Wrong turn is the right move for nonprofit

OneTwoSee business partners Jason Angelides (left) and Chris Reynolds (right) will be the first tenants in the space. The deal was arranged by leasing agent C. Andrew McGowan.
OneTwoSee business partners Jason Angelides (left) and Chris Reynolds (right) will be the first tenants in the space. The deal was arranged by leasing agent C. Andrew McGowan. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)

A bit of serendipity and an organizer's persistence pay off in office space for a green-business incubator.

Posted: December 04, 2011

Zoe Selzer spent much of 2011 searching the city's building stock - from Northern Liberties to West Philadelphia - for a landlord willing to house what organizers believe is the region's first incubator exclusively for green businesses.

What she heard was "no" in a variety of ways.

That's because what she wanted along with about 5,000 square feet was to have that space at a drastically low rent or, preferably, no rent at all.

"Nobody is ever going to do that for you," Selzer recalled was one response.

Then one day this past summer, Selzer, executive director of Green Village Philadelphia, the nonprofit organization behind the incubator project, headed through the wrong door on the way to a business meeting. The mistake just might have saved the incubator from being scrapped before it even got started.

Instead of walking into the Philadelphia headquarters of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that July day, Selzer found herself just around the corner in the lobby of 1650 Arch St., a 27-story office building that was licking a serious wound. A major tenant, the Wolf Block law firm, had dissolved without warning in 2009, rendering a building that had been almost fully occupied to more than 40 percent vacant.

Standing in that just-renovated lobby when Selzer arrived was C. Andrew McGowan of Jones Lang LaSalle, the building's leasing agent. He happened to mention there was some empty space available, to which Selzer replied: "But I need it to be cheap or free."

McGowan's response: "Let's talk about that."

Selzer explained Green Village's vision of helping cultivate environmental and social entrepreneurs by providing them with work space at minimal cost and without the commitment of a long-term lease, a particular financial hardship for start-up companies.

McGowan said the idea of gaining the Greenhouse Business Incubator as a tenant was appealing on a number of levels, despite the small space it wanted to fill - at reduced rates.

Property owner Behringer Harvard, a privately held real-estate investment trust in Addison, Texas, was in the process of renovating the building to make it not only more aesthetically appealing, but greener, McGowan said. Changes that have since taken place include the replacement of heating and cooling units with more energy-efficient systems, the addition of windows to allow more natural lighting, and the commissioning of a large wall hanging made entirely from recycled items, including plastic utensils, prescription bottles and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle dolls.

The building, a 553,000- square-foot, 1970s expansion of the former headquarters for the Insurance Co. of North America, already had a green leaning with the EPA occupying its first 14 floors. The agency's main entrance is on 17th Street instead of the Arch Street door Selzer had wandered through in July. Wolf Block had occupied most of the rest of the building. Its now-empty offices, with sweeping views of the city, still bear nameplates of the lawyers who once drafted litigation and prepared for trial there.

It would be a less awe-inspiring portion of the 19th floor that would most appeal to Selzer. It is a dozen small offices plus a kitchen where Wolf Block's information technology department was housed. The incubator, which will lease desk space for $275 a month to emerging companies of one to five employees, didn't need fancy, just affordable functionality, Selzer said.

Her interest was actually a help, McGowan said. Given how chopped up that space is and its restricted views - essentially the sides of neighboring buildings - it was most likely going to be the last of 1650 Arch to be leased, he said.

McGowan encouraged Behringer Harvard to let it go to Green Village under a one-year license agreement - with an option to extend - at a price he would only describe as "well below market rate."

Behringer Harvard agreed, finding Green Village's mission "consistent with our repositioning of this asset, where we are focused on sustainability and energy efficiency," said Deidre Hardister, a vice president of asset management. "Also, our hopes are that their clients succeed and grow to become long-term tenants."

"You sort of saved us," a beaming Selzer told McGowan last week as both led a reporter on a tour of Greenhouse Business Incubator's first home.

He deflected the credit, saying it was "one of those very serendipitous occasions." In a boom time, the deal would not have been possible, McGowan said.

Greenhouse accepts its first company later this week: OneTwoSee, a technology company that provides platforms for television networks and other broadcasters to deliver an interactive experience through mobile phones, tablets and personal computers.

Co-owner Chris Reynolds praised the incubator for providing "a tremendous amount of flexibility at a very affordable rate." OneTwoSee has selected an office with a view of the Comcast tower - for inspiration and more.

"We're actually in the middle of working a deal with Comcast SportsNet," a chuckling Reynolds said. "The proximity couldn't be more advantageous."

For Selzer, 28, who hasn't been paid since September, a functioning incubator will likely mean she can soon be paid again.

"We expect her to be able to start taking a salary within the first quarter of next year," said Joe Guagliardo, an information-technology lawyer at Pepper Hamilton L.L.P. and co-chair of Green Village's board of directors.

Selzer, who has a master's degree in urban planning, moved to this area from Colorado in late 2008 to do public policy research and community development work at Rutgers University in Camden before joining Green Village almost two years ago.

Guagliardo praised her as having "all the qualities that a good entrepreneur should have - one of which is sticking with it."

Contact staff writer Diane Mastrull at 215-854-2466, dmastrull@phillynews.com or @mastrud on Twitter.