Hawking $22 matte nail polish in black, powder and calamine, designed by Hedwig and the Angry Inch makeup artist Mike Potter, was not part of Aaron McCann’s original career plan. Mr. McCann, 31, wanted to work in commercial real estate.
He had abysmal timing. The capital advisory firm at which Mr. McCann had been working laid him off in late 2008.
At a January party Mr. McCann organized for young professionals at Stone Rose Lounge in the Time Warner Center, longtime developer Francis Greenburger described the commercial real estate market thusly: “This is as bad a cycle as I can remember.”
Mr. Greenburger is 60.
The real estate industry may be in thrall to the stumbles and intrigues of the mighty, the foibles and foreclosures that trip up the Macklowes and Swigs and Solows of the world. But, for countless young up-and-comers, those who dream of bricks and mortar and making a tangible mark on the stone-cold city landscape, this downturn has hit home hard. They are being laid off. They are graduating into a market that has no room for the likes of young upstarts. They are trying to chart a course in an ever-more-confusing landscape.
On Friday, March 13, Jenna Mitchell, 25 and oval-faced, sat in the Sunburst Espresso Bar, the coffee shop near her Stuy Town apartment that has become her de facto office, an impersonal wooden two-top serving as the desk where she composes carefully worded cover letters and browses through online wanted ads.
Ms. Mitchell, in jeans, sneakers and a gray, flower-lined sweater, dropped into her seat and ordered a French vanilla coffee with soy milk. Her long brown hair was swept back into a disheveled knot, revealing dark brown, thickly lashed eyes. On her left hand, she wore two rings, one on her thumb, another on her ring finger. She was laid off on the first Tuesday of the New Year, one week after her boyfriend, a third-year medical student, proposed.
Given her qualifications, naked intellect and unabashed love of real estate, Ms. Mitchell is something of a wasted resource. She earned a degree in city planning from Cornell in 2006 and a master’s in real estate development from Columbia in 2007, and along with a number of internships, she worked 18 months as an associate project manager at a boutique real estate firm, from which she was ultimately let go. Now, she survives on the beneficence of her parents, both Boston real estate lawyers, and the moral support of her fiancé.
“It’s tough, because, you know, we’re adults, and our parents still support us,” Ms. Mitchell said. “We want to be off on our own.”
Sometimes she gets lunch with real estate friends who work nearby, and they take her on tours of their ongoing projects. Afternoons like that make her “sad.” “It makes me want to be out there so badly,” she said.
She burns off her anxieties at the gym, surrounded by the heaving bodies of the fellow unemployed. Her midday, midweek gym classes are packed. Snippets of conversation—“interview this,” “recruiter that”—float through the air. Sometimes she escapes to museums, or to movies, like the one she shamefacedly admitted to seeing last Thursday: He’s Just Not That Into You.
HERE’S THE THING about this economy: It’s horrible and awful and incredibly painful for so many people, but for those who are nimble and brave and don’t have responsibilities, i.e., for those who are young, it’s also a great leveler, knocking the legs out from under the big guys, and giving the little guys a chance to grow.
Or so argues Jack Heaney, founder of the year-and-a-half-old Fulcrum. Mr. Heaney, 29, is nothing if not a talented salesman.
To get to Fulcrum’s stylishly outfitted workspace, one must enter a derelict Bleecker Street office shanty and trust one’s fate to a grimy elevator with dented walls and “Left 4 Dead,” scrawled in black marker on a porthole-shaped window.
Mr. Heaney, originally from Chicago’s South Side, has wide-set blue eyes and a strong chin. That Friday morning, he wore a black blazer, a collarless black shirt and jeans.
“The economy is a great leveler,” said Mr. Heaney, as he began to lay out the case for why young bucks like he and his partner, Brooks Crowley, could exploit the down market, first by using non–recourse construction debt from HUD, and second by working with people whom larger developers wouldn’t deign to deal with.
Fulcrum is a development and asset-management consultant company. At the moment, Mr. Heaney is working on ground-up projects in the Rockaways and in West Philadelphia, and is consulting with developers on the Upper West Side.
“Hopefully, at the end of the cycle, we’ll build up enough of a nest egg to compete with the bigger guys,” Mr. Heaney said.
“There’s a great transfer of wealth from the haves to the have-nots,” chimed in Mr. Crowley, 28, who was recently laid off from a private-equity firm that invested in real estate. Mr. Crowley sat across from Mr. Heaney at the conference table, all fair-haired good looks, in a yellow buttoned-down shirt and pinstriped suit.
“That’s how Related got started; they started off doing HUD deals,” said Mr. Heaney, who, at times, jiggled his leg with enthusiasm.
Mr. Crowley noted that Sam Zell’s rise started unconventionally, too; in his case, investing in distressed assets.
Does Mr. Crowley want to be the next Sam Zell?
“I wouldn’t mind owning a baseball team,” he said. “I like the Cubs.”
RAMON MAISLEN arrived a few minutes early to a meeting on the second floor of a Flatiron coffee shop. He sat down at a window-side table, his healthy biceps rising beneath a black muscle shirt, the late morning sun streaking down into the 20th Street canyon, through the window, and across the right side of his face.
Mr. Maislen is the president of his 95-person master’s program in development at Columbia University’s architecture school, and an intern at Fulcrum. He and the others in his program have the misfortune of graduating into one of the worst job markets in decades.
“I think it’s pretty bad,” Mr. Maislen said. “I think it’s really bad.”
So, apparently, does every developer that’s spoken at his school this year. “I think people [in my class] are almost immune to it at this point, because basically every single speaker that’s come in has told us this is basically the worst economic situation they’ve ever experienced, and they’re over 60. So it’s basically just a joke amongst us at this point. We realize how bad it is and there is, nothing we can do but laugh.”
Mr. Maislen, who has the Hebrew words for “understanding” and “wisdom” tattooed on the inside of his upper arms, said he, for one, is not frightened.
“I’m an eternal optimist; that’s why I want to be a developer,” he said. “I’m not nervous. I don’t know why I’m not nervous. I’m just not. I think that it’s going to be O.K.”
Mr. Maislen graduates in May and is applying to a job at the city’s Economic Development Corporation. He’s also thinking about starting some sort of firm with a couple of his classmates.
“It’s like a hamster’s wheel,” he said. “And you just jump in. At whatever moment, you just jump in. It’s not that I lost tons of money in the downturn, because I didn’t have tons of money to begin with. So I can only go up from here.”
ON A THURSDAY in mid-February, Mr. McCann met me for a drink at the Trump Bar, on the ground floor of Donald Trump’s midtown skyscraper. It was the same location where, in December 2005 and November 2007, Mr. McCann hosted industry parties for more than 1,000 people a pop.
As Harsh Toprani, the managing director of another real estate start-up, Corbel Capital, put it, “Among some people, Mr. McCann is more famous than Donald Trump.”
He was exaggerating, of course. Nevertheless, Mr. McCann gets around.
At the 2007 party at Trump Bar, the Donald himself stopped by, striding over to Mr. McCann and asking, “So you’re the one who put this together?” Mr. McCann said yes. He asked Mr. Trump to pose for a photo with him. Mr. Trump obliged.
Fifteen months later, sipping a Manhattan cocktail, light on the sweet vermouth, Mr. McCann talked about his recent layoff, his unlikely foray into the makeup business and the real estate market in general. Mr. McCann, who lives in Williamsburg, wore jeans with a gaping hole in the left knee, a stylish hoodie and spiky hair.
His voice was low-pitched, his eyelids languid, his overall air a touch laconic. “I’m a Type B extrovert,” he explained. “Most extroverts are Type A.”
Mr. McCann comes from Omaha, son of an absentee steelworker and a former nun. He has 35 first cousins. He says he’s loved real estate ever since he was a babe.
“Buildings and people are my two favorite things in the world, which made [coming to] New York a no-brainer.”
He moved here about eight years ago, ultimately getting a gig as an analyst at a real estate capital advisory firm in 2005. He got laid off in the second quarter of 2008.
So he started looking for opportunities elsewhere. The makeup artist friend of his, Mike Potter, suggested they start a company. And so was borne Knock Out Cosmetics, which specializes in matte nail polish and opened its first counter in February, at Henri Bendel no less. DailyCandy called the polish “powerful, elegant, iconic,” and InStyle magazine named it an editor’s pick this March.
“You have to do whatever it takes to survive,” said Mr. McCann, who is also holding down two bartending jobs, one at Heathers, the other at Local 138.
“I’m also continuing to host my real estate events, because I feel they’re important in times like these.”
Which brings us back to the party Mr. McCann hosted at Stone Rose on Jan. 28. The room and the mood harked back to a pre-Lehman era. Through the glass curtain wall, the bar overlooked the gray facade of the Museum of Arts and Design. Lights from neighboring apartment houses twinkled like relics of a happier season.
Francis Greenburger, the industry veteran, encouraged his young audience not to give up on real estate just yet. “Our job, today and frankly always, is to find exceptions to the rule,” Mr. Greenburger said. “If it was easy, everybody would be successful.
“We also know the times are ripe with opportunity for those who can see beyond the doom and gloom.”
The talk wrapped up.
The hundreds of young professionals in the room saluted Mr. Greenburger with whistles and cheers.