Case Studies

Rick Cataffa – Federal Realty Investment Trust

Awakening tired retail centers

Better days await the Old Keene Mill Shopping Center that everyone thought had seen better days in Springfield, Virginia.

For like so many established shopping centers, some dating back to the 1970s, Old Keene Mill had taken on a tired appearance, even with Whole Foods as its anchor tenant and other national chains under the roof.

Rick Cataffa – Federal Realty Investment Trust

Rick Cataffa | Director of Design

Despite those hurdles, the trained eye still sees much to preserve, says Rick Cataffa, who’s been overseeing a renovation that should be complete by year’s end. Director of design for over a decade at Rockville, Maryland-based Federal Realty Investment Trust [FRIT]—the property’s owner since 1976—Cataffa is well-versed at reinvigorating commercial properties, his trained eye focused on more modern needs.

Hence the almost complete revamping of Old Keene Mill into something that resembles a communal village—most appealing to a wider demographic.

“The tastes of the customer are evolving along with the nature of the market, especially with the advent of digital and online retail,” Cataffa tells Blueprint in October, when some of the finishing touches are being applied to the 90,000-square-foot facility in the D.C. metro area. “Retail is adapting. The challenge lies within defining and implementing the optimal strategy to physically adapt an existing facility to meet those evolving needs.

Keep and tweak

A 1993 architectural graduate of the University of Cincinnati, Cataffa concedes that a ground-up project may seem more exciting than redevelopment. But he finds at least as much fulfillment in identifying and enhancing what may be the hidden opportunities in overlooked properties. Like a shrewd gambler, it’s knowing what to throw away, knowing what to keep.

“Many are capable of demolishing an existing building or mowing down a cornfield to construct some shiny, new town center, but there’s a unique skillset required to see what today may not be a very appealing place to customers or tenants but have the vision to identify the ‘good bones’ within an existing property and to successfully transform them,” he says.

Rick Cataffa – Federal Realty Investment Trust

Old Keene Mill Project

“It’s understanding what your investment dollars can do for you—seeing what you may keep and tweak versus what requires a more intensive reconfiguration to maximize that investment. It’s the secret sauce of redevelopment.”

Among the typical areas of impact are facades; storefronts and signage; appropriate sidewalks; gathering spaces; landscaping; lighting; public amenities such as an outdoor fireplace, fountain or sculpture garden; even down to the property-specific bylaws to which tenants must adhere for the sole intent of raising the overall design standards to benefit customers and tenants.

For longtime customers, Cataffa says some changes may not be immediately noticed, but even the smallest of improvements is intended to contribute with the others to cohesively elevate the overall quality of the experience. It’s a model he’s seen work successfully in other FRIT projects.

“Good design should engage and even play with our guests,” he says. “Clues and stories are woven into the design, creating layers of nuance that the customers might not be consciously aware of, but subconsciously they’ll pick it up.”

Harmony in integration

If there’s a key word to this practice, it’s the integration of Cataffa’s big-picture outlook with the performance of FRIT’s carefully chosen architects and builders. As he puts it: “We’re merely the glue between them. We want everyone on the design team involved, invested, excited and ultimately singing from the same sheet of music.”

Each individual brings their own skills, backgrounds and opinions to the table. To manage the process effectively, Cataffa says it’s critical to allow them to breathe, explore creative solutions to the property’s challenges and hopefully craft a new vision and energy which will radiate within a community.

Rick Cataffa – Federal Realty Investment Trust

In Baltimore, such harmony seems evident in FRIT’S makeover of The Avenue at White Marsh, which has become a regional entertainment destination on 35 dog-friendly acres abutting IKEA and the White Marsh Mall, with parking for 2,000-plus vehicles. Aside from AMC IMAX & Dolby Theatres, there’s iFly Indoor Skydiving, restaurants and retail, and a 6,900-square-foot outdoor winter ice rink (with a garage for the Zamboni) that transforms into a grassy plaza in the summer.

Not much needed to be demolished at this locale, Cataffa says, adding that most of the changes took place with minimal disruptions to longtime merchants who have since raved at the new and improved Avenue at White Marsh.

“It’s usually packed,” he adds. “An environment where customers want to shop and dine, and let their kids play in the plaza. The increased foot traffic translates into sales and longevity for the tenants.”

Prudent growth

At last count, FRIT’S 104 commercial holdings included 19 each in Maryland and Virginia, with the company’s coast-to-coast reach stretching from nine in Massachusetts to 23 in California.

“Our portfolio is intentionally positioned to be diversified, which provides us with flexibility, strength and stability through fluctuating cycles,” says Cataffa, who came to FRIT in March 2009 after a three-year stretch as a design manager at General Growth Properties. Early in his career he spent four months overseas managing the implementation of his team’s design principles, creating retail redevelopment projects for two unique retail entertainment complexes in South Africa, giving him a perspective of the broader design profession and the granular elements that remain constant, regardless of culture or location.

Rick Cataffa – Federal Realty Investment Trust

The FRIT position has been most satisfying he says, describing the rest of the team as kindred souls who, like him, think outside the proverbial box and embrace the challenge of redevelopment as opposed to solely ground-up.

It’s the better approach, he says, with the national landscape having an abundance of aging megamalls struggling to stay afloat in a consumer era where Amazon and its ilk are offering additional options.

Which, it would seem, presents opportunities aplenty for FRIT to acquire more properties at favorable prices. But Cataffa reminds it’s prudent about where it invests, and how the publicly traded company has set a record in the Real Estate Investment Trust community by increasing its quarterly dividends for 52 consecutive years.

Ever one to practice personally what he does professionally, Cataffa lives with his family in a suburban Baltimore house he designed with the same pockets of effective and experiential qualities that he expects in FRIT’s commercial properties.

“I love the outdoors and my time landscaping my property, but this project never ends,” he says.

Seems some things just can’t be designed out of existence.

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