Fred Maas’ decision to resign as chairman of Center City Development Corp. (CCDC) in December was easy. When he took over the helm of CCDC in February 2009 (following Nancy Graham’s resignation amidst conflict-of-interest allegations), he assumed that the interim position would last six weeks.
“It evolved into something more time consuming, and frankly more controversial, than I’d anticipated,” Maas said. “I knew last summer it couldn’t go on if I was going to make a commitment to the financial partners I’d been having discussions with. It seemed like an opportune time. I left when the corporation was in good shape.”
Maas said his resignation had nothing to do with Senate Bill 863, which removed limits on downtown redevelopment funding. He declined to comment on the mid-January lawsuit filed against the state by San Diego County except to say, “They’ll work through it and resolve the issues.”
He remains an advocate of an East Village sports-entertainment district similar to the Live concept in Baltimore: San Diego’s climate provides an opportunity to create free excitement 365 days a year, he said, and capitalizing on the eastern edge of the East Village would spawn a new generation of development and allow retail, restaurants and other establishments to participate in that type of experience.
“We have an amazing opportunity as an extension of the Gaslamp to re-create that,” he said. “I’m a believer in working with what you’ve got. Don’t create things that aren’t possible.”
Maas is focusing on Pacific EcoCompanies LLC, a merchant bank that provides consulting and advisory services to clients, investors and partners on climate change and other environmental issues affecting business and sustainable development. It’s also a traditional asset manager, and invests directly in clean technology, energy and other facilities.
Maas embraced eco-entrepreneurism in the late ‘80s as a principal in Potomac Sports Properties Inc., a PGA Tour Inc.-related residential and resort community developer.
“It occurred to me, given the scale of projects, we needed to adopt a sustainable view of how we approached the business,” he said. “You can turn a profit, be engaged in large-scale land development and also be a steward of the land.”
From 2003 to 2009, Maas was president and CEO of Black Mountain Ranch LLC, recognized as one of the most sustainable communities in the United States. There, he built the Ranch House at Del Sur, one of the highest rated LEED buildings in the country.
Maas is a founding director of CleanTECH San Diego, which promotes developing sustainable businesses and practices in San Diego and Tijuana. At CCDC he oversaw the Centre City Green Initiative and Green Streets program.
He thinks one of the region’s most exciting opportunities is the burgeoning clean-tech sector. According to a report released by The San Diego Foundation in December, the county’s clean-technology firms have attracted $445 million in venture capital during the past five years and could potentially attract $200 million to $1 billion more, which would create between 5,400 and 27,000 jobs. In his private and nonprofit life, Maas aims to do everything possible to make that a reality.
“Over 800 companies in the San Diego region are defined as clean-tech,” said Maas. “But we lack capital. To the extent that we can bring capital here to finance some of these initiatives, it would be terribly exciting.”
Attracting venture capital is only one part of the equation.
As founder and CEO of Pacific EcoCompanies, Maas has analyzed more than two dozen opportunities in the past two years. Six are under nondisclosure agreements; none are in San Diego or real estate.
He’s concerned about the dynamic real estate market. Considering the 2011 foreclosure and bankruptcy market, he said it’s troubling and problematic to know what investments in the residential market will look like. Nor does he think we fully understand the CMBS (commercial-mortgage-backed-securities) market yet and how it will impact large-scale commercial portfolios.
“Whatever investment you make today may not fully appreciate for 12 to 24 months,” he said. “If you impose the template that I require, which adds sustainability initiatives and requirements, you’re adding costs to projects that may not have reached bottom yet.”
Other issues make sustainable development, or any commercial development, in San Diego uncertain. If Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to eliminate local redevelopment agencies survives threshold issues, Maas believes all unencumbered redevelopment projects in the pipeline will be in jeopardy. More troubling to Maas is the long-term viability of downtown -- not just San Diego’s, but throughout California.
“There are bigger fish to fry, given the enormity of problems facing the state, than taking on what may be one of the greatest economic engines we’ve created in the state of California,” said Maas.
If Brown’s proposal fails, Maas thinks people will wait to see how the existing foreclosure/bankruptcy market in commercial properties shakes out.
“It’ll be easier to buy an existing building for rehabilitation than build a new facility,” he said. “It’s difficult to find anyone willing to offer a construction loan on a high-rise building of any sort of Type I construction, particularly in the commercial real estate sector.”
That may mean good news for proponents of a new City Hall. Given the downtown office environment, Maas said it makes sense to revisit the project.
“The leadership of Tony Young and others is encouraging,” he said. “We ought to take another look.”
In the meantime, his sights are set on a green horizon, and maybe, somewhere out there, a fishing trip.
James is a Carlsbad-based freelance writer.