Eric Gelber, CBRE’s Retail Running Man, on Racing and Leasing Endurance
Brokerage can feel like a marathon at times—not only is it necessary to draw on stamina and patience, but being prepared doesn’t hurt either. So if all goes according to plan, Eric Gelber should be drawing on equal quantities of all of these by the time this issue of The Commercial Observer is circulating the halls of CBRE, where he’s a senior vice president in the Retail Services Group. Mr. Gelber is slated to run 135 miles in the Badwater Ultramarathon—starting in Death Valley and going up into the foothills of Mount Whitney, Calif., the following day. While the temperature in New York this Tuesday looks like it will be in the low 70s, Mr. Gelber will be facing heat that could top out at 130 degrees. He’ll be running to raise money for the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation, in memory of a family friend who died from the disease. The Commercial Observer caught up with Mr. Gelber—who was nursing a sore ankle, no less—the day before he left to fly out West, to talk about his work at CBRE and the grueling race ahead.
The Commercial Observer: What’s your focus here?
Mr. Gelber: I primarily focus on landlord representation work, with a few retailer clients. On the landlord side, I do a lot of work for some hotel companies, such as Marriott and Hyatt. Tishman Speyer is another one of my clients. Mostly higher profile stuff—Midtown, Times Square markets. I’ve been here for almost 20 years, and before that I was at Forest City, where I started my career right out of college.
What kind of mix of tenants are you representing?
Currently we’re working with a large theater company out of Chicago. They’re the newest concept in high-end theaters—VIP seating, state-of-the art sound systems and viewing screens, and a restaurant/bar component. It’s a 90,000-square-foot concept, and they’re looking for their first location in New York. And then I’m working with Barilla, which is the pasta company. They’re looking to open up a chain of cafes, starting in New York. We’re looking for five locations right now.
Where is Barilla looking to open in the city?
Midtown, Union Square—those are the two focused markets right now—maybe Flatiron. But those are the primary markets right now. We’d probably consider the Upper West Side if we found the perfect spot. I’m not sure we’re ready yet for Downtown, but eventually.
What are their requirements, size-wise, and also in terms of the location’s demographics?
2,500 to 3,500 square feet, high traffic…we’re not looking for the high-street locations, so it’s your high-traffic Midtown area. Something in the Sixth Avenue corridor would be great, or the 42nd-Lexington corridor would be great. Also around Union Square—Union Square proper is probably going to be a little expensive for us. Find where Shake Shack and Chipotle are, and that’s where we want to be.
The economy is recovering in fits and starts, but is business picking up for you?
For us, the last 18 months or so have been fairly steady. We do a lot of landlord work, so we get a pretty good look at who’s in the market. And we’ve had a few transactions that have gotten done, and I think there’s a nice steady volume going on now in retail.
As far as the landlords are concerned, what types of spaces are you marketing? Any large blocks of space?
I don’t have large blocks. We have a piece on Fifth Avenue, 522 Fifth, which is about 7,000 square feet. That market is on fire right now. But I don’t have any 40,000- or 50,000-square-foot blocks that I’m marketing right now. We have space over at 150 East 42nd Street, we had a 12,000-square-foot block of space there. We consolidated Ann Taylor into a portion of that for Loft, and then we’re marketing the remaining pieces of that.
Are tenants that you’re representing generally looking to be in any particular part of the city, or are they open to hearing about stuff in a variety of areas?
If I have something that’s interesting that’s not in what they consider their target market, I would certainly show it to them. But we’ve done our due diligence with our tenants, and they know, so Barilla’s really focused on those few markets unless something really spectacular comes along. For the theater, it’s almost more opportunity-driven—where you find the space that works.
What parts of the city are most exciting to you in terms of retail today?
Times Square is always exciting to me, just because it’s Times Square. It has been a lot of fun to watch that grow and change over the last 20 years. When Disney went there, when I first started at this company—to see it go from that one national retailer to what it is today has been a lot of fun, and to be a part of that. Fifth Avenue north of 42nd Street is clearly one of the hot markets, and I think that what is going on to the south of Rock Center is very exciting. We’ve seen the rents go up significantly, and there are a lot of big blocks that are starting to be put together and come to the market.
I know the race was inspired by a friend of yours who had been struggling with multiple myeloma and I’m really sorry to hear that she lost her fight. Was she the original inspiration for you to be involved in raising money last year?
Certainly last year, and it really started in—I guess it was 2007 was the first year that I ran to raise money. I had run back in 2001—I did one marathon, and didn’t do anything again—decided to run in 2007. I remember seeing Anita at my parents’ house, and she had just undergone her first stem-cell transplant, and it’s just an awful process and she didn’t look great. I just decided at that moment that I needed to do something, so I dedicated that run to her, and I was surprised with all the support that I got that year. I think we raised $11,000 or $12,000 that year. And then every year I’d do another marathon, and I started to just raise the bar, and I found that every year I did something that people might consider a little extreme, I found that there was even greater support. Maybe people see what it means to me, so they want to help out.
Has there been support from your colleagues at CBRE?
Incredible support. My colleagues have been amazing, year in and year out. Every year it just continues to grow. Last year it was a 155-mile solo thing. I just picked a spot in upstate New York and ran back here to my parents’ house, and people said, “Is this it? You can’t do more than that.” There was incredible support, and then when I got into this race this year, now people are asking me the same question. CB’s been great, CBRE Cares has been incredible with some matching donations and obviously my friends and family are always there.
Can you talk about the race briefly, in terms of what it entails?
It’s 135 miles. It goes from Badwater Basin, which is the lowest point—it’s 282 feet below sea level. And so it’s the lowest point in the continental U.S. And it ends at the Mount Whitney Portals, which is over 8,000 feet. The original race actually ended at the Mount Whitney Summit, so it went from the lowest to the highest point, but a number of years ago the Parks Service decided that that was too dangerous, so they reduced that a little bit.
It’s in July for a reason. It’s the hottest time of the year, which makes it the most difficult. You climb three mountain ranges. The climbs range from 13 miles long to 21 miles long, and it’s considered the toughest footrace in the world. What does it mean to me? I certainly enjoy pushing myself. Every time that I’ve gone one step further and done something that’s a little more difficult, I just think it opens up my eyes, in terms of other life experiences and how I see things and how I attack things, whether it’s in my career or in my personal life.
What goes through your head when you’re in the thick of a race like that?
When you’re out there for almost two days, there’s almost nothing you don’t think about. I guess it depends on where I am emotionally or physically in a run. And if I’m really, really struggling to continue, sometimes I think about the people that I’m out there running for and the charity—Anita, and I’ve met so many other incredible people, and so I’ll think about them. What they’re going through is a lot more than what I’m going through, and so I can certainly keep going. Other times I think about family, about friends…I’ll just start to zone out.
How did you know Anita?
She was actually a family friend who I met when I was in college. I met Anita and her whole family [on a] Club Med vacation that I was on with my whole family. Her daughters are my age, but she became very close with my mom and dad. She’d been at every family function for the last 25 years. So that’s how I became close to her.
Do you feel more pressure as the amount of money goes up?
Yeah I do. It’s sort of a Catch-22. The more I talk about it and the more I promote it, the more money we raise. So, yeah, I feel like I can’t stop.