If you want to change the urban landscape, do it one neighborhood at a time.
Real estate investment company MM Partners is expanding its footprint. On the heels of a multifaceted effort to shift the perception of Brewerytown, the team has two new high profile projects underway, with more in the works.
MM Partners’ David Waxman and Aaron Smith are poised to open the Pyramid Electric building, which they bought for $1.4 million last summer, with 46 rental units later this year. Branching out from Brewerytown, they just acquired a commercial property at 16th and Ranstead in the heart of Center City. These developments boost a massive portfolio of residential and commercial real estate. All told, they’ve done about $110 million in deals since 2008, including AF Bornot Dye Works, Girard27, The Braverman Building and The Hat Shop.
The company and its subsidiaries have transformed both the perception and the physical space of Brewerytown, putting a previously overlooked neighborhood on the map for millennials, but also raising gentrification alarms — something MM Partners is conscious of and working to fight with its share of community engagement projects.
As he put it to Newsworks, Waxman hopes Brewerytown can be “a neighborhood where working class and middle class and even upper-class people can live together.”
In 2008, Waxman, Smith and Jacob Roller formed MM Partners. (Roller left last year and now operates J.Roller Development). The economic downturn was the perfect time to get started, according to Waxman, who repeats an oft used investing principle: “When people are scared is the time to be greedy.” Property values were low and so was competition.
Waxman, who cofounded a now-shuttered wearable tech company called VITABand, had initially purchased eight shells on the 2900 block of Girard back in 2001. “At 24 years old, I naively thought I could I buy all eight and renovate them and turn that block,” he says. “Not knowing any better, I just sort of did it.”
Waxman, Roller and Smith all grew up near Rittenhouse Square. Roller credits his years at Friends Select School, a private Quaker school in Center City, for shaping MM Partners’ philosophy. He wondered, “How do we design a business that makes profit and has a social impact component?”
Natural borders of Fairmount Park, the Fairmount neighborhood and Girard College meant that “development had nowhere to go but north into Brewerytown,” says Waxman, who loved the large stock of historic buildings. For him, it’s essential to preserve the character of existing old structures.
They were not the only ones taking an interest in the neighborhood. At the same time, developer John Westrum began buying up parcels in Brewerytown. Rather than worry about competition, Waxman saw it as a positive. “It was a signifier that this neighborhood was going to happen,” he said.
Transforming Girard Avenue
MM Partners embarked on a full-scale neighborhood redevelopment program. They coached little league baseball. They threw block parties and events. They gave out turkeys at Thanksgiving and book bags in September. “We felt that if we’re going to come up here and make money, it’s only right that we give back,” says Waxman.
In addition to MM’s private sector efforts, area community development corporations and the city invested millions into streetscape and other improvements.
MM Partners curated millennial-friendly tenants for vacant storefronts along Girard Avenue but kept an eye toward the longstanding residents, too. “Retail drives residential,” Waxman says. “It was important that the retail spoke to existing residents as well as new residents. This could not be a situation where it was a trendy neighborhood and people who lived here for 50 years felt like strangers.”
Their success on that front is yet to be determined. New businesses include Rybrew, Music Box Records and a tattoo shop. Fishtown hipster haven Pizza Brain and an as-yet-undisclosed local food chain are slated for storefronts on Girard. Community Partnership School will open across from Pyramid. Aldi, the discount supermarket, and Fine Wines & Spirits are at 31st and Girard. Plus, Flying Fish is coming (fittingly) to Brewerytown.
“We had no idea Flying Fish Brewery was going to open a block south of this building when we wrote the agreement,” says Smith.
Waxman’s love of art also fostered murals in Brewerytown, distinctive signage by Stephen Powers (aka Espo), collaborations with local artists such as Streets Dept’s Conrad Benner and preservation of graffiti inside the Pyramid Electric building.
Where to next?
What neighborhoods are on MM Partners’ radar? Powelton, Mantua, Kensington, South Philadelphia and Strawberry Mansion. Waxman and Smith point to the new Comcast tower going up and the overall city goal to keep recent college grads in the city as evidence of the demand for more development.
MM Partners is poised to bring their learnings from the Brewerytown initiative to other Philadelphia neighborhoods. They attribute their success to a strategic focus on one area at a time. By concentrating on Brewerytown, they achieved economies of scale.
“Every project you do benefits every other project you do,” says founding partner Roller.