Building a Values-Driven Real Estate Empire in New York City
Intrapreneur David Neil, Chief Leasing Administrative and Legal Services Officer, shares how focusing on social and environmental impact helps make The Durst Organization one of New York’s most respected and prestigious landlords
This year, The Durst Organization celebrates its centennial. Can you share how a focus on giving back has helped build a sustainable business over the past 100 years?
The Durst culture fosters innovation and entrepreneurship. It was founded by Joseph Durst, a first generation immigrant from Eastern Europe who arrived penniless in New York City in 1905. Like most immigrants, Joseph was scrappy and innovative and the organization has been imbued with this striver mentality since its founding. Joseph considered himself very lucky and had a tremendous appreciation for New York City and this county. He believed that he had an obligation to give back through civic engagement and philanthropy and he, and his wife Rose, taught their children and grandchildren to leave every place better than how you found it. The company continues to live by this philosophy and it has guided the organization’s growth and helped create Durst as one of New York’s premier real estate organizations.
When Douglas and Jody Durst took over management of the company in the early 1990s from Seymour, Roy and David Durst they identified, cultivated, and elevated an important element of the company’s founding principle: integrating ecofriendly and sustainable practices into all aspects of The Durst Organization’s portfolio. Since then, we’ve been a recognized leader in the green building movement, having built the world’s first “green” skyscraper, the first LEED Platinum skyscraper in North America, and integrating more sustainable practices into many of our daily operations.
David, you’ve founded a nonprofit that helps eliminate prejudice in local communities, you’ve launched your own book publishing company, you’ve worked at the country’s first community development bank, and you’ve worked in philanthropy funding innovative projects. How has your own entrepreneurship within the organization advanced Durst’s commitment to social and environmental impact?
Fifteen years ago I attended an SVN conference through the Nathan Cummings Foundation and recall a speaker talking about change within an organization and I took it to heart. I was constantly looking at the challenges of our time and thinking of ways to have a greater social and environmental impact. Organizations with strong cultures and core values create a philosophy that encourages intrapreneurship.
In real estate, changes happen slowly. It’s a conservative industry. But there is a need for differentiation to stay ahead of the pack and find those new trends.
For example, green roofs and outdoor terrace spaces were not on the radar until recently in New York’s commercial real estate market. With an acre of green roofs now installed across our Midtown Manhattan commercial portfolio, our tenants now have better views. The plantings are not only aesthetically pleasing, but improve the environment and public health. We also partnered with a local school to launch our green roof initiative and provided summer employment for several students to study the green roofs and get some hands-on experience working in the real estate industry.
In addition, we have created a system to compost organic waste produced at our commercial and residential buildings. The initiative sends on-site food waste to our farm 90 miles north of New York City where it turns the waste into compost that we then use for the nutrient-rich soil on our green roofs. This closed loop composting system allows us to not only support local agriculture, but diverts organic waste from landfills. In New York City, 30% of all trash is compostable – currently this organic waste is being incinerated or sent to a landfill. Our system is a model for what cities should do with their organic waste.
We’re now expanding the composting program to be the first major New York landlord to offer composting throughout a commercial real estate portfolio. Our residential skyscraper, Helena 57 West, in Manhattan was the first apartment building in New York City to institute a composting program.
Why focus on green roofs and composting specifically? Have you seen a shift in sustainability standards that calls for more social and environmental impact?
Achieving LEED status has been an important tool for improving environmental impact in the real estate industry, but it’s not the only tool. LEED has become a widely recognized standard that has gained more and more acceptance - especially from tenants. The Durst Organization will take a look at any practical idea that will enhance the experience of our tenants or residents and that has a positive social and environmental impact.
In New York City, collecting rain is critical because of our combined sewage and storm-water system. When rainfall exceeds around ¼ inch, the water overwhelms the city’s sewage treatment plant’s capacity to treat it. The overflow—a mixture of rainwater and sewage—is dumped, untreated, into the rivers and harbor. Our green roofs and rainwater storage tanks absorb the rain, slow the runoff, and help keep the harbor clean.
How has a focus on sustainability impacted business growth for The Durst Organization?
Embracing sustainability is a sound business practice. The reason we’re focusing so much energy and resources on initiatives that have an impact on public health and the environment is because they’re wise investments. Companies have a lot of options for landlords; the commercial real estate landscape in New York is competitive. Our belief is that our focus on being civically minded, philanthropic, and committed environmental stewards is a competitive advantage. It makes for a better experience for our tenants and residents.
Most firms, whether they’re big or small, their largest expense is their people. Focusing on sustainability makes for happier, more engaged employees. Companies are not only seeing the importance of working in a space that supports the health of their employees, they’re seeking landlords that align with their values. Fortune 500 companies, NGOs, United Nations entities, entrepreneurs, a number of them want to be in a Durst building because of alignment with their mission, others want to associate themselves with a landlord that is trying to do the right thing.
As you continue to innovate, how have you seen your relationships with your clients evolve?
We work with companies of all sizes and all receive special treatment, including our smaller sized tenants. Remember that all large companies have one thing in common: they all started out as small businesses.
Companies have grown and expanded with Durst and we enjoy working with our customers to support those relationships from the good times to the bad. Our values are to treat people respectfully. Fostering long-term relationships with tenants goes back to our mission to leave this place better than we found it. Providing the highest quality customer service to the residents and tenants requires partnership, teamwork and collaboration. We view our clients as collaborators in making the world a better place.