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Marketing The Waterworks: The End of an Era - IGNITION ResidentialIGNITION Residential

Marketing The Waterworks: The End of an Era

The Waterworks at Chestnut Hill - IGNITION ResidentialThere are always defining moments, those “tipping-points” when one era gives way to another and life is never the same.  In architecture, it was the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, hailed as both the greatest architect of the 19th century and the first architect emblematic of the 20th century.  That’s how I think of The Waterworks at Chestnut Hill which was either the end of the old way of marketing or the harbinger of what the marketing of multi-family residential construction would quickly become.  To me, however, it marked the end of an era.

In 2006, my company was designated by the Commonwealth to develop this amazing, historic site which overlooks the Chestnut Hill Reservoir.  I very quickly made one the best decisions of my life, convincing the late Edward A. Fish of EA Fish Associates to be my co-Developer.  Ed remains nothing less than a construction and development icon in Massachusetts and his recent passing meant that I lost both a mentor and a friend.  Shortly after I first met Ed, he introduced my to his daughter, Karen-Fish Will of Peabody Properties (Ed’s first words at our introduction was, “Karen has forgotten more about marketing than I ever knew.”).  Together, as soon as an agreement to develop the property had been executed by Ed, me and DCAM, the state agency in control of the site, Karen and I, as co-Marketers for the project in a joint venture of Diamond Sinacori and Peabody Properties, began to work on the branding and positioning of the project.

The site had great potential, featuring several historic pumping stations that had once brought water to a burgeoning Boston in the late 19th century, the Golden Age of this wonderful city.  One of the buildings had been designed in a classic, symmetrical Beaux Arts style, while the other was designed by Arthur Vinal in the Richardsonian Romanesque style popularized by H. H. Richardson of Trinity Church fame.  In between these two magnificent structures stood an historic, but small and understated carriage house.  As part of our agreement with the Commonwealth, we were also allowed to construct a new building which was intended to become a landmark in its own right and not a derivative copy of the other historic buildings.  Frank DiMella of DiMella Shaffer Associates, possibly one of the best, but most unheralded architects in the country, designed the new building with its mission as a future landmark in mind.  The nationally renowned architect, Graham Gund, was selected to rehabilitate and revitalize the three existing buildings into condominiums and, in one building, the Waterworks Museum which recently opened to the public.

However, this article is about the marketing of the project, not its development nor its design – each of which would make a decent subject for a future article.  Long ago, I learned that the profession that I had chosen was one about selling condominiums, not designing them or even building them.  And the story of The Waterworks at Chestnut Hill, in my opinion, was largely a marketing story.

This tale begins, as most of my marketing work has begun over a 32 year career as a developer who markets his own projects, with assessing the assets and challenges of the proposed project.  Regarding the latter, it was located in the Brighton section of Boston which is a community dear to my heart: A) We wouldn’t have been designated as the developer of this project were it not for the relentless lobbying of the Brighton community to have the state give us the developer designation; and B) I’m currently developing another multi-family development, Charing Cross, which again was the result of overwhelming community support.  However, there had never been a condominium sold in Brighton for over one-million dollars and, if we were to get the prices that we needed to support our pro forma (an average price of approximately one-million dollars for approximately 100 market rate units), we needed to herald the fact that it was also in Chestnut Hill, one of the most prestigious addresses in the Boston area.  Karen Fish-Will and I quickly landed on the right name to address what we perceived was a major challenge to be overcome, The Waterworks at Chestnut Hill.

On the plus side, we had a palette of historic buildings and a proposed new building, all of which overlooked the Chestnut Hill Reservoir, one of two remaining basins that were part of a water storage plan developed by the most important landscape architect in the country at the time, Frederick Law Olmsted.  In addition, we had a team that was able to brand the project as something that appealed to the more ethereal senses of our target market: Fairly well-to-do, “empty-nesters.  Part of that team was Maureen “Mo” Doerr of Doerr Associates, the area’s most talented graphic designer and one of the three most clever people whom I’ve known in real estate (Hmmm…I can’t think of the other two, so you win, Mo).  Working with Karen and me, Mo designed a great image for the project, a mysterious woman, shown from behind, peering out from behind some lush-life draperies and looking at the pastoral beauty of one of the Boston area’s most magnificent man-made resources, this one remaining reservoir basin which was nestled at the nexus of Boston, Brookline and Newton and a stone’s throw from the Gothic towers of Boston College.  This beautiful and haunting image became the icon for the project, used by Mo to adorn the cover of our project brochure, our display ads, our site signage and a primary wall of our Sales Center – a double-wide trailer which became the paradigm for future sales centers over years following its creation.  We also had the ubiquitous Lisa Nickerson to do our public relations; Lisa made certain that The Waterworks appeared in every significant area publication – all the time.  And finally, as our “ace in the hole,” we had the whirlwind that is Karen Fish-Will and her well-trained, professional sales staff of  Peabody Properties.

Karen and I, along with our wonderful marketing and sales team, sold more than 50% of the 101 market-rate units (11 additional units were on-site affordable residences) with binding Purchase & Sale Agreements and substantial, non-refundable deposits — all prior to a shovel being placed in the ground.  I’d work with Karen Fish-Will again in a heartbeat and I constantly recalled her dad’s words about her forgetting more about residential marketing that both he and I had ever known.

Circling back to the premise of this article, however, everything that I’ve spoken about was emblematic and typical of the old way of marketing multi-family properties.  I could say that our having a website was part of the beginning of an era and, in ways that continue to challenge historians to accurately mark beginnings and ends of anything — from architecture (e.g. “Romanesque”) to decades (e.g. “The Roaring Twenties”) to people (e.g. “The Baby Boomers”) — that statement wouldn’t be entirely wrong.  It’s hard to remember that even ten years ago, a project website was an unknown marketing tool.  If you wanted to buy a house or a condominium, you might see glossy position pieces in Boston Magazine or Playbill, but you or your broker ALWAYS checked the Boston Sunday Globe.  With the advent of the internet, combined with the economy and real estate market tanking in late 2008, the once-proud Boston Globe Real Estate section quickly took a dive.  From the fairly recent time of its heyday, when it was running on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays (with the latter being the most sought after, early-morning prize for anyone searching for a residence), The Sunday Globe Real Estate section has morphed into a supermarket supplement.  Where there were once major cover stories on new developments (Do any of you out there remember Tony Yudis, the man who never met a project that he didn’t like), there is now the almost always uninspired “House of the Week.”  Where the inside pages were once covered with display ads (our display ads for The Waterworks often consumed a quarter or a half of a page of many such similar pages), there are now a few small display ads and reams of irrelevant information, some of it not even related to real estate.  It’s hard to imagine the Globe Real Estate section returning to its former glory, but it would be nice if it marginally resembled the interesting and informative Sunday Real Estate Section of its parent paper, the New York Times.  Like New York City, there are enough real estate stories, historic buildings and interesting projects in Boston to create something far better than we have now.  And I miss looking at the large display ads and trying to determine, depending on the skill of the creator, the message that was trying to be conveyed by my colleagues with the catchy headline and the now colorful graphics.

That said, and despite the struggling economy or the struggling real estate market, there has been a dramatic and sudden “sea-change” in the marketing of multi-family residences that is apt to keep the Boston Globe in a secondary position in terms of multi-family residential marketing. What started with a project website has been augmented by every other aspect of the social media, including links, blogs, tweets, e-blasts, thought leadership and, of course, Facebook…among many, many other forms of ether-based, inter-connected forms of communications.  This article is just such an example of someone thinking that they have something to say and finding a multitude of ethereal, interconnected and previously unknown venues in which to say it.

Probably no area of multi-family marketing has changed faster than Public Relations.  Whereas, until very recently, someone with a major residential project hired a public relations firm with media contacts (the usual suspects included The Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, The Boston Business Journal, Banker & Tradesman, etc.) to have a project story run with, hopefully, a picture of the developer, the normal course of business today is to create your own buzz by doing your own public relations.  The advantage, of course, is that you can control the message and can get that message planted with a click of a mouse in the places that are visited by the people in the right demographic, the appropriate income-level and the ever-important interest and ability to buy or rent a home.  While there will always be a need for professional communicators (Ordinary people generally don’t do a good job of painting a rosy picture on a disaster or putting the proverbial “lipstick on a pig,” a good public relations firm can provide an experienced third-party to spin a matter better than the victim themselves.  However, in terms of normal, every-day public relations, the contacts that were once privileged and protected property, are rapidly becoming available to everyone.

So, was the marketing of The Waterworks the beginning of an era or the end of an era?  I may have challengers to my theory, but — despite our beautiful and creative ads, our award-winning Sales Center and, yes, even our website which featured a movie (a somewhat unique tool at the time) — I’m convinced that it truly was the final act in a play that started a long time ago, a time before the notion of internet marketing through the social media and networks changed things and people forever.  The key, then, is to be a step ahead of what every marketing firm is currently doing, i.e. converting and adapting their experience with the analog world of marketing to a rapidly changing digital world that connects us all, not only in Boston, but all over the globe.  It’s a brave new world for residential marketing and those who don’t keep up will have an increasingly more difficult time catching up.

That is why yours truly and the founding partners of Charlesgate Realty Group are launching a new company, IGNITION Residential, a multi-disciplined multi-family marketing firm committed to staying out in front of this brave new world and culling the best of old-time (five years ago?) marketing and combining it with the best of the rapidly expanding world of communicating, compiling, analyzing and courting potential qualified buyers through the internet.  Stay tuned to see how we do.

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About Merrill Diamond

Merrill H. Diamond is a trained architect and a founding principal of IGNITION Residential, an interdisciplinary multi-family marketing firm. He is also a founding partner of Diamond/Sinacori, a Boston-based real estate development company founded in 1978. Mr. Diamond has been the recipient of numerous local and national awards for both development and marketing. He has served as both a gubernatorial appointee to the Massachusetts Historical Commission and to the Senate Special Commission on Historic Preservation. In addition, Mr. Diamond has been named “Entrepreneur of the Year” by Arthur Young / “Venture Magazine;” “Merchant Builder of the Year” by the National Association of Homebuilders (NAHB), and one of “America’s Most Valuable People” by “USA Today".

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