Bob Ball, Pearl District Apartment Developer
BY: Lee Fehrenbacher
Bob Ball, developer, is the owner of Astor Pacific LLC. (Photo by Sam Tenney/DJC)
At age 19 – when many college students are still trying to figure out their major – Portland developer Bob Ball was figuring out how to buy his first property.
He found inspiration in an article about a developer named Sam LeFrak – a champion for middle-income housing in New York City. Through the LeFrak Organization, he built approximately 200,000 homes and apartments in the city. He also was a billionaire.
Ball took a real estate class at the University of Oregon to learn the basics about deeds, easements, titles and other industry jargon. He waited tables at a restaurant and worked at a golf course to build some savings. I took that money that I saved when I was living in the dorms and I put it down on a house,” he said. “I bought it from a retired couple, made my payments every month, fixed that up and then went on to the next one. And here I am.”
Ball found the process of buying, re-envisioning, renovating and selling properties fulfilling; he went on to do it several more times before leaving college one credit shy of a degree.
He also went to work full time (pre-Internet) for a startup called Software Sciences, which gave real estate agents the ability to compile multiple listings via a computer rather than by hand. The company grew and Ball traveled around the U.S. installing the software for real estate firms and training personnel how to use it.
Today, Ball owns several companies, including Astor Pacific LLC, Pearl Real Estate LLC, Pearl District Property Management and Ball Parc Properties LLC. In the past 10 years, Astor Pacific has built the 32-unit Avenue Lofts, the 69-unit Embassy apartments, the 164-unit Marshall-Wells Lofts and the 245 Wyatt apartments in the Pearl District.
Presently, Ball is working on the Parker – a six-story, 177-unit apartment building in the Pearl District. He recently spoke with the DJC.
DJC: What do you like about development?
Bob Ball: I like driving over the Fremont Bridge and being able to look down and see the Wyatt and the Marshall-Wells, and the Avenue Lofts, which I think are three beautiful buildings that I can take pride in, and that’s really a lot of fun for me. That’s really an honor for me.
DJC: What did you find inspiring about that early experience working for Software Sciences?
Ball: The founder of that company, his name is Buck Lindsey … was an entrepreneur and really taught me and opened my eyes about what it is to be an entrepreneur … As the first full-time employee, I saw a brand new company start from the ground up with the visionary leader that he was, and it opened my eyes to the idea that I could go out and do something and start something myself, which was a gift to get at 19 years old … I learned that the thing that inhibits most people from being successful at doing something is just the fear of trying. So that gift that I was given was the ability to see that it’s OK to try – you don’t have to be afraid of failure. As Nike says, ‘just do it.’
DJC: Astor Pacific puts a special focus on the renovation of used and historic properties. Why is that important?
Ball: When you can combine in a neighborhood like the Pearl District, old historic buildings and renovated new buildings, it brings a significant amount of character to a neighborhood. It makes it a more livable, walkable place and a more intrinsically enjoyable place to be … Both the Marshall-Wells Lofts and the Avenue Lofts were big warehouses that had become functionally obsolescent. So the challenge was taking a building in that state and changing it into something that was relevant but still retained its historic character.
DJC: A lot of your work has focused on re-envisioning buildings in the Pearl District. What do you think will be the next area of Portland to take off?
Ball: I think there are a number of opportunities. I’ve always liked – on one end – the St. Johns area. My dad lived in St. Johns most of my life. My parents separated and divorced when I was a young kid, but my dad lived here in Portland on North Edison, and I’ve always liked that little strip in St. Johns. I think it could be really great if somebody had the time and energy – it’s like its own little village.
Obviously the central industrial east side is a focus with the new streetcar (track) going down there. I don’t know how that will shake out though because … the city has envisioned it and the central industrial east side council – I’ve just been reading in the paper – has a different vision.
Obviously, I think before that the North Pearl has yet to be finished out, and we’re working on that.
DJC: What do you guys have on tap for projects?
Ball: I just have the one right now. I don’t know exactly what Hoyt Street is going to do, but they obviously have quite a bit of land left … it will be very exciting to see what they do, and I think they have an incredible amount of opportunity to really book-end the final part of the Pearl District … I went to the Fields Park grand opening yesterday and they said they had eight undeveloped lots around it … there could be a lot to be done.
DJC: It seems like the bread and butter for developers right now is market-rate multifamily projects. Do you think we’ll get to a point where that gets built out, and if so, where will investors turn?
Ball: We just went through a pretty long period where for-sale residential housing was the dominant product that was developed. Right now it’s for-rent product. I think my answer is we’re always going to have a demand for residential housing as our population naturally grows. So really the question is: ‘Is it for sale, or is it for rent?’ I think we’ll always have both of those, even at the same time.
DJC: Are there any guiding philosophies that you live by?
Ball: I’ve tried to build quality products that are aesthetically pleasing, and I’ve tried to pick really good teams of people to help me get there – architects, contractors, engineers. That whole group of people is the most important decision that you can make when starting any kind of a new development.
DJC: What other advice would you offer to aspiring developers?
Ball: I started out with rentals, renting out my own apartment and really understanding what people were looking for in a place to live and what was important and what wasn’t. Those years of experience have been invaluable to me in my process of developing and being able to properly oversee a team. So I think the advice I would give is take it slow, be careful, know your business, know it well, and don’t go in sort of haphazard because it can really come back and bite you.
DJC: What’s on your developer’s bucket list?
Ball: I think I would love at some point to build an architecturally significant building … without any constraints on budget. The thing that has always inhibited me to some degree is the market. I can’t go as far as I’d like to go in terms of design because economically it’s just very difficult to do and make it pencil out. So that would be my one dream – to be able to have at it without a budget.
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