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Philippe Visser ’04 is on the senior executive team at Related on the historic 28-acre Hudson Yards project on the west side of Manhattan, the largest real estate development in U.S. history. He is currently spearheading the development of the 90 story, 2.6 million square foot 30 Hudson Yards building, which upon completion will be the second tallest commercial tower in New York City.
Prior to Related, Philippe Visser led the commercial development of the $15 billion, 14 million square foot World Trade Center site in Lower Manhattan, one of the highest-profile real estate projects in the world. He has also worked at Tishman Speyer, Vornado, and Forest City Ratner Companies in development.
By Mark Abramowicz ’18
Tell me a little bit about your background and how you got into real estate.
I’m from New Jersey, so access to NYC was always easy. However, summer vacations to Amsterdam and Paris to visit family were my introduction to architecture and the built environment, and where I first developed my love of cities. I attended the University of Pennsylvania at a time when Philadelphia was undergoing a rejuvenation, and soon fell into Urban Planning, fascinated with how smart planning could impact economic development and improve the lives of everyone in the city. After continuing my studies post-graduate in London, I came back to the US. While in the city for job-hunting, I vividly remember sitting in a diner in Gramercy Park, watching the world go by and absolutely falling in love with the city.
Since then, I have had the opportunity to work on large, complex projects with a variety of organizations—at Forest City Ratner, on the development of the first new hotel and movie theater/retail complex in Battery Park City (now the Conrad Hilton); Vornado, on their $3.25 billion bid to master-lease the original World Trade Center; Tishman Speyer, on their 3 million square foot master-planned development in Long Island City; The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey in negotiations between Silverstein Properties, the City of New York, and the State of New York at the World Trade Center redevelopment; and finally Related, at the center of the Hudson Yards transformation.
What draws you to such large, complex projects? Do you see yourself continuing down that path, or doing something smaller, more entrepreneurial?
There’s nothing like feeling that you’re helping to build the NYC skyline. Even more important than that is the kind of place-making that working on large projects lets you do, actually impacting the physical everyday of people as they go to work, shop, or go out to eat.
The World Trade Center and Hudson Yards are both environments within the city with incredible scale—Hudson Yards, for example, is larger than downtown Austin or San Diego, and is the largest real estate project ever in the U.S. However, it is imperative to properly balance the public realm and commercial interests. That requires tremendous care and planning to combine world-class architecture with commercial needs while continuing to ensure that these immense projects are part of the fabric of NYC and wonderful places to walk around for the public. Both Hudson Yards and WTC have those kinds of extensive public spaces, even with the scale of the high rises. In particular, the landscaping and iconic Vessel (public art piece that’s centerpiece of Hudson Yards) are the best example I’ve seen at a developer taking a real risk and making a project successful by doing that kind of city place-making.
At Hudson Yards, it’s been incredible to participate in the planning and design process as it’s unfolded over the last four years. Related truly put a stake in the ground to make it world class in every way, set by the senior leadership of the firm, and that permeates every aspect. It’s been a pleasure having that latitude to drive the architecture and the settings with that goal in mind, and working with top notch design teams to combine all of those objectives.
One of the interesting and challenging aspects of projects that size is that they happen within very large teams both outside and inside of the firm. Working to make those teams come together to be successful is a constant challenge, and something that I’ve enjoyed making happen on different aspects of the project, from developing 30 Hudson Yards which will be the second tallest office tower in NYC, to bringing Condé Nast into One World Trade Center.
Both have been very special opportunities that I have been fortunate to work on, and somewhat addicting, but who knows if I will be able to replicate those in the future! There is always an appeal to simple 12-story apartment buildings—one of the fun aspects of real estate is that there are so many ways to approach it. I’ve been lucky to work on some really dynamic projects, and I’m delighted to be doing that at Related.
Given longer timelines for the complex projects you've worked on, please comment on if/how developers evaluate these opportunities within the context of a market cycle - is it even possible to time the market? How do you insulate yourself from market downswings?
I think the best developers are those confident in their ability to manage through down cycles, which inevitably will happen. Predicting the “when” is difficult, especially given the long lead times to bringing product to market. I think the key thing is to have very good relationships with partners to work with you if things get tough, have a culture of excellence that your firm will add value in any market scenario and do projects that have real estate fundamentals that will weather recessions. Ultimately, the city and market you choose to develop in is critical. NYC is one of the great places in the world to build real estate if you can figure out how to do it. The difficulty and capital required to develop in NYC and the geography make the market so supply constrained, so its status as a truly global city and economic resilience with different sectors has helped propel its economy into strong recoveries. For example, I don’t think anyone would have predicted the growth in the tech sector in New York and what that’s done for the economy.
How have you seen development opportunities evolve over the last 2 decades? Characterize the NYC market now.
NYC is so supply-constrained that development opportunities, particularly on the commercial side, are rare. Very little new office product that wasn’t built-to-suit has been brought online in the last 20 years, driving the average age of buildings to over 30 years old. Companies have increasingly recognized what new and innovative environments can do for their employees, especially millennials, and are now seeing beyond the real estate itself. The push west and south of Midtown Manhattan is evidence of this, as areas that were once primarily industrial have become mixed-use. The rise of the tech sector in Midtown South that has driven rents up, combined with millennials’ desire for lifestyle amenities and accommodations—e.g. biking to work along the West Side Highway, walking the High Line to get a drink after work—has driven the success of Hudson Yards. It used to be that you would never even think about a new commercial office development below 42nd Street, but now most Fortune 500 firms in NYC are below 42nd Street, many in neighborhoods that you would never have imagined, like Macklowe’s Astor Place office development. The opportunity to be in mixed-use, live-work-play environments are what make New York one of the world’s great cities and draw top talent.
Do you see much more development expanding beyond the most recent “last frontiers” (LIC, BK, Hudson Yards)—e.g. in the Bronx, Jersey City?
I think it’ll be fascinating to see if another district outside of Manhattan can establish itself as a top office district. All the factors in terms of mixed-use interest, walk to work are pointing in that direction. Some of the successes you’ve seen in terms of DUMBO in Brooklyn and small scale offices in Williamsburg show the serious potential. But there’s still a reason Manhattan is one of the world’s premier office locations—the ability to draw from talent around the region is unbeatable. I think eventually Brooklyn will mature enough to draw headquarters of technology out to the boroughs, but it will still take a while.
Where do you see the most potential for developers with a medium- to long-term view of the market?
It’s tough to predict where the most potential is for development. NYC seems to have an unending ability to regenerate itself and continues to expand and improve neighborhoods. Places like Crown Heights would have been pretty unthinkable for top young business school graduates or technology people to live—now it’s one of the go-to spots. If you take the long view, betting on Newark for example would be a risky but potentially lucrative but you really must have patient capital. Coney Island is another really interesting long term real estate bet. The Gowanus in Brooklyn in the mid-term I think will establish itself as another tech sector location though that depends on the rezoning and Superfund cleanup. It’s one of the most exciting things in New York real estate to predict and see what’s the next new thing, and I think we’re really living in a New York “golden age” to get to experience that. Hopefully we can take that and continue to attract top talent, immigrants from around the world and use these resources to improve public schools and tackle issues like homelessness to continue to keep NYC’s place in the global pecking order.
Through your various experiences in the industry, what advice do you have for Columbia Business School students pursuing a career in Real Estate?
- There is a large focus at Columbia to get a job but it’s very important to take a step back and find something that you are truly excited about. Once you find that passion, relentlessly network inside and outside the building.
- Real Estate tends to have a very inefficient job market, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. It is beneficial for those willing to get out there.
- Development is a very different function from finance and isn’t for everyone. It requires someone with diverse skill sets interested in being extremely close to the asset. That said, there is nothing like the payoff of seeing a project work out.