Who would compare Washington to Brooklyn rather than to Manhattan? A company that has to see into the future, that’s who. Marc Ratner is the CEO of Bethesda-based Streetsense which, in brief, is a one-stop shop for entrepreneurs and developers who have an ambitious idea and need a range of expertise to make the dream a reality. Clients include LivingSocial, Chevy Chase Pavilion, chefs Bryan Voltaggio, Jeff Black, and Mike Isabella, the Hyattsville Arts District, and now also Donald Trump, to name only a handful. But what does that have to do with Brooklyn? “Manhattan is behind us,” says Ratner about the future of urban living. Brooklyn and Washington are where the style and tone of the new century are emerging in how we eat out, how we shop, and how we choose a place to call home.
The key to how Ratner interprets his crystal ball, albeit a well-researched crystal ball, is an astute awareness of shedding the old and adapting to the new. The creative ways in which we are changing, the innovative lifestyle choices we’re making are the result of the 2008 economic collapse, he said in a phone conversation. “When the crash happened, the younger generation, the generation entering college or graduating, who thought they would be entering a hedge fund and making a million dollars—well, for them, that thought was gone.” While they were hit hard, he says, they didn’t pack away their ambition. The potential was still there, ready to be redirected. “What happened was people wanted to be rooted in a life of purpose. There was no lack of passionate entrepreneurs.”
Over the past two years, Washington has become a beneficiary of this lifestyle reboot. Ratner views the city as well-positioned for prominence in the still-young century, and rather than being shaped by government and politics, it has to do with development, restaurants, retail and residential living. He calls DC, especially emerging neighborhoods such as the H Street Corridor, the new frontier. “What I see is truly amazing, fertile territory.”
Ratner, who is 48 years old and a fourth-generation Washingtonian, is also high on Pennsylvania Avenue, and with good reason. Streetsense was chosen by Donald and Ivanka Trump to help them find and develop the restaurants and retail that will go into the Trump Organization’s big Washington project, the Old Post Office Pavilion at 11th and Penn, which will feature a 261-room Trump International hotel. Trump promises the hotel will be one of the city’s most luxurious, with shopping and dining to match.
Read on for more of what he has to say.
When did you form Streetsense and with what in mind?
It was formed in May 2001. The idea was to create an integrated platform specializing in retail and real estate. But what happened was that the world changed. The most meaningful change that happened with our company was in 2008, when the world turned upside down. There wasn’t a businessperson who saw the world the same way, certainly as it related to real estate and retail. We had to take a step back and look carefully. I’ve always been a dreamer. Dreamers want to change the world.
How did you deal with the crisis?
Unless I wanted to bury my head in the sand and believe we were never going to get out of this crisis, I had to ask, “What can we do? What is the world going to look like after we begin to emerge?” I felt there would be a renewed sense of passion and purpose. We began to acquire other companies. I was committed to reshaping the company.
What were your initial goals after this reshaping?
There were two things we believed would happen. One, that a spirited entrepreneurial guy who wanted to be the next great chef in Washington would come to us to help him fulfill his dream. We also realized there were tired, old, cracked brands that had become irrelevant, and we wanted to be a company that could help them reshape themselves and be relevant again.
What is an example of a brand that became relevant again?
And the entrepreneurial guys?
Really wonderful clients we’ve now taken on. They have really been changing the scene in Washington. Guys like Bryan Voltaggio, Mike Isabella, the Matchbox [Food] Group, Jeff Black. We also designed the LivingSocial space.
Do you seek out your clients?
No, they come to us. Part of changing, of becoming a great resource for these companies, is being able to handle their needs not only from a design perspective, but from a brand perspective, too. The new consumer was viewing brands in a changing way. It was becoming the un-brand, about things that were true and gritty and real. That’s where we made a real difference. Clarion hired us to do a complete renovation of the Chevy Chase Pavilion. It is now one of the most captivating and engaging retail environments in the city.
How many employees do you have, and what’s the diversity of their talents?
We have about 85 right now, and I believe half of that is in our design and architectural studio. We have 15 retail strategists, our brokerage team out on the street. In 2010 we acquired three creative companies, branding specialists, who do all the marketing, graphic design, and social media. The Heiserman Group, run by a dear friend, is an interior architecture company. Burka studios, Bethesda-based, with the A-list of A-list clients of metro area real estate groups, for branding services. Tastee Concepts specializes in retail, restaurants and hospitality. We’re now rebranding the Ritz-Carlton restaurants and bars in Vienna, Austria, and India.
Are your offices only in Bethesda?
We’re opening in DC this year and expanding to New York in the first quarter of 2013.
Are you a public company?
Is there any service Streetsense doesn’t provide for business owners?
Yes, there is. We are getting ready to launch something called Streetsense Capital, which will be a fund we’ll create to invest in our clients’ businesses. Mike Isabella, for example. Mike is out raising money for his new concept [Kapnos & G]. We want to say, “Mike, we are committed to you and believe in you, and we want to be part of you. We want to invest in your new company.”
Are you ready to be part of the Trump orbit?
We are ready and believe our platform is very well positioned to help them create something unique and special in the Old Post Office Building. I have had one meeting with Ivanka, and I found her to be engaging and astute. They are looking at it the right way.
When you look at that part of Pennsylvania Avenue, how do you define the customer, whether hotel guest or foot traffic?
The Old Post Office Building location has all the right things going for it. It’s in our east end, our most vibrant part of the city, where the big law firms and hot restaurants are. We have 25 million tourists a year passing that location. We see an exciting opportunity in that the building is not new. They are retrofitting. We can view this as creating something special and different. This can have destinations outside of just the hotel.
Will there be multiple restaurants?
That is one of the things we are exploring.
What are you looking for?
It’s a vetting process, [deciding] which are the right concepts for the hotel. Trump has engaged us to work on the merchandising strategy more than anything else: how to create this unique environment.
Will you pick the tenants?
Not at the end of the day. Our job is to scour the universe and lay out opportunities.
What do Washington-area restaurant-goers want now?
They want to feel part of something, part of the neighborhood. They are looking for authenticity, connection, and great food. Everybody’s becoming a foodie.
What’s new in retail?
Retail has not emerged as quickly as the restaurant scene. It’s on the cusp. We’re studying it very, very hard. The new customer wants to live differently, work differently, shop differently, and we’re trying to shape that picture. It’s not about grandeur. It’s about authenticity, a vibe.
Where and how do you get your restaurant and retail inspirations?
A lot comes from the entrepreneur or chef. It’s their passion we need to understand and communicate to the patron. The driving force must come from the clients. We have a unique ability to deliver that message.
Do you travel a lot to see what’s happening elsewhere?
What do you see as Washington’s boom neighborhoods?
We see the opportunities as inside the Beltway. We just finished a building at Eighth Street and Barracks Row. We’ve identified a lot of buildings on H Street. We see significant change coming in Northeast DC. We love Rhode Island Avenue. The moment you step off that main street, you see these beautiful streets with beautiful homes and neighborhoods that are changing rapidly. Retail never leads change, by the way. Residential leads the change, and once it starts to change, the retail is there to help support it. We look at the world differently from most developers.