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Meet the 2013 Curbed Young Guns: Ari Heckman

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Many of the 2013 Young Guns have deep family ties to design, architecture, or real estate, but Ari Heckman, 30, has roots in all three, from his mom, a residential interior designer, and his dad, "an amateur real estate investor," to his grandfather, an architect. "I think it was really through him that the different strands of my background coalesced and I realized that I wanted to be in an industry centered around design and real estate, but I didn't want to be an architect," Heckman, 30, says. "I say that mostly because he would always tell me that the real estate developer—the owner—is the one who makes the decisions. That made an impression very early on."

After graduating from the architecture school at Cornell, Heckman moved to Argentina for a little while and returned to his native Providence to work for developer Arnold "Buff" Chace, a new urbanism pioneer who "was definitely a mentor in making me understand development in a more holistic way," Ash recalls about working on large-scale revitalization projects around the city. "It was cool because it wasn't just about converting these buildings into a new use, it was actually about creating a neighborhood. It was an opportunity to invent something."

Eventually Heckman moved to NYC and landed a job at the Brooklyn-based firm Cayuga Capital Management. "New York was new to me and managing these types of projects—hiring the architects, engineers, all the contractors—was an amazing opportunity to jump in, trial by fire," he says. It was there where he met Jonathan Minkoff; the two sat next to each other and talked about investments they could get into on their own. Finally an opportunity opened up in Providence, and they compiled a little investor group to purchase a multi-family apartment building.

Nearly simultaneously, Cayuga was finishing up work on a residential project in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Just as the building was getting ready to open, Heckman was asked to do the model apartment. "Even though I come from a design family and a design background," he says, "I had't really done much design work other than specifying finishes and my own apartment, of course. But I threw together a model apartment and I had a lot of fun doing it." Pleased with Heckman's work, the the marketing brokerage firm asked if he would do something similar for another client.

With a development firm and a design firm burgeoning simultaneously, Heckman and Minkoff left Cayuga and founded ASH NYC in 2008. "At first we were scraping together trying to make ends meet," Heckman says, "and then it kind of snowballed. We started buying one building, then another building, and fast forward to today, and we're an interesting, integrated, strange company in that we do development work, acquisition work, design work, and staging."

Describing Heckman's approach, architect and Young Guns panelist Alexander Gorlin prefers the word "inventive" to "strange." "He sees developments as something than more than constuction of something, but all the way through the entire aesthetic experience, including the interiors and accessories," Gorlin says. "He's the new face of development where you're concerned about every detail—not just bathrooms and kitchens, but how you actually live in the space. In many ways, more developers should really think like that, because then you might actually design apartments you can furnish."

Heckman's projects at the moment range from development and design projects and design-only projects. The former category includes the gut-reno of two historic Manhattan townhouses into high-end rental units with ground-floor commercial space (earlier this year, ASH opened a pop-up store in that very commercial space, offering home accessories, artwork, lighting, and books); a 52-room Providence hotel carved into a 1912 building that was once a strip club and a brothel; and a 75,000-square-foot mixed-use development on an old factory in Bushwick, Brooklyn, with 80 residential units and retail space. The later category includes high-end residential design jobs for private clients, as well as model units and staging jobs using pieces from the enormous inventory of furniture that ASH rents out to developers and marketing teams.

Here, Heckman talks "holistic development," obsessing over P-traps, foraying into hotel design:

On growing up in Providence:
"In the early '90s there was a period of a lot of change in that particular city, where large-scale public projects were occurring—the uncovering and relocating of rivers and railroad tracks, and high-profile civic projects. Given that it's a fairly small city, it's not difficult to get very involved in things. I witnessed as a kid that you could make these really significant land-use changes; when people say, Oh, they're doing this, they're doing that, I felt there was a poetntial to become part of the 'they' pretty easily and actually get a sense of how these massive civic projects work and how one could be a stakeholder in that. I think that's kind of empowering. I don't know if I would have learned that had I grown up in either a much larger city or a place that wasn't experiencing a lot of dynamic change. It was very cool." On what he loves most about working in real estate:
"What drew me into real estate—catchall term—is how interdisciplinary it is. It's a way to bring together history, architecture, design, finance, public policy, law; you kind of have to be fluent in all these things and a generalist and a specialist at the same time. So when I look back on my growing up, there were a lot of ingredients and elements that were really important to making my career what it is today." On that first model apartment job, at 44 Berry Street in Brooklyn:
"It brought together some of my interests in design and it was almost like a hobby at first. But I was also intrigued because it felt like there was an opportunity to create a new type of staging—for lack of a better word—that was a little bit more interesting, a little more organic, and didn't rely on going to CB2 and buying a lot of things. It felt more true to life to the buildings that we were bringing to market."

On staging ?:
"We're not just approaching a project from the perspective of how should this apartment look? and then we're done. We're really thinking about the market and the demographic and we just know a lot of that information because we work on the development side, too. So I think our staging work and our design work for new buildings is really tied to our real estate knowledge as much as it is design."

On ASH's first NYC development and design project ?:
"One of our first projects we did in New York was a small condo project in Greenpoint [Brooklyn] that had originally been a failed project; the previous developer had defaulted on their loan and we negotiated a complex takeover from the lender. The building was, say, 90 percent complete but the finishes were totally wrong for the market and it was clear that if they brought that product to market it either wouldn't sell or it would leave a lot of value on the table. We went about doing something that for many people would have been counterintuitive: we pretty much dismantled most of the finished work that had been done, we ripped out all the kitchens and the bathrooms, and we decided we wanted to put a new façade on the building. We were very strategic in where we were spending money, but we weren't afraid to make these sort of improvements and undo things that had been done. When we brought that project to market, which was in January of this year, it sold out on opening night. Part of it was good luck and good timing; after all, we bought it in the depths of the recession and now the market has improved. But I think it was also creating something that was just right for the market, and that's really what we strive to do in all of our development projects. We say, OK, where's the opportunity in this neighborhood, what feels right? You always want to be giving a particular place what it wants but also push the envelope a little bit."

On his very first hotel project, The Dean in Providence ?:
"We've never done a hotel before, so it's a totally new asset class. We're also the developers and the designers on this, and it's much more complicated than doing a residential building. There's so many components, from the branding and the PR to every level of finish to the binders that hold the collateral in the rooms. We're extremely detail oriented; Will Cooper, the creative director of ASH—he oversees all of those design decisions and details—and I spend countless hours analyzing things that no one will ever notice, I'm sure. A silly example is in bathrooms when the P-trap doesn't match the finish color of the shower or faucets, and it's very hard to find anything that's not just chrome. So we'll bring whatever our P-trap is to our powder coater to have him match the finish. I don't think anyone will ever notice it, but when I walk into a space it's very obvious when someone's thought through these details—not necessarily every one of those details, but it's the sum of its parts." On developers being detail-obsessed—or not?
"I'm not sure I'm in a position to say that they should be, but it is one of the things we've sought to define our company by that sets us apart in some sense. A lot of developers have specific talents or things they're good at, and I think for us this is one area where I think we can excel, and people always really do appreciate about our projects. And the other thing that I kind of see as a guiding principle of our company is that a lot of these decisions that we make—they're not necessarily more expensive. It's not like we have unlimited budgets. It's just that thinking about things a little further though so that you get a better end product."

On "holistic development":
"One is the idea of envisioning all the details of the project and realizing that everything from the color of the P-trap to the font you're using in your marketing materials all convey some kind of message. And if you're putting product out to a market that you want to either buy it or rent it or stay in it, all those things add up. Another element, which relates back to my education in new urbanism and urban development, is thinking about how your project interacts with the community. I think it's easy for a lot of developers to say, This is my building, this is my project, and think about it in a very singular way, but most of our projects are in urban environments with complicated neighborhoods that have a lot of different stakeholders. I would feel like I wasn't doing my job if our projects didn't integrate into the community and at least bring some kind of aesthetic value or something that improves their location instead of detracts from it. I think there is a civic component to development, even though it is private property. I don't mean to sound altruistic—obviously development is a for-profit business—but I don't think you necessarily have to build crap."

On goals for the future:
"We've already started to develop a little bit of a reputation for being an innovative design and development company that's working from a little bit of a different model. There are some that already exist, but people who've been in the industry for decades are constantly telling us that our approach is sort of different. So my goal is to become better and better at that and gain more of a reputation as a premier development design firm. That excites me. On a more specific level, I'd love to work on a large-scale redevelopment project like what I was working on in Providence where you're changing a whole series of buildings and a little bit of a neighborhood, and I think doing that within existing historic fabric is really exciting." On the idea of working on massive residential skyscrapers:
"I could, but it's not automatically what excites me. The things that are really monolithic are less exciting to me than the sort of creation of neighborhoods or communities. So, I think it could be fun and interesting, but it also find of feels a little bit one note to me. I'm more interested in creating really unique boutique residential buildings. I like working in all segments of the market. We're not purely high-end developers, we're not affordable housing developers. I like the mix." · ASH NYC [official site]
· All Young Guns 2013 coverage [Curbed National]