When Brian Friedman steps into a room full of real estate types he is typically, at 33, one of the youngest developers to have set out on his own, particularly as he does not hail from one of Washington’s established real estate families, such as the Carrs or the Jemals.
“I’m not a generational guy, so I have to get past that,” Friedman said. “And I didn’t start out at one of the bigger, sort of institutional shops, so I have to get past that.”
And real estate isn’t Friedman’s first career. It’shis fourth.
Unlike most of Washington’s button-down real estate industry, Friedman arrived after trying his hand at a range of industries, collecting some wins, some losses and a boatload of lessons along the way. “I’m just not afraid to fail,” he said. “I’m just persistent, very persistent.”
As a teenager in Michigan, Friedman sold stereos, cell phones and electronics over the Internet. After moving to Washington in 1997 at age 18 to attend American University, he founded an online bazaar for pharmaceuticals. After the dot-com bust, he worked as a consultant for KPMG on Capitol Hill for four years.
During the evenings and weekends though, Friedman has long been buying and renovating houses in D.C., flipping them or renting them, mostly in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Northwest D.C. He says he doubled his money on some of the deals, but as the housing bubble grew, it became clear that his business had become too popular. “It used to be that there would be an auction on the courthouse steps and the only person there would be me. Then, I would go and there would be 50 people there.” he said.
Friedman was already thinking bigger anyhow. He had secured a partnership with a Michigan firm, Beztak Properties, and worked to acquire zoning approval for a plot of land in southern Florida in 2002. “I was basically a cheerleader who also wrote a very small check,” Friedman said of his contribution. He also made a larger realization — that he got a rush from pitching his vision to the community and coaxing others to get on board. “That’s when I really learned that I could do it,” he said.
Developing real estate in urban neighborhoods can be extremely thorny work, however, and Friedman already has his share of stories. He was part of a team that sought approval in 2007 for a condos-and-retail project west of Georgetown on MacArthur Boulevard, but he said that was rejected and swapped for a plan to build town houses. Last year, a partnership he formed purchased two properties on M Street in the heart of Georgetown, home to the restaurants Hook and Tackle Box, only for a fire to ravage the properties eight months later, closing the restaurants.
For his biggest project, Friedman figures he will need everything he learned from those experiences and more. In 2004 an Adams Morgan church, the First Church of Christ, Scientist, named Friedman and Beztak as its partners to redevelop its historic building at 1782 Columbia Road NW. Friedman’s plan to transform the church and property behind it into a Ian Schrager-designed Edition hotel from Marriott International has so angered some Adams Morgan residents that flyers in the neighborhood and a Web site depict him jumping for joy with bags of money.
The criticism has humbled him to the point where he would not publicly disclose his real estate holdings (“I don’t want to appear arrogant”), but he is otherwise undeterred. The D.C. Council issued the project a $46 million tax abatement and Friedman has offered space in the hotel project to Nigel Okunubi, director of the Adams Morgan Youth Leadership Academy, so that the development can provide 125 hotel jobs and career development guidance to neighborhood youth.
Friedman said he and his team has already spent “millions of dollars” on the project, but he said the partnership with Okunubi will mean opportunities for underserved youth, reduced crime and a project that he thinks Adams Morgan can celebrate. “I think the biggest mistake people make is that they don’t embrace the community,” he said. “And the community is going to make the project work.”