In May, the Dallas-based Howard Hughes Corp. appointed industry veteran John DeWolf senior vice president. From his base of Columbia, he’ll lead the strategic development of not only the local planned community, but other projects in Alexandria, Va., and Princeton, N.J.
He comes on board at a key time in Columbia’s history: That is, after the approval of its Town Center Master Plan, which calls for the creation of up to 13 million square feet of mixed-used development. It’s planned to include up to 5,500 residential units, approximately 1 million square feet of retail, approximately 5 million square feet of commercial office space and 640 hotel rooms.
DeWolf brings more than 30 years of real estate experience to his new engagement. Most recently, he ran his own consulting practice, leading real estate strategy, portfolio management and startup guidance for multi-billion-dollar businesses.
He also has served as executive vice president real estate/strategic initiatives for New York & Co., where he oversaw the addition of 225 stores, the closing of 100 and the downsizing of more than 250. Additionally, as head of strategic initiatives, he managed the development of two accessory store concepts and four new store prototypes.
Previously, DeWolf had senior leadership roles with New England Development, Woolworth Corp. and The Disney Stores.
DeWolf began his career as real estate counsel for The Pyramid Companies after spending more than 10 years with The Limited as its first in-house attorney. He eventually co-led the company’s real estate department, reporting directly to company CEO Les Wexner. In one year, he oversaw the addition of 700 new stores that encompassed more than 2 million square feet to the company’s retail base. He also supervised the initial development of Easton, a 1,000-acre, mixed-used project adjacent to The Limited’s Columbus, Ohio, headquarters.
DeWolf graduated twice from Syracuse University, earning a B.S. in 1977 and his J.D. in 1979.
You’ve been running a consulting practice in recent years. How big was it, and what did you do?
It was my own LLC. I worked by myself for a handful of companies, but mainly for one developer who was in the running to take over the failed Meadowlands Xanadu project (now known as American Dream Meadowlands) in New Jersey. I also worked for several companies in the retail field, looking to promote expansion, etc.
What made you want to make the jump back into the corporate world?
I’d worked with one of the board members here at Howard Hughes, Adam Flatto, who connected me with the people who are running the business from our Dallas headquarters, David Weinreb and Grant Herlitz. One conversation led to another and … .
What made you switch from the legal side to the executive side of the commercial real estate industry?
I’d always been a commercial real estate attorney. About halfway though my time at The Limited, I became engaged in the executive side of the industry when I worked on a variety of special projects, notably around a shopping center in Columbus called Easton (also the name of Jim Rouses’s hometown on Maryland’s Eastern Shore), an open air shopping center which is now the home of a 1,000-acre, mixed-use development with extensive residential and office properties on its perimeter. It’s a lifestyle town center-type of development that I started working on in the early days of mixed-use in the late ’80s.
What are you initial impressions concerning what you see — and would like to see — in Columbia Town Center?
I inherited a well-conceived master plan, which is a very good thing. What we’re looking to do now is execute it. On that note, we’re looking to announce a couple of projects in the next month or so.
What strikes you as different about Columbia, as opposed to other places where you’ve worked?
This area is rich with the history that you associate with The Rouse Co. and Jim Rouse. It’s a very different place for that reason. If you’re in this business, this is one place where you come to see a project that is very well done; and I can say likewise about The Woodlands in Houston, which is another Rouse community, and Summerlin in Las Vegas, which Howard Hughes started and Rouse took over in 1997.
Columbia is known for having numerous special interest groups and a keenly educated population. How do you plan to work with the people and keep them appeased while focusing on the start of construction?
It can be tough to get everyone and everything on one page, but much of that was synthesized before I arrived, so I’m lucky in that way. I see my primary engagement here as being the primary connection of the corporation to all of those groups and working with them to execute the plan.
What are your key strengths?
I’ve been saying since I got here that I might not have been the right person to conceive the plan, but I am the right person to turn the plan into action. I’m a dealmaker by nature, and I know how to get things done.
What do you consider your greatest professional successes?
I would say building the Walt Disney Square on 5th Avenue in New York in 1993. Another highlight was being part of the first group to sell the Woolworth Building, also in New York, in the late ’90s. We sold it for more than $125 million. And I take a great deal of pride in having assembled the land for the Easton project, as well as creating the initial layout and conceiving the traffic plan.
What will be your first moves in Columbia Town Center?
I think we’re going to focus on the properties around the mall, starting with the Rouse Company building. That’s it for now. Bear in mind that I’ve been coming here two or three times a year for as long as I’ve been in the business, so if you came to Columbia looking to make a deal, you came here. But now, the actual deal will be right in front of me.
My focus will be repurposing existing buildings before taking advantage of the enormous opportunity with the property around Merriweather Post Pavilion to add office and residential properties, and maybe some other types of projects with specific purposes. We see Merriweather as being the centerpiece that spurs the design of everything that will happen around it.
Speaking of Merriweather, what’s in the cards for the pavilion?
I’ve spent quite a bit of time with Seth [Hurwitz, Merriweather’s promoter, of I.M.P.] already and we’re working on a longer-term agreement with his company as we speak. He has great plans, and we all want a longer-term vision in place for Merriweather.
You’ve been in the commercial real estate business for more than three decades. What previous position prepared you the most for this new challenge?
The Easton project. Easton was a cornfield, so it came from the ground up, as Columbia did. But what’s really interesting about Easton is that the centerpiece of the project, a regional shopping center, featured an arc of properties that are similar to those that surround The Mall in Columbia.
Can you offer any kind of a timeline for the redevelopment of Town Center?
The plan is in place, and we are conceiving projects as they relate to the plan. The next step is to get specific approvals, which could take about a year for each project.