Brooklyn’s Lead Developer Shares Lessons on Place Branding

Image credit: Flickr Contributor Ajay Suresh

Few understand the role of development in place branding more than Ali Esmaeilzadeh. In his 13 years at the real estate investment trust Forest City, Esmaeilzadeh has helped transform Downtown Brooklyn into a coveted place to live and work. His efforts to promote Brooklyn’s MetroTech Center as an axis for front-office agencies even garnered him the nickname “Mayor of MetroTech.” More recently, Esmaeilzadeh has set his sights on positioning the Bridge, a 240,000-square-foot Class-A office building on the Cornell Tech campus, as a central location for students and startups.

On June 6, Esmaeilzadeh will participate in a panel discussion at City Nation Place Americas, a two-day conference co-hosted by the NYUSPS Urban Lab at the Schack Institute of Real Estate. We caught up with him ahead of the conference to learn more about his development philosophy.

What are some of the emerging trends that make for a successful innovation district or mixed-use neighborhood?

A successful innovation district is curated and designed with flexibility in mind. [There should be] flexibility in physical space and also flexibility to allow for companies and people at various stages of their growth (from start-ups to mature companies). Physical space should follow the lead of its users, with an eye for transparency, amenities that promote interactions, programming, and limited obstructions (physical or otherwise). A successful district would also benefit from a diversity of people, industries, and demographics — ideally, a mix of academia and the private sector.

What is your strategy for tenant selection?

We have tried to address the needs of an entire ecosystem, such as academia and graduates, co-working and desk share space for startups, small pre-built suites for early-stage or growing companies, and more traditional office space for established companies. The CornellTech campus, just as in MetroTech, allows for scale and expansion opportunities for companies that outgrow existing space. We have looked to limit the size of any one tenant and pull from a broad section of the economy so that different users are working on different solutions to a wide range of problems. But the common thread is to nurture new innovations and the random collision of people and ideas.

How does your place branding strategy differ if you’re working on a project in Brooklyn versus Manhattan?

We have two very diverse assets in Manhattan: the New York Times building and the Harlem office. The NYT building was designed by a world-renowned architect Renzo Piano. It’s been a tremendously successful project and attracts, for the most part, large, well-established firms. We compete with other large Class A products in Midtown and Midtown West, so that brand and strategy is unique to that particular asset.

“Brooklyn starts to sell itself … before you even contemplate the ‘economic’ benefits to your bottom line.”

In Harlem, just as in Brooklyn, we have an opportunity to cater to a much broader audience. Historically, the assets were home to back-office and public agencies. However, they are now appealing to many front-office users, academics, and healthcare companies. Harlem and Downtown Brooklyn have also seen an increase in residential development, which has led to greater number of restaurants and amenities. Brooklyn and Harlem have always had great “brand” presence and appeal. We are now capitalizing on that brand by investing in our assets and common spaces/parks to attract local businesses and residents.

There is no longer a need to only work in Downtown or Midtown Manhattan. Our assets are well-situated in neighborhoods with strong residential pockets of creative and tech professionals. We also benefit from proximity to and partnership with higher education institutions and growth in commercial development, resulting in a stronger hub and density of office space.

You’ve been credited with having a major influence on the transformation of Downtown Brooklyn. Tell us more about the idea of selling Brooklyn as a “destination.”

Brooklyn has it all. It always has, but, historically, whether due to perception or practical considerations, it wasn’t as appealing as a commercial destination. I believe technology and the growth in the residential population have changed all that. With the rise of technology, you no longer need to work adjacent to your customer. Moreover, with the growth in residential and additional companies relocating to Brooklyn, your clients and partners are likely to be located there. Add to that the fact that mass transit converges in Downtown Brooklyn, there are more students per capita than in Cambridge, there is an incredible cultural and foodie scene, a boom in hotel rooms, etc., and Brooklyn sort of starts to sell itself. That’s before you even contemplate the “economic” benefits to your bottom line from having your offices there versus more traditional addresses/submarkets in Manhattan.

You’ve also been instrumental in the construction of the Bridge on the CornellTech campus. How do you envision this project changing the image of Roosevelt Island or its nearby boroughs?

CornellTech has already had a massive impact on Roosevelt Island and will continue to do so as the campus expands. Most people I have met have never stepped foot on Roosevelt Island. For many, it’s a surprise that there is a subway stop, and that the island is serviced by a tram and the ferry, in addition to vehicular access. As CornellTech attracts companies, professionals, students, etc., many are discovering what an incredible place it is to both work and reside. The residents would tell you it’s always been a gem. Now, more New Yorkers are discovering that same fact. I believe CornellTech will result in the creation of dozens of successful, fast-growing companies. When these companies look to expand and grow, submarkets like Long Island City will become a natural consideration, given their proximity. (P.S. If you haven’t been to the Four Freedoms park at the tip of island, it’s a must.)

Ali Esmaeilzadeh is a Senior Vice President of Asset Management and Leasing at Forest City Realty Trust. Since joining the firm in 2005, Esmaeilzadeh has been responsible for marketing its overall office portfolio, negotiating 2.5 million square feet of leasing transactions, and guiding the design and management of more than 800,000 square feet of office and critical facility space.