Three people creating the new Washington

Meet a worldwide pitchman, a workplace visionary, an urban playground designer

Jackhammers pound away at the asphalt. Buildings from previous generations — deemed too old or too small — tumble into rubble. Almost everywhere, it seems, cranes tower overhead, a sign of dramatic new things to come.

Washington is booming. But it is doing so in ways unlike previous bursts of growth.

College graduates and job seekers are pouring into the urban neighborhoods, fueling apartment construction hotter than anywhere in the country.

Even suburban areas — Tysons Corner, White Flint, Columbia Pike — are being torn apart and reconfigured to accommodate the growth.

And investors from around the globe are pumping money in; it’s no longer just the local banker or construction executive who is making it big in the region’s real estate.

The modern overhaul of Washington is in plain sight. But who are the faces in the boardrooms and executive suites who are ordering up all these cranes? Here are three of their stories.


Amer Hammour , executive chairman of Madison Marquette (Brad Howell/For The Washington Post)
The worldwide pitchman

Until recently, the Southwest Waterfront has been insulated from the capital’s influx of pricey restaurants and apartments. Seniors and public-housing tenants live nearby. Along the docks, 130 people live on houseboats, and old-timers still come down to drop fishing lines in.

A chance to own a stake in the quiet waterfront’s redevelopment has been pitched in executive suites from Canada to London, Germany, Dubai, Qatar and China. The city’s prominence as a target among global real estate investors has risen dramatically, with every inch of its best property potentially the subject of international speculation. Washington has been ranked the No. 1 or 2 place to invest in recent years, so every neighborhood could benefit from a pitchman with worldwide connections.

For the Southwest Waterfront that pitchman is Amer Hammour. For two years he has taken three flights a week around the world, asking for hundreds of millions from investors, even if they’ve never met him, never been to Washington or never heard of the Southwest Waterfront.

Born in Syria, Hammour grew up in Lebanon and went to high school in France before moving to the States for college in 1978. He lives in McLean and is executive chairman of D.C.-based developer Madison Marquette, which owns dozens of midsize shopping centers across the country, among them Gunston Plaza in Lorton and the Shops at Waldorf Center.

Hammour, 54, has begun investing in cities such as Asbury Park, N.J., a beach town that has been in decline but where he is spending millions and now operates five concert venues. “There are only a few companies that are able to handle such a project,” he said.

The chairman job is high-profile, but Hammour has a quieter role that may carry more consequence: managing director of Capital Guidance Corp., a little-known entity with a bare-bones Web site that’s behind the splashy brochures of Madison Marquette.

Founded in the ’60s, Capital Guidance is a private manager of investments for families from the United States, Canada, Europe and the Mideast. It has invested $2 billion in real estate, financial services, firefighting equipment, industrial supplies and such.

Capital Guidance is Hammour’s platform to try to build something bigger than a shopping mall: a standing pipeline for foreign dollars into U.S. real estate and businesses.

The Southwest Waterfront was a major first test. For nearly a decade, District leaders and condo builder Monty Hoffman had worked through details of the Wharf, a $2 billion mega-project that would include a sterling new boardwalk, three hotels, restaurants, shops, offices and 1,300 residences. Once approvals were in place, it fell to Hammour to find investors.

He traveled to Canada, London, Germany, France, Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Qatar, Bahrain and other Mideast countries. He went to China three times.

“When I first started, I realized I was just spending way too much time on the details,” Hammour said. “What you have to do is just give them the picture. Most important is: Don’t talk about the development ... it’s scary, it’s risky — what’s going to happen? Make them imagine it as being built already. ‘Wouldn’t it be great to own a wonderful, mixed-use community in the middle of Washington, D.C., one of the best cities in the world?’ ”

Many of the prospective investors did not speak English and had little idea of the zoning and height restrictions in D.C. One colossal Chinese firm expressed interest, and after Hammour and Hoffman made their pitch, the chairman declared that instead of investing he would buy the entire waterfront and build a five-story shopping center.

“He happens to be one of the richest guys in the world, period,” Hammour said. “And he comes in and makes it clear that, you know, he’s going to own this project. And then talks about what he wants to do with the project, which is completely unrealistic. We had to explain to him that, to build a Chinese-like shopping center like that on the Potomac might not be a great idea.”

Eventually Hammour and Hoffman landed a starting investment of $220 million from a Canadian pension fund manager, and construction began in March. Hammour said the project could define his company.

“We have an opportunity to really mess up,” Hammour said. “That’s the way I see it. We could create a really nice project that is not more exciting than what we have right now in Washington. I think we have the opportunity to create much more excitement.”


Diane Hoskins, co-CEO at Gensler. (Brad Howell/For The Washington Post)

The workplace visionary

Whether your office is in Washington, London or Dubai, Diane Hoskins studies every aspect of the way you work at your desk — the amount of time you put your head down to concentrate, the time you are distracted, the frequency and quality of the ideas you produce when you swivel in your chair to brainstorm with a co-worker.

Hoskins, co-chief executive at architecture and design giant Gensler, remembers the days when offices consisted of hallways with numbered doors along either side. Guided by firms like hers, companies began tearing down the walls — then even the cubicle walls — in favor of open floor plans that would foster creative thinking.

Now there’s pushback.

“You’re sitting in your open-plan area and you’re doing your focused work, and two seats away there’s five people gathered around a workstation and somebody on the speakerphone, and they’re all collaborating,” she explained.

Between 2010 and 2012, the average square foot per office worker dropped from 225 to 176. But in its annual workplace survey, Gensler found last year that 53 percent of employees felt disturbed by others when trying to focus and 69 percent were dissatisfied with the noise levels around their desks. So much for concentration.

Just as Gensler was on the cutting edge of opening up offices, Hoskins wants to see the company designing the newest wave of layouts: re-integrating private meeting areas, building fewer see-through glass walls and creating more separation between workers who need to focus.

“The message of collaboration became such an important driver that it came at the expense of more focused work,” she said. “The great idea got hatched in that meeting, but it really got thought through in that focus time. You’re not going to have five people who iron out the details.”

Gensler designs structures such as airplane hangars and entire towns, all over the world. Every week, from her desk on K Street, Hoskins leads a conference call with 100 people from 46 offices in 14 countries to get the latest insights.

During a recent call, she discussed workplace projects in Australia, two hotel projects and a sports stadium in Venezuela and new business in Baltimore and Seattle.

Gensler is also the lead architect on Shanghai Tower, a twisting skyscraper under construction in China that, at 2,073 feet and 121 stories, will be the second tallest building in the world when completed this year.

The company’s bread and butter in many ways remains designing offices for government agencies and companies, among them The Washington Post as the newspaper prepares to move its headquarters to K Street in 2016.

One of five children, Hoskins, 55, grew up on the South Side of Chicago coveting Legos and trips to the Art Institute of Chicago. She became an architect, but is now far removed from the business of sketching plans.

“I don’t design anything,” she said. “My role is to make sure that what we do is the best.”

Even if she were a number of steps down the corporate ladder, she would still be one of the country’s most accomplished African American architecture executives, yet she is not even the most widely known member of her West End condo.

Her husband, Victor L. Hoskins, served as the District’s deputy mayor for planning and economic development, a post that had him traveling to China with Mayor Vincent C. Gray to drum up business and overseeing the city’s biggest real estate projects, such as a planned redevelopment of Walter Reed Army hospital.

A charismatic speaker whom she met in graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Victor decided in May to go work for Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, the latest in a long string of public economic development positions in Baltimore, Los Angeles and Chicago.

Hoskins is happy running her global nerve center for how the modern workplace is being shaped and reshaped. Her firm advises many clients on the importance of being in cities to maximize the value of a diverse workforce and the idea-making that happens from frequent interactions on the sidewalk or at a coffee shop.

She thinks Washington is still growing as a destination for innovative companies: “This city has so much to still become. We’re still becoming.”


Marc Ratner, CEO of StreetSense. (Brad Howell/For The Washington Post)
The urban playground designer

Perhaps no company has had more of a role in turning some of the area’s unassuming neighborhoods into urban playgrounds, flush with restaurants, bars and sidewalk cafes, than one founded by two Montgomery County natives in 2001.

Marc Ratner and best friend Guy Silverman from Springbrook High School in Silver Spring founded Streetsense after Ratner’s career brokering deals for stores such as Best Buy, Target and Bed Bath & Beyond got stalled by the recession.

Ratner decided to remake their company based on a couple of core beliefs: People were going to move back to cities, and they weren’t going to buy as much stuff anymore, unless it was online.

“The millennials were going to live differently, work differently, shop differently,” Ratner said. “They wanted a different way of life. They were moving away from standard, static brands. And they wanted a sense of authenticity.”

Ratner amassed a stable of specialists capable of turning an idea into reality, from finding a location and negotiating the lease to designing the space and branding, then marketing the concept.

Their fingerprints are all over town: Chef Mike Isabella hired Ratner’s architecture and design team to create Bandolero in Georgetown. Donnie Simpson Jr., son of the former WPGC-FM radio personality, used Streetsense to design, market and find a space in Shaw to open his new muffin shop, Uprising.

While completing a $34 million renovation of Chevy Chase Pavilion, Ratner and his team reeled in their biggest-name clients to date when Donald Trump and daughter Ivanka Trump hired them to lease the retail space in their planned $200 million luxury hotel at the Old Post Office Pavilion downtown. (Ivanka Trump said the company “has a really good sense” of the needs of gourmet restaurants and high-end retailers.)

Ratner sees some of the area’s startups becoming the next Chipotle or Five Guys. Unlike other companies — which focus narrowly on architecture or interior design or branding — Streetsense promises a unified creative effort behind everything.

“We can figure out how to operate it, brand it, roll it out with a real estate strategy, bring the ability to create the financing around it and grow it from one location to 30. Or one to 500,” he said.

Ratner has gone through a personal rebranding. Father of two daughters who are now adults, he divorced his first wife four years ago and married a graphic designer from Streetsense, Nadia Ratner. They are expecting their first child in August, when Ratner turns 50.

He is not the only member of his family to find success. Cousin Dennis founded the Hair Cuttery salons; uncle Phillip, an artist, founded the Ratner Museum with Dennis in Bethesda.

Ratner said Streetsense will probably gross about $20 million this year, and he is plotting expansions to New York and Los Angeles. But Ratner considers himself more artist than businessman, and it shows at his new home, a 20,000-square-foot English Tudor in Northwest’s Forest Hills neighborhood that he has been renovating for two years.

After buying the house for $2.3 million, Ratner stripped out nearly every inch of the walls, pipes and wiring so the finishes could be recast to match documents dating from its construction in 1929.

The restoration brings to mind his company’s work in old storefronts, where Streetsense might tease out the historic bones for a new restaurant.

“I’m motivated by creating experience. I want my home to be an experience for me and my wife and my family, for everyone that walks through the door,” he said. “I feel like I can take people to a different place. That’s what my company is all about — it’s about elevating experience, and it’s an extraordinary feeling.”

Jonathan O’Connell is a reporter for The Post’s Capital Business.

Related story: Just Asking with developer Jair Lynch.

E-mail us at wpmagazine@washpost.com.

For more articles, as well as features such as Date Lab, Gene Weingarten and more, visit The Washington Post Magazine.

Follow the Magazine on Twitter.

Like us on Facebook.

Jonathan O'Connell has covered land use and development in the Washington area for more than five years.
Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Lifestyle