Mark Toro at age 53 has taken to saying things like, “I’m too old, white, male and straight to know what the intown market is seeking.”
His is a shocking – if not refreshing – approach to one of Atlanta's most watched retail developments: Atlantic Station.
Toro leads Cincinnati-based North American Properties' Atlanta office. In January, it announced it had bought Atlantic Station from its original developers and financiers in a joint venture with CB Richard Ellis Investors. The property had been suffering from a lack of capital while owner AIG resolved its financial issues after the credit markets crashed and started selling its real estate portfolio.
Since buying Atlantic Station, Toro and his management team have taken to the Twitterverse, community meetings and real estate symposiums to openly discuss challenges, such as crime, and invite feedback.
Toro describes the hardships of the recession, the lessons learned and his Generation Y approach to hiring. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: Would you agree North American had a lower profile in Atlanta until it bought Atlantic Station?
A: Yes, it raised our profile not just in Atlanta but nationwide. It’s such a high profile property. Most people perceived it to be a significant challenge that required an intense focus by an owner/operator as opposed to a third party management team.
Q: What do you think makes Atlantic Station such a magnet for attention and sometimes even a lightning rod?
A: Because it is the most successful brownfield redevelopment in the United States and most intense mixed-use redevelopment in the history of the city of Atlanta. With 3,000 residential units, 1.5 million square feet of retail, 1.5 million square feet of office and 6 million square feet left to be built, it’s by far the single most ambitious project ever undertaken in Atlanta. It’s also one of the most hyped. The challenge has been that it hasn't lived up to its hype in some respects.
Q: This has been a difficult time for the real estate industry. What challenged you the most?
A: For essentially 2 1/2 years, after having sold most of our properties, we stopped developing. We laid off 25 people in an eight-month period. It was one of the most difficult periods in my career.
Q: How did North American retool?
A: North American is a 57-year-old company. This was the third major downturn the company has experienced. Very, very notably it has never given a property back to a lender. It’s one of a very few longstanding commercial real estate enterprises that can say that. In the 1990s, we bought toxic properties [after the savings and loan crisis]. We were lucky enough -- in this case, better lucky than good -- to have sold most of our properties at the height of the market. Then we had the courage to pull the plug on our development machine in early 2008 when we saw signs of distress. We had no idea how big the abyss was, but we knew it was growing. In early 2008 we all got together to formulate a plan to buy distressed properties. We looked at 200 deals before we bought Atlantic Station.
Q: Did you consider buying the Streets of Buckhead, the stalled retail project Ben Carter started?
A: That was a unique situation that we didn't pursue. It was extremely, extremely challenged.
Q: Why did you buy Prospect Park, Stan Thomas’ stalled development in Alpharetta?
A: After three years of dormancy, the retail and residential uses proposed are viable again. It will include retail, residential, office and potentially a hotel, though it will be less intense than what Thomas had planned. We’re getting a great response from retailers looking to grow after retooling during the recession and who don't have many options.
Q: Why do you Tweet so much? You have about 750 followers.
A: I thought it was critical to speak the language of our customer. If you look at who lives in apartments, it is young, intown, creative class residents, aged 22 to 35. Our take is that in 2012 there will be more 22-year-olds than ever in the history of man. That generation speaks a language. I like to say I’m too old, white, male and straight to know what the intown market is seeking. What I’m saying is my perspective is not valid, not relevant.
Q: How about Facebook?
A: The Atlantic Station Twitter account has 6,200 followers and the Facebook page has about 15,500. Combined, it’s about 22,000 accounts. We’re able to get instant feedback. That is where we heard about the opposition to charging for parking at Atlantic Station. [Our message] is more relevant and impactful on Twitter or Facebook than a billboard on the connector.
Q: Has this approach changed your hiring?
A: We hired eight people under the age of 27 and have five under 25. They are providing feedback and perspective because they are the consumer base we’re attacking for 2012.
Q: How does all this impact the bottom line?
A: It’s very cost-effective. Since we bought Atlantic Station, we have not spent a nickle on advertising. Eighty percent of the retailers report sales are up by double digits. Our full-time social media team is a relatively nominal expense compared to typical advertising.
Title: Managing partner, North American Properties, Atlanta
Born: New Hyde Park, N.Y.
Raised: Belvidere, N.J.
Education: Rutgers University, civil engineering degree.
Family: Married for 27 years to Nancy. Two daughters, Maria, 25, and Carla, 23.
Hobbies: Flying small planes and skiing.
Favorite place to shop: Online.
Favorite malls: Santana Row in San Jose, Calif., The Grove in Los Angeles and the Ferry Building in San Francisco.
Favorite Tweeter: Richard Florida, author of “The Rise of the Creative Class.”
Business role models: Sam Walton, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and Jim Collins.
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