"We believe in cities." The statement was made among a group of New Yorkers, so while it didn't sound revolutionary, it made an impression just the same.
That's because the guy who said it, Jonathan Minkoff, helped found a company that not only deeply believes in the growth and potential of American cities, but aims to participate in that growth in a holistic way.
Minkoff founded ASH NYC with his partner Ari Heckman in 2008. The two met while working for a Brooklyn-based development firm ("we sat next to each other," says Heckman) and they both had grand ambitions and entrepreneurial spirits, if not a clear vision of what they wanted to do in the real estate world.
So they decided to quit their jobs, and with a one year non-compete closure in New York, invest in a nine-unit college housing apartment in Providence, Rhode Island. They rented a small office in Greenpoint, although, as Heckman says, "We went in to work, but weren't really sure what we were doing."
Eventually, a business emerged: Minkoff and Heckman continued to invest in properties, while Heckman picked up work staging properties, a talent he learned at his previous job. "For awhile, we had two little companies operating side-by-side in one office," says Heckman.
They brought in Will Cooper, who is ASH's Creative Director, to change that. Cooper had a corporate background at Ralph Lauren, where there was "a focus on vertical integration," he says. "I knew we could do something bigger at ASH." After lots of discussion on cost benefits and the type of company they envisioned, the team decided to create a single company that would have a multi-pronged approach to development. "It wasn't an easy decision, but it was the right one," says Heckman.
Their mantra, as Cooper puts it, is "a holistic perspective on design and development." The firm would not only invest and develop property throughout the country, primarily in urban areas, but also prioritize interior design and staging. As it's summarized on ASH's website: "We aspire to bridge the worlds of interior design and property development."
Early projects by the integrated firm took off. ASH purchased a stalled condo project in Greenpoint in 2011, renovated the apartments with luxury finishes, and sold them all above ask on the opening night of the building. In 2012, the firm bought a rundown former brothel in Providence and proceeded to restore the historic 1911 building into a stylish 52-room hotel called The Dean. This summer, Thrillist rated it the best boutique hotel in Rhode Island.
The projects proved that people, especially young urbanites, responded to the type of custom design ASH wanted to create. "The numbers must make sense," says Minkoff, "And we found that design creates a big profit margin." He notes that if done right, custom cabinetry can cost around the same price as its mass-produced counterpart, and buyers prefer it custom.
As the firm grew, Minkoff, Heckman and Cooper took on a diverse staff to tackle the different realms of the company. "It's not usual to have a junior interior designer sitting next to a junior analyst sitting next to a construction manager," says Heckman, who was named a Curbed Young Gun in 2013.
"But that's what we have." Since Heckman was first recognized, the firm has only continued to mature, and ASH prioritizes collaboration across all projects in the pipeline and between all the 20-some employeesall of who are under 35 years old and Young Guns in their own right. It's what Heckman calls "open office osmosis."
"This is not an architect farm," says Cooper. "We want people to function across multiple platforms of the business and develop stuff themselves."
Current work taken on by ASH indicates the firm's desire for big, bold projects. As Heckman says, "We don't do straightforward, easy projects." The firm recently acquired the former Dannenhoffer's Opalescent Glassworks factory in Bushwick, a site "where most people would knock it down," Heckman admits. "But if we have the opportunity to salvage, we do."
This is the first project ASH will incorporate new buildings with the old, creating a 70,000-square-foot mixed-use development with 63 apartments, commercial space, and a green roof. Renderings of apartment interiors show soaring beamed ceilings, wood floors and an open floor planthe type of loft space Brooklynites tend to love.
ASH has also invested in Detroit, a place where Minkoff's "we believe in cities" statement couldn't be more important. The firm purchased a 20th century Renaissance Revival building that's been vacant in Downtown Detroit for decades, and "one of the few not owned by Dan Gilbert," says Heckman.
After a difficult financing process, the firm will move ahead on a $21 million hotel conversion that will historically restore the 14-story building with 106 guest rooms, a rooftop bar, and a curated food, beverage and retail program. The project is about twice the size of The Dean, ASH's first hotel undertaken only three years ago.
Talk of Detroit gets the ASH team visibly excited. "We are so excited to be a part of the narrative there, part of the revival," says Heckman. "The grandeur and sprawl of the city was an inspiration for us," adds Cooper. Minkoff says, "This city was so quick to be forgotten. It's sad but also hopeful. It's about tragedy and rebirth."
ASH has found its home in cities, and settled on its sole purpose in them: "We want to identify the highest and best purpose for these buildings," says Heckman. Although the laissez-faire attitude of the early days has not disappeared entirely. "There's no real plan for number of hotels or apartments in the future," Heckman continues. "It's just incremental and organic."