Developer Alon Barzilay stays busy with rental conversions

Alon Barzilay outside the red doors of a former Baptist church that have given a name to his property-management firm.
Alon Barzilay outside the red doors of a former Baptist church that have given a name to his property-management firm. (VIVIANA PERNOT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 22, 2014

Alon Barzilay has done as much in 41 years as many people do in a lifetime.

And that includes what the founder and CEO of Barzilay Development L.L.C. of Philadelphia calls "side businesses," the latest of which is a film project with Germantown Academy pals Bradley Cooper and Brian Klugman that sent him to Los Angeles this summer.

"I'm not quitting my day job," Barzilay, the film's executive producer, said with a laugh. "I'm a real estate developer."

These days, his real estate efforts include the conversion to rental apartments of Greater St. Matthew's Baptist Church at 23d and Fitzwater Streets as Sanctuary Lofts. Eagle Iron Works, at 1156 N. Third St., will become Iron Mill Lofts.

Still more conversions are in the works, including a church in Northern Liberties and the Wilde Yarn Mill across from the Wissahickon SEPTA station.

"I like rescuing old buildings and other challenging projects," he said. "So many churches that could have been saved have been demolished.

"I try to create unique urban experiences where I can," said Barzilay, who grew up at 25th and Spruce Streets and in the suburbs. One such experience is Red Door Residential, his property-management firm, and its slogan, "You can't buy happiness but you can rent it."

"Red Door" refers to the entrances to Sanctuary Lofts, built in 1892 as St. Anthony of Padua Church, then acquired by the Baptist congregation when the Archdiocese of Philadelphia closed it in 1999, and then purchased by Barzilay in 2012 for $2 million.

If you've seen M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense, which was filmed in the neighborhood, you'll remember the doors.

Barzilay is one of several local developers taking advantage of what the real estate investment firm Marcus & Millichap is calling "a course of steady property performance" in the region's multifamily market this year, "created by projected hiring across an array of established industries and favorable demographic trends."

Sanctuary Lofts' 38 units are among 2,000 being developed in Philadelphia, including Center City and University City. Marcus & Millichap's second-quarter survey said higher prices and lower yields on Center City properties "are encouraging investors to broaden their searches to surrounding neighborhoods," like Graduate Hospital, Northern Liberties, East Falls, and Manayunk, "where quality assets, multiple demand drivers, and the opportunity to capture higher yields exist."

To give what Barzilay calls "unique exposure" to his growing number of rental properties, "leasing angels" pilot red motor scooters around Center City armed with iPad minis "and can lease an apartment and take a deposit anywhere."

The idea blends his "urban outlook" - Barzilay owns a scooter, too - and his time as a dot-comer after graduating in 1995 from Cornell University with a degree in industrial labor relations.

"Dot-coms were an exciting young man's industry," he said. He worked for a company that introduced a multiple-listing service for new homes eventually sold to Realtor.com.

Barzilay comes by his interest in real estate development naturally. His father, Zvi, an architect, was president and chief operating officer of Toll Bros. when he retired in 2011 after 31 years with the builder. Mother Dale, a designer, was also a major influence in his career.

The elder Barzilay was instrumental in the development of Toll Bros.' Naval Square, across the street from Sanctuary Lofts, which helped revitalize Southwest Center City.

"I grew up in the industry," Alon Barzilay said. "When your father is foreign-born [Israel], you don't spend much time playing baseball, so all of my heroes growing up were entrepreneurs."

When Toll started an apartment-development company in the Washington area, Barzilay left the tech world, "moved to Virginia, put on a hard hat, and went to work."

Toll was not a brand in the apartment industry, and Barzilay was competing against the big names in the Washington market, including Bozzuto and JPI - players in the Philadelphia market as well.

"Bozzuto was one of the companies I looked up to," he said, but he decided the big guys' "building from the ground up" was not as interesting as repurposing and saving old buildings.

Along the way, Barzilay obtained a master's degree in housing development and real estate from Harvard University in 2001, involved in its Joint Center for Housing Studies "in its infancy," he said. He also worked for the Klein Co., which builds multifamily developments, including the "Dwell" apartments, in this area and Florida.

Then Barzilay went out on his own, partnering on projects with others, including David Waxman on the Water Works offices in the old Labov Plumbing Co. building in Manayunk.

Rescuing buildings is difficult but exciting, Barzilay said, citing Sanctuary Lofts as an example.

"It took a long time to figure out to save it, but we were able to make all the apartments unique, with those who live on the top floor able to see the architectural features out of view of a century and more of worshipers."

"I'm a conductor and composer," Barzilay said. "To make these projects succeed, you need to have all the instruments come in on the same beat."


aheavens@phillynews.com

215-854-2472 @alheavens

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