the awards, it’s that part of the sense in being a developer is that I’m almost like a maestro more than an instrument player is that I’ve picked the right instruments to play at the right time, and I’m working with such talented people that I guess awards were kind of inevitable.
Eve: [00:42:19] That’s great. So, can you tell us what the next project is?
Philip: [00:42:23] Yes, the next project is, I have about 50 units of housing designed in this neighborhood in Detroit right now. 24 of them are designed by Edwin Chan, and then 26 are designed by Ishtiaq Rafiiuddin. And his office is named UNDECORATED, and Edwin’s is called EC3. I would say that 60% don’t use the Quonset hut, but another 40%, we’re kind of playing with the Quonset hut, still trying to continue to master it. That’s Ish and I are now interested. Ish sees architecture as a riddle. He’s more of a scientist with a laboratory than an artist with a studio. And so, we have a great time trying to solve the riddle of the Quonset hut and solve the riddle of, like I always tell people when I sit down to work with them, like this collaboration is a truth-seeking process. And what is this truth-seeking process? We’re trying to arrive at what the best and truest project we could build in this place at this time actually is. And I do believe that there is an objectively best project that you can build based on where you’re building, who you’re building it for, and where you are at in your life and in your skills at that time. And there’s kind of a real exploration that goes through the project’s design process of us trying to figure out what should we really do here? And I have some amazing collaborators in that. So, sorry I got off track.
Eve: [00:43:42] Yeah, that’s fun.
Philip: [00:43:43] We have 50 units of housing designed, that I’m going to begin to work on this spring. I renovated nine buildings now that were kind of derelict and I’ve got two more buildings in the area to renovate. One is going to be taking place right now, When I finish this project in Texas, which I’ll be done any day now. And then Julie’s designed another park, kind of a mirror park to Core City Park, which was the last big project we did together on the other side of Grand River, which is the main street there. So, we’re going to bring that public space to the other side of the street. We’re going to activate the building, the commercial buildings right on it. And so, kind of just continued iterations of what we’ve been doing with new explorations and materials and trying to give people better quality space for a better price all the time. And that’s the effort.
Eve: [00:44:28] I am completely inspired, and I imagine our listeners are as well. And my next question is, is when can I come and visit?
Philip: [00:44:34] I would love to have you come visit, maybe after, now that our work is so landscape centric, you have to come in the spring when the trees are blooming, and you’ll really feel the magic of what we’ve done. Although I will say that the winter in Detroit is, it tests your conviction to the place. Whenever I have people that are thinking of moving to Detroit, maybe to work for me or otherwise, I tell them to come in February and if they like it then, then they’ll really like it at other times of the year.
Eve: [00:45:02] I’m in Pittsburgh, so I get that, I get that.
Philip: [00:45:04] But we’ll enjoy ourselves more, Eve. Yes, I love Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is such a dramatic, beautiful city. It’s amazing.
Eve: [00:45:11] Yes, it is amazing. It’s also got its difficulties. But look, thank you so much for your time today. I thoroughly enjoyed this.
Philip: [00:45:18] Yes, we need to continue this in person in Detroit or in Pittsburgh, Eve. I could come visit you, too, right?
Eve: [00:45:23] Yes, absolutely. Thank you.
Philip: [00:45:25] Okay, phenomenal. Thank you so much for your interest. And I’m going to be diving into what you do and continued success with everything. And we’ll speak soon.
Eve: [00:45:47] I hope you enjoyed today’s guest and our deep dive. You can find out more about this episode or others you might have missed on the show notes page at RethinkRealEstateforGood.co. There’s lots to listen to there. You can support this podcast by sharing it with others, posting about it on social media or leaving a rating and review. To catch all the latest from me you can follow me on LinkedIn. Even better, if you’re ready to dabble in some impact investing yourself head on over to wefunder.com/smallchange where you can invest directly in Small Change and our mission to democratize capital formation to create impact in commercial real estate development. A special thanks to David Allardice for his excellent editing of this podcast and original music, and a big thanks to you for spending your time with me today. We’ll talk again soon. But for now, this is Eve Picker signing off to go make some change.
Image courtesy of Philip Kafka