Secret to His Success: How Bob Young Fills His Retail Spaces

With only a couple of minor permits awaiting issuance by City Hall, the Sfizi Italian trattoria cafe, wine shop and deli market will relocate from Fairfax to the famous 800 W. Broad building in the City of Falls Church, marking the filling of that new all-commercial building to capacity. It will go into the lower level, below the U.S. Post Office.

There is a wide discrepancy between that building, as well as the new Read Building at 402 W. Broad and the Washington Market Center on S. Washington, home of Elevation Burger, and other new mixed use projects in Falls Church whose commercial and retail spaces remain mostly vacant.

The laggards include the Broadway, the Byron, the Spectrum and Pearson Square, the City’s four biggest new mixed use projects all built in the last decade.

What explains why one set of properties is enjoying the benefits of “Sold Out!” signs on all its retail spaces, including those housing seven winners of the News-Press‘ recent “Best of Falls Church” honors, and others sitting gloomily mostly empty?

Only two words can account for it: Bob Young.


Bob Young.

Mr. Young, principal of his Young Group and Jefferson One development entities, is of southern Italian heritage, a native of La Jolla, California, a graduate of the prestigious Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and a former analyst for the Defense Advanced Research Properties Agency (DARPA) who moved to McLean a couple decades ago to launch his own business. For more than a decade now, he has concentrated his development and considerable philanthropic efforts on Falls Church.

A renaissance man with a penchant for artifacts from the European Art Nouveau era, Robert Young (or Giovani, before his father Anglicanized the family name) has distinguished Falls Church by designing his two new buildings on W. Broad in Falls Church in the Glasgow and Vienna Schools of architectural Art Nouveau tradition, ergo the latest one now informally known as the “Flower Building.”

In the case of his first building, known as the Read Building at 402 W. Broad, he contributed elements of is residential component to the City’s first-ever “workforce housing” for local school employees, and broke from an unfortunate City tradition of naming new projects for slave-owning original land grant title holders who occupied land in the City limits (such as Pearson and Trammel) and instead named it for John Read, an anti-slavery Union soldier killed on Falls Church soil during the Civil War.

But most importantly, Mr. Young has taken a very hand-on, pro-active approach to filling his commercial and retail spaces, and the results are very evident.

It comes right down to the fact that “you have to be willing to make a deal,” he told the News-Press in an interview last week. It is something that a local developer, who is on the scene, rather than an impersonal owner such as an out-of-the-area bank or investment company, can do.

To such entities, like the bank that now owns the Spectrum, property values remain propped up on paper by refusing to budge from the advertised leasing rates. Property managers are hamstrung by their inability to negotiate to make a deal work for a prospective tenant.

“You have to be willing to sacrifice something now for the long-term gain of having a vibrant, active building,” Young said, and the risks and sacrifices can be more than nominal, but considerable.

“You work hard at it. Once you’ve committed to a building, there is only one acceptable outcome, which is to fill it,” he said. “You do what you have to do to craft a deal, taking a long-term view. It can’t be hit-and-run, but it must be set up so that it’s a long-term proposition.”

His latest deal involves the sale of his property at 706 W. Broad to a hotel development group in Tysons Corner that intends to build a Hilton Garden Inn there, with Young remaining involved in the project as the builder of a small office building facing onto Park Avenue as part of the plan.

“I’ve now got a lot of eggs in this basket (of Falls Church),” he said, and with the failure of the affordable housing project that would have included his construction of an all-commercial office building, the McKeever, on S. Washington, he now holds letters of intent from prospective new tenants in that building amounting to about 50,000 square feet of occupancies.

He noted the recent passing of his friend Leonard Shapiro, long-time owner of two major commercial properties on West Broad, where Anthony’s and Crisp and Juicy now stand, which he considers ripe for redevelopment.

With land values now down about 20 percent, he said, “this is a great time to start something new.” He said it is important to recognize the unique features of Falls Church, especially that it is composed of many small commercial properties owned by a lot of different people.

Apart from the now moribund Atlantic Realty plan for a City Center development that involved a lot of City-owned land, “It is unrealistic to wait to assemble all the private commercial properties that would be required for a major development,” he said. “But a lot of right-sized development can occur in the City.”

He said the goal should be to develop 25,000 to 75,000 square foot buildings, not 200,000 square foot ones, and only in one or two places could something as big as 100,000 square feet fit in.

But too much development over the past decade in Falls Church has been done only for fees, he said, with the properties being transferred into hands-off absentee owners.