Magazine Feature / People

Hirschfelds maintain high standards in real estate development

Barry Hirschfeld — philanthropist, social activist and chairman of one of the largest printing companies in the West — isn’t used to being out of the spotlight.

A Wednesday afternoon in January found Hirschfeld standing on the dais at the Denver Planning Board, fumbling with a rickety easel that held a rendering of a residential real estate development.

The easel teetered and Hirschfeld struggled, his signature bow tie and natty jacket a reminder of how he has held himself in the Denver business community since taking over A.B. Hirschfeld Press after his father, Edward, died in 1984 — precise, determined, visible.

After a few minutes the easel was stable.

Hirschfeld, winner of the 2007 University of Denver Evans Award for alumni achievement and service, gazed at a preppy-looking, long-haired man of 31 nervously shuffling notes at the lectern. Instincts shrieked to take charge, but he left the young man alone and calmly stepped back behind the easel.

“I’ve actually never done this before,” Hayden Hirschfeld nervously announced to no one in particular.

Planning Board members ignored the remark; Barry Hirschfeld — who with his wife, Arlene, helped raise $47 million for the Denver Art Museum and spearhead creation of the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District in support of the arts — smiled.

After decades as one of the kings of Denver business and a champion of philanthropy, he had a new job, holding the easel for his son in a new real estate development company they run together: A.B. Hirschfeld & Sons.

“I’m happy to be second fiddle in this business,” Barry confided in an interview, the words dripping with a father’s pride. “I’ve done a lot of things and it gives me such pleasure to watch (Hayden) in action and to watch him succeed — to watch him do his due diligence.”

It hasn’t been easy. The father-son tandem has been working to rezone property they own on Asbury Avenue and South Downing Street for several years. They’ve had more than 40 meetings with community groups, held hours of coffee klatches with scores of neighbors, set up educational programs for kids at nearby Asbury Elementary, answered hundreds of questions, addressed scores of concerns.

“I would tell any developer that if they’re open to input, then their project’s going to get better,” Hayden says.

Twice, the Hirschfelds ripped up their development plans in response to concerns from neighbors. What started as a 32-unit development with a condominium at its heart was boiled down to 17 townhouses and three single-family homes, with enlarged setbacks and expanded landscaping.

Changes were instituted to make the residences “green,” to allay worries about traffic, to ensure school kids’ safety and to try to maintain neighborhood character.

“Hayden was the most flexible, responsible developer that I’ve worked with,” City Councilwoman Kathleen MacKenzie says. “Every time he was asked to make a modification by the neighborhood, he did it. That’s rare.”

Barry Hirschfeld, who has been doing real estate projects as a sideline since getting his MBA from DU in 1966, credits his son’s patience.

“The longer you develop, the less patience you might have because often you’re beaten up,” Barry said. “Hayden wants to do it right. He’ll spend the time. Develop the dialog. Listen, and then act.”

Of course, not everyone sees it that way. Petitions have emerged opposing Asbury Court on grounds it is out of character with the neighborhood, blocks light and views, increases density, adversely affects property values and isn’t pedestrian friendly.

“It looms over us in a most imposing and unfriendly way,” said David Carroll, whose two-story home overlooks the six 1920s-era, wood-frame bungalows that are to be torn down if the Hirschfeld project wins city approval.

“Not every neighbor is overjoyed,” resident Katie Fisher said on behalf of the West

University Community Association, which endorsed the project. “But most are.”

So were Denver Planning Board members.

“You just can’t do a better job,” observed board member and Denver realtor Rich Delanoy. “(Hayden’s) the gold standard for small development.”

All this from a kid who in 1998 graduated from Harvard with a major in folklore and mythology and an eye toward becoming a documentary filmmaker. The efforts didn’t get very far, leaving Hayden struggling for direction.

An article on architect Kurt Fentress awakened a latent affection for real estate, which had been established in Hayden during boyhood trips around town to look at property with his father and older bother, Barry Jr.

The awakening led to an entry-level job with Fentress Bradburn, architects whose work includes Denver International Airport, the Colorado Convention Center and Invesco Field at Mile High. There Hayden learned basic skills, maneuvered his way through back-shop drudgery and ended up in business development.

The transformation amazed his father.

“If you had said to me a couple of years ago that Hayden Hirschfeld would ever be in business development, I would say ‘absolutely not.’ Actually it would be ‘hell no!’”

But five years later, there was Hayden stepping carefully into a real estate venture with his father and trying to relate filmmaking with real estate. The connection, Hayden says, is that filmmaking takes immersion in a topic that’s unfamiliar, listening carefully, learning, then communicating effectively.

The payoff, both men agree, is building projects to be proud of, setting ever-higher standards for working with the people those projects affect and finding ways to give back to the places where he works. Such as to Asbury Elementary, where Hayden initiated an ongoing program to teach green building concepts and to help the kids understand the project as they see it being built.

“(Hayden) wants it to be more than a development company,” Barry says. “He wants to educate and to actually make a difference in neighborhoods.”

The result is a tiny real estate company that gives father and son a chance to bond, interact, give back and express their interest in quality, sustainable projects they can build as a team.

“Barry is having a ball working with Hayden,” says Arlene Hirschfeld (BA ’66), who is co-winner of the Evans Award with her husband, whom she knew as a child and began dating as a senior in high school.

Hayden, she says, is thriving in real estate because it taps into his creativity and fits his instincts. “He really cares about being respectful about everybody’s rights,” she says. “Hayden loves the world and the world loves him back.”

Ironically, the bonding of father and son is occurring through a fledgling real estate venture, not the $40 million, 100-year-old printing empire Barry Hirschfeld presides over as chairman.

“It would be joyful to have one or both boys in this business to carry this continuity,” says Barry, noting that his second son, Barry Jr., lives in Tokyo and runs a hedge fund. “But it wasn’t in the cards. Neither son wanted to go into the printing business.

“I’m fine with it,” Barry says softly.

“I loved so much working with my father,” Barry allows. “And my father, I know, loved working with his father. There’s nothing better than that if it’s not forced, if it’s something you really enjoy.

“(Hayden and I) are really best friends. He knows what’s on my mind; I know what’s on his. We have a great relationship. But I’m that way with both boys. I talk to Barry in Japan twice a day. They’re very close with their mother and they’re close with each other.

“It’s a great family. I’m so blessed.”

Learn how the Hirschfeld’s got their start.

This article originally appeared in The Source, March 2007.

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