Property Profiles: Developer Carl Dranoff

Property Profiles is a series highlighting the people who have defined the Greater Philadelphia area and continue to chart its future–from established developers with numerous projects behind them to young visionaries who are just starting out to under-the-radar players who get everything done. Have someone you’d like to see featured? Send us an email and let us know!

This week Property Philly sat down with Carl Dranoff–developer of the Left Bank; World Café Live; Symphony House; 777 Broad Street; the upcoming Southstar Lofts; and more–to discuss his lengthy career on the Philadelphia real estate scene. Topics ranged from his unshakeable belief in Camden’s future to the impossibility of leasing Old City apartments in 1983.

On deciding what to be when he grew up:
“I never drew people.”

Dranoff grew up in Northeast Philadelphia and decided early on that he wanted to build things. He sketched throughout his childhood – buildings but never people – and chose to pursue civil engineering at Drexel University based largely on the school’s co-op program. He said he realized that many engineers turned out to be “small cogs on big wheels.” Recognizing that he had more entrepreneurial goals, he decided to go to Harvard Business School for his MBA. “It was the only two years I spent away from Philadelphia,” he said.

On Historic Landmarks for Living and his first big rehab in Old City:
“People said it was too far from town, too close to the bridge.”

Dranoff began working with Historic Landmarks for Living in 1981. The Wireworks condos at 301 Race was their first large-scale rehabilitation. After gutting and renovating the building into loft-style apartments — a novelty in the city in 1983 — Dranoff decided to host a party to launch the new building. He invited old friends from Harvard. No one accepted his invitation until he offered to ferry them into and around Old City by tour bus. “They thought it was unsafe,” he said. By the end of the night, they were sold on the neighborhood’s potential and on the building.

A combination of historic charm, modern amenities and aggressive marketing made the Wireworks a huge success. By 1989, Dranoff said Historic Landmarks was the biggest rehabber of historic buildings in the United States, perfecting their playbook and replicating success 66 times in eight years in cities like Baltimore, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Chicago and Milwaukee. “Any city with lakes and rivers has a warehouse district,” Dranoff said.

On founding Dranoff Properties in 1998:
“If I don’t do it now, I’ll be too old.”

Dranoff founded the property group when he was 50 years old, after working for a series of home builders and developers. He worked with Paul Levy and others to convince then-mayor Ed Rendell to approve 10-year tax abatements for historic rehabs, which created a market environment where Dranoff felt comfortable putting out his own shingle.

In 1998, the Convention Center was only three years old and the Kimmel Center was years from opening. Dranoff anticipated a real need for hotels and residential properties alike. “The city was pulling out of its long malaise,” he said.

Dranoff Properties began construction on its first building, Locust on the Park, on June 10, 1998. The building was gutted, rehabbed and fully occupied by June 9, 1999. To get a sense of Dranoff’s marketing abilities, remember that the “park” Dranoff was promoting in 1998 wasn’t operational for nearly another decade and was only dedicated two years ago.

On changing demographics for renters:
“They’re renters by choice.”

In the early 1980s, Dranoff said he was renting apartments to 22-year-olds who had about a three-year window of renting. Over time, he said, that window has lengthened to closer to 10-15 years. He cited familiar statistics about people marrying later, having fewer children and bearing them later. Young families are now more inclined to stay in the city in a rental unit, Dranoff said. “It’s now a different mindset.”

On sustainability and buying his own Chevy Volt:
“A leader has to show with actions–not words–what a company culture has to be.”

Dranoff lives in the property group’s only condo building, Symphony House, which — like his other buildings — boasts electric car charging stations. That’s where he charges his own electric car.

He says Dranoff Property’s commitment to sustainability also extends to things like building proximity to various Septa stops and stations as well as his bike sharing program. Residents at buildings like 777 South Broad and the under-construction Southstar Lofts can stroll into the lobby and check out a bicycle, helmet and U-lock at a moment’s notice.

Many of the group’s projects are proximal to regional rail and subway stops, but they do not have a formal relationship with any transit authority, Dranoff said. He lamented the sad state of public transit funding in Pennsylvania. “Every year you have to go back and beg for money from the legislature.”

On Camden’s bright future:
“Camden, mark my words, will become a Hoboken in the future.”

Dranoff already owns one building in Camden (The Victor) and anticipates another building going up mid-2014. He anticipates Coopers Crossing being as successful as The Victor for several reasons, not the least of which is work he is currently doing to help ease taxes on developments in Camden similar to the ones he encouraged in Philadelphia during the 1990s. “You can’t take a cornfield in Nebraska and say it’s gonna be the next great place,” Dranoff said. “Camden has the waterfront.” He said it would be a fair comparison to consider Camden circa 2013 in the same light as Old City circa 1983. “Camden has something Philadelphia will never have: the view of Philadelphia.”

On his expanding South Broad Street empire:
“Macy’s doesn’t tell Gimbels what it’s doing.”

Dranoff is tight-lipped about specifics regarding future projects, but he does promise big news soon. “The best is yet to come on South Broad Street,” he said. “Later this year, look for a big announcement. And another one next year. We have several equation-changing projects for the city.”