The DJN chats with the real estate developer who invests his time and energy into revitalizing the city of Detroit.
By Allison Jacobs
Photos courtesy Jordan Wolfe
1. You “accidentally” fell into real estate – how did this happen, and what has contributed to your success.
When I moved back to Detroit in 2008 from San Francisco, I immediately immersed myself and founded CommunityNEXT, an arm of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit that focused on attraction and retention of young talent. I never thought I would end up in community work, coming from working at a private equity firm on the west coast, but this was an opportunity to leverage my business and investing background and apply it to my hometown. The program was subsequently rolled into the NEXTGen department, which continues today.
During my time at CommunityNEXT, I met Dan Gilbert as part of my community building effort to attract and retain talent and he asked me to join his team as a consultant on the initial Detroit strategy. Matt Lester, CEO of Princeton Management, was interested in investing in Detroit and asked if I would be interested in partnering. Both Dan and Matt played integral roles in how I got involved in real estate.
I looked at Detroit from this perspective: Detroit had plenty of buildings, but not many people being intentional around programming space to bring diverse talent together. My philosophy was return on community rather than investment.
I purchased Claridge House in June 2012 and renovated the 60,000 square foot, 45-unit apartment building downtown in a Joint Venture with Princeton Management. I developed the second floor into a shared working space, the Department of Alternatives, for for-profit companies solving civic and social issues. Businesses grew out of the space and expanded to their own locations.
With Matt’s mentorship on the commercial real estate side and getting my “Detroit development education” on the first two developments we worked on, I formally launched Town Partners with Kyle Polk in 2013.
2. Over the course of 7 years you’ve built up an impressive portfolio consisting of 700,000 square feet representing $100 million in current and planned development, all in downtown Detroit. What types of properties do you look for?
Our strategy with Town Partners was “place-based,” meaning the first prerequisite was that each property was located in our neighborhoods of focus (Eastern Market and Milwaukee Junction). Our acquisition strategy was first focused on underutilized buildings. The owners of the properties typically took care of things like windows, roofing, HVAC and plumbing. This allowed us to be able to rent space fairly quickly and allowed us to provide reasonable rental rates. After the underutilized properties, we then focused on individually important pieces of the puzzle to assemble continuous pieces of property and land.
3. How did you get involved with Develop Detroit, a non-profit organization geared toward mixed-income communities and single-family homes?
I read an article on Develop Detroit when they first launched, and it instantly caught my eye because they represented the type of development company that was needed in Detroit. Their mission was to focus on more equitable development but took a market-based approach. Our companies’ missions were aligned, and speaking truthfully, the market was unfortunately not going to allow two young guys to build a ground-up $70 million without additional partners.
Part of our goal is to help be an example of a millennial-led development group to help create a path for other millennial developers and to get a diversity of perspective and age involved. At the moment, we are working with Develop Detroit on the Eastern Market Gateway.
4. Where do you think Detroit is at in terms of real progress and what are additional goals you have in mind?
The city of Detroit has one very special thing that will stand the test of generations: An amazing group of no-nonsense, resilient people with a roll-your-sleeves-up, blue-collar mentality. This is the spirit of Detroit, which will ensure the city will endure. I chose to focus my work 100% on Detroit because of the opportunity to change systems, think differently around community and economic development and create new solutions for civic and social issues. There was also an opportunity to re-imagine how to re-populate and densify areas of the city that were largely vacant.
My main goal has been to get the public, private and philanthropic sectors coordinated, get ahead of the private sector where the growth was headed and have consensus in investing in the “ethos” of a place by creating truly innovative financing products to make small, creative development possible. We need to have agreement on what will differentiate Detroit for generations to come and invest in that common ethos.
Another goal we were successful with, and hope to continue on a broader scale, is private-led impact investment. Many of our investors are local and had an interest in contributing to the city from an investment perspective. We were able to deliver venture capital level returns to our investors backed by real estate. I am convinced that there are several more impact oriented real estate investment strategies that can have similar return characteristics.
5. In the past you’ve worked for the Jewish Federation in Metropolitan Detroit as director of its young professional program CommunityNEXT and helped create Come Play Detroit. How do you continue to stay connected to the local Jewish community in your current role?
More recently, I have transitioned the way I support the Jewish community through my professional endeavors. I like to work with other driven, young Jewish entrepreneurs within my core business and provide informal mentorship for people interested in getting involved in Detroit. I proudly contribute to Federation’s Annual Campaign, as I very strongly believe in our community.
6. When you’re not busy working on Detroit’s development, how do you like to spend your time?
My wife is originally from Paris, so French culture has become a big part of my life. I am spending more time in Europe and currently learning the language. Other hobbies include cooking and travel—we were recently in South Africa on a Safari and went to Mozambique as well. I also take, “self-care” and, “wellness” very seriously. I really enjoy playing competitive basketball and practicing transcendental meditation. I also am currently training for my first Spartan Race.
Jordan Wolfe is co-founder and CEO at Town Partners, a Detroit-based real estate investment and development firm. Founded in 2013, Town Partners has built a portfolio of over 500,000 square feet of commercial real estate in the city of Detroit with a market value of more than $30 million across multi-family, retail and light industrial asset classes. Prior to founding Town Partners, Jordan started two 501(c)(3) organizations, CommunityNEXT and Detroit Harmonie. Most recently, Jordan was a partner at Evidence-Based Literacy Instruction, a company that provides professional development and onsite coaching to K-12 educators in its proprietary method of instruction to teach reading. Before moving back to Detroit, Jordan was an investment professional at Mainsail Partners, a San Francisco-based private equity firm focused on investing in software and services companies, and worked in the investment banking division of Credit Suisse First Boston and ThinkEquity Partners, where he advised private and public technology companies on equity and M&A transactions.