Developers to Watch

Thomas Calus | 6 Boston Developers to Watch in 2023

For Thomas Calus, everything starts with design.

NAME: Thomas Calus

COMPANY: TCR Development

We like to go back to the teenage years for the first question. What were you doing at 17 years old?

When I was a teenager, I was living in the south of Spain in Marbella. It was a really kind of super pleasant lifestyle. The town that I grew up in is a little bit like the Miami of Spain. It was very free, very safe for kids. We were free to go to the beach, meet up with friends. It was sunny, beachy, coastal, and during the summer it would get to be busy, because it was like a tourist town, so during the summer there would be lots of foreigners from the rest of Europe who would storm in with their kids.

So we would go play in these little parts of towns with our skateboards, bicycles, meet up with other kids who were there as tourists. It was a super international vibe because the school I was in is an international school. So there were kids from Germany, England, Spain, Portugal, the Middle East. There were Asians, Americans. So it just had a kind of international and free vibe. I liked to skateboard, go to the beach, hang with friends.

At that time, really wasn’t thinking much about the future, frankly. I was thinking about what I was doing the next day and which girls I was going to meet up with, which friends I was going to meet up with. But I always did imagine myself in the future as a free person. I never imagined myself in a corporate job. I didn’t have the ambitions of getting into something very technical like engineering or a medical field or anything like that. I knew that I wanted to do something somewhat creative and where I would be free to live my life the way I see fit.

Got it. Were you born in the Marbella, Spain area too?

I was actually born in Paris. My parents are French. In 1985, when I was just a five year-old boy, my parents separated and my mom wanted a change of life. She wanted to move somewhere that was sunny and have, let’s call it, a sweeter life. Similar to people moving to Florida in a sense, from a colder part of the country. She had some friends from Barbella, which was like a holiday destination, and that’s where she decided to move us with my two sisters. It was kind of that lifestyle — lots of golf courses, beaches, tennis clubs, and just a fun town that gets very activated in the summer and is warmer all year-round.

That must’ve been cool to grow up in an international sort of scene.

Yeah, it was. It was great to move there at the age of five and be put in that international environment. It allowed me to learn English fluently then instead of later in life. I learned Spanish right away as well, like you do, when you’re thrown into that environment. I used to ride my bicycle into the local village next to where we lived, and there were all the local Spanish kids, and just playing with them, I spoke Spanish right away. So being in that international environment in that school was great.

I remember when I was a little boy, just these friends, one who I’m still very good friends with today, was Swiss, another one was Scottish but he was born in Saudi Arabia because his dad worked there. I had another friend whose parents were from Algeria. A Spanish kid, an English kid. It was just very international. So even during play dates, you meet the parents, you bathe in all these different cultures. I feel like it opened my horizon and my perspective and it’s been an amazing tool in life.

And even just being able to speak Spanish fluently and really understand the culture. It’s helped me a lot in the real estate business. A lot of construction work is often performed by immigrants that are Spanish-speaking, so we’re speaking the same language. I mean, the Brazilians speak Portuguese, but I understand Portuguese very well. They understand Spanish. They’ll ask me if I’m Spanish, and I’ll say, “I’m French, but I have a Spanish heart.” Because I grew up there, from five to 18. So that’s really when you become a man, in a sense.

But I feel very American, too. My kids were born here. I think it’s just such a great country.

So at 18, what did you do next?

So I originally went to school outside of London, to Richmond University. My dad was born in 1940. Like a lot of French people of that generation, there’s like the American dream, the American ideal, because they were liberated by the Americans in 1945 from the German occupation and the Nazis. So that generation grew up with that kind of 1950s, 1960s American ideal.

So with all the American movies, blue jeans, James Dean, that kind of thing. My dad did not have the English background and the mastery of the language that I had, and he always sort of regretted not living, not working in the US. So growing up, he’d always tell me, you have to go the US. And so growing up, we actually went on vacations there with him, to New Orleans, to Florida a few times, to New York. And so he was always like, if you’re gonna make it, you gotta go to the US. So I always had it in my mind that I was going to move there.

So as I was finishing high school, I wasn’t ready to come straight away to the US for university. I also hadn’t organized myself well enough to do that with the applications, and American schools are very expensive. But I picked an American university in London and I spent a year there. And then I wanted to spend some time in Paris where I was born, because I had never really lived there. So I transferred to the American University of Paris. Then I did like a summer semester at NYU, so I started getting a feel for the US.

And then I graduated from the American University of Paris, and I got really married really young. I was married at 24 years old. And so after I graduated, I did some odd jobs in France, just like little jobs. And when I got married, I was like “OK, I have to get my life in motion.” I looked for a job and knew that I wanted to move to the US, and I found a job in Boston. It was more like an extended internship at the time. And that’s when I moved to Boston. I was 24.

What was that job that you took in Boston?

It was a real estate job. I felt like real estate would be a good fit for me because I knew I liked construction, design, architecture, good looking buildings. I feel like it’s something where I can be fairly hands-on. And I also felt like it was one of those things where I can work and then eventually, hopefully be my own boss.

I met with an older gentleman who was a friend of my mom, and he’s since passed away, but he was a real estate developer in Belgium, in Brussels, and he also did some projects in the south of Spain. And he told me, “Real estate is great. You can be independent, you build great buildings, you’ll have cash flow.” Things that I didn’t really understand at the time.

Before, I had been thinking, because my dad a pharmaceutical business, maybe I can go work for my dad, see how that goes. But my mom’s friend reminded me that I could always go work for my dad later on in my life. He encouraged me to try real estate, work for someone, learn the business, put in the time, see if I like it.

So it all kind of aligned to where I was like, OK, I’m going to move to the US. I spoke English fluently, so I knew I wouldn’t have a problem with that. I’m getting married. I’m going to move with my new wife and I’m going to find a job. And so this job in Boston was working for a family-owned real estate management and development firm. It was originally an internship of sorts, and I ended up staying with them for seven years. Pappas Properties.

So you end up being at this management and development firm from 25 to 32. What kind of projects did you have? What was your role?

Yeah, I was with them until 2010. It was really closer to six years. And it was great. They didn’t have many employees. Most employees were either kind of back office, and then they had a construction crew that they used for the property management and renovations.

While I was there, we built the first gold LEED certified residential project in Boston. It was kind of the transformation of that whole West Broadway area, which I was lucky to be a part of with them. But they gave me a lot of responsibilities. I wore a lot of different hats because it was a small company. Like many real estate companies, there weren’t many employees, but they were doing some bigger, fun projects.

The first project I ever worked on was a building in Worcester that needed to be fully cleaned up and redeveloped. So every morning I was driving to Worcester. I had to deal with the evictions over there. Then we renovated every unit. It was kind of like, my project. I learned a lot. There were some mistakes along the way, as you can imagine. I did property management for them, I did development, I helped them with entitlements, some construction management, some project management. I really learned all the aspects of the business, and it was a great experience.

For someone who wants to get into development, maybe in their early-to-mid 20s, would you recommend a similar path?

What I’ve noticed in this business is that more often than not, guys graduate from university and they’ll pick very specific careers in real estate that lock them in, maybe forever. For example, guys will go into, you know, the construction side of it and they’ll work for a general contractor. Other guys go into commercial brokerage. Other guys will go into the financial side and work for JLLs or CBREs as analysts, right? And then that’s the path that they’re in for a while.

For me, I do a little everything. I go on the construction side, I’ll do some financial modeling, I’ll meet with architects, I have to do all that stuff. I think for someone that really wants to become a developer, it’s good to be aware of that and pick a company that is smaller. When you’re starting a job, you might say to yourself, “Wouldn’t it be better if I go work for a big company? Isn’t that safer? Won’t I learn more?” And yeah, you’ll learn a lot, but it might just be very specific what you learn. Whereas working for smaller companies sometimes, you wear different hats and you’re exposed to more. If you want to eventually start your own business, a smaller company is probably the quicker starting path.

So after leaving that first job in your early 30s, what do you do next?

I started my own company. I started with some small projects. It really started whilst I was working for the company. I bought a two-family building in South Boston around ‘08. And I did a quick renovation and I flipped it, so I got a taste of that. And then with that money, I bought an old firehouse that was an American Legion post. I got it retitled, I took it through the zoning board, changed the use. It was kind of a side thing. And then I converted those into three condos, which I also flipped.

And then there was a larger project I wanted to do at that time. I spoke with the company that I was working for at the time about doing it together, but it didn’t end up like that. So I left and took on that larger project, and TCR was born.

How would you describe your business, TCR, then and now?

You know, it hasn’t radically changed, in the sense that I’ve always wanted to remain independent. I’ve never wanted to report to anyone. I’ve always wanted to do the deals that I want to do. Places that, like I said, are well designed or historically significant. It hasn’t changed much. Multi-family new development projects that are around 30,000 square feet, and then brownstone renovations.

For the most part, TCR is urban. It’s projects that are well designed. Some of them have high design architecture, even if its just a renovation, it’s meticulously well done. Refined, elegant. It’s got a little bit of an edge. It’s fun as well. There’s a restoration side that I love. I love old buildings, and I love restoring old buildings.

But I also love new, modern, more kind of cutting edge design and architecture. So it’s the two, right? It’s bringing the historic building to modern times by beautifully restoring it and updating it. It’s not necessarily high-end, per se. The first larger project that I did in South Boston were like entry level units in a neighborhood that was, at the time, very industrial. So I took a little bit of a gamble on the change of the neighborhood and how it would evolve. Those were first-time homebuyer type of units, but they were really well designed, and with a great architect. I’ve also done some very high-end units, $7 million type of units, in new buildings as well as older buildings.

Can you speak to how the American architecture you’re talking about appeals to you in a different way from some of the European destinations you’ve lived in?

You know, there’s obviously a difference between Parisian architecture or some of the architecture you’d find in the south of Spain, the sort of Moorish architecture you’d find in Seville. There’s a big difference in the way it looks. In Boston, it’s very much taken from what the English, the way they built buildings. You have that Victorian architecture and feel in Boston. With that said, in old buildings, there are similarities that you find that cross through. You have like high ceilings, grand staircases. You have lots of bays and bows which give volume, you know? And in Paris, you find similarities.

And people live in the parlor level, and that was the floor where you had your living rooms and people would entertain and all that because there weren’t elevators back then, so no one wanted to be on the top floor of a building, and party up there.

So the architecture is different, but the way things were thought of, there were similarities, because it was the way they lived. And Boston has always been a wealthy city, and a lot of the buildings were built very well, in a grand way. So it’s fun.

Do you have a particular sensibility in terms of design and inspiration?

I think sometimes, I do use some inspiration from things I’ve seen in France, Spain, and other parts of Europe. I do bring that to the table when we’re thinking of what we’re designing. Still, I think good design, in a city like Boston, with its own character, its own identity, its own soul, you have to respect that. So how do you make it contextual, right?

So if you’re doing new construction, to me, it has to be of its time. I’m talking about ground-up construction here. Trying to replicate an old building and building something that looks old with new stone, that feels a little like Disneyland to me. It’s a little bit pastiche. So I like buildings that are of their time, because good design is of its time. The way they built things a hundred years ago, I mean, something was designed that way because that’s how they lived back then. That’s the type of windows they had, the type of insulation they had. Today, we have different craftsmanship, different technologies, different glass, different distillation. So you have to take that into account as you design. So, good design is of its time, but also has to be contextual with the area that it’s in.

We look at buildings now, but what will they look like in a hundred years? Will a building be part of the city, or this anomaly?

So, design-wise, how does that translate to Boston in 2023?

I think Boston is ready for more cutting-edge design and architecture. When you use the term “blend in,” I don’t necessarily like that term, so I’m just going to clarify. I think buildings have to be contextual, in a sense. They have to pick up on the identity of a city, a neighborhood, and other buildings on the street. But they have to still stand out with their own unique soul and identity.

In Boston, I think there could be better architecture. I think there are some beautiful buildings. But there’s a lot of just simple, kind of glass towers that could be a little more detailed and more interesting, I feel like. I think the Seaport was a great opportunity for amazing architecture and design, and it’s great what’s happened there and see a neighborhood like that emerge, and there are some nice buildings, but I think Boston is a conservative city. It’s a conservative people here, and that’s also part of the greatness, right? But it’d be OK to push the envelope a little more.

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What do you aspire to do with TCR?

I would love to — and it might not be in Boston, it could be in Boston, may be elsewhere — but I would love to do a beautifully designed, affordable building. It’s very hard to put those deals together. But I would love to treat an affordable building like a high-end building.

I would design something like 100+ units, 200 units, super well designed with great common areas, but also make it affordable. So you have to make it really smart. When you do affordable buildings, you have to get really smart about what you’re picking, your finishes, your materials, the facades, all that. You have to get really creative because your budget is so tight. It’s like just getting into that kind of really smart design.

I’ve also thought about something like that, but like, real affordable kind of housing in — I hate to call it a trailer park, but a beautiful trailer park in which you design modular homes that could be built in a factory. There’s crazy technology now with printing homes. Creating like, a community where there’s dignity, where the residents are living in well designed homes, there are common areas, swimming pool, gyms, areas to grill and hang out, but still really affordable.

We have a national housing crisis. There’s just not enough housing. Housing is super expensive, and so many people are living in very poor conditions. And I think it would just be great to do a project that would help provide a solution for that.

This makes me think of that first larger project you did.

Yeah, right! It was entry level housing. They were not expensive. They were like, the less expensive townhouses for that neighborhood. The architect that I worked with, Michael LeBlanc at Utile Architecture, designed these townhouses that really had a little garage, three bedrooms, two bathrooms. Everything spatially was like, perfect. Washer dryer, little roof deck. Every inch mattered. We picked finishes that were really affordable finishes in a way, because we were on a budget and wanted to sell them at an entry level price. So it was a little bit of that exercise already there, right. And it was fun.

With your sense of design, I imagine that you get a lot of higher-end, higher-priced queries, but longer-term, you have a desire to do something more accessible. Is that accurate?

Yeah, it is. I kind of fall into more high-end projects. I recently completed a project on Marlborough Street, and I took a lot of elements that I’ve seen in very high-end apartments in Paris lately, like the staircases and appliances and this and that. And I used all that inspiration to design that house and that project, and it’s great. I enjoy doing it as well. I love it. I love very high-end stuff too.

But I feel kind of a need to also do more affordable things. You have to get a little smarter in design. And just knowing that there’s a housing crisis, you can’t always be developing super crazy high-end stuff in Boston. You’re not going to solve a problem doing that.

Is there a project that you’re most proud of?

That first one. The dirt in itself was challenging. These little strips of land to build 22 townhomes over there was a challenge in itself, conceptually. At the time, South Boston was really not the South Boston of today. The area was really industrial. So this was the first project of its kind. It was a very big project for me. There were affordable units there, the units in themselves were first time homebuyer units, they were very well-designed, and it transformed the neighborhood in a sense, right? I’m very proud of that one. It’s also what like, launched my career.

How do you differentiate a good realtor from one that you probably wouldn’t work with?

A good realtor is a realtor that is highly available, really understands the market deeply, on a technical level, runs the comps, looks at all the different things that sold. It’s also, for me, understanding what we do, understanding the construction cost, financing cost, the soft cost, all that. It’s a realtor that knows how to give you the real story, that gets real with you. You’re not gonna sell that for that price, you’re not gonna buy that for that price, this is what you need to do. I also like realtors that have a little bit of a design sense. Like, this is what we’re seeing, these are the trends people like, and contribute that way.

Imagine it’s 10 years into the future in Boston. There’s a hot new area being developed in the Greater Boston Area — one that’s mostly overlooked today. What would you guess that it is?

I mean, it’s already kind of happening, but Brighton is really going up, Roxbury, past Mass. Ave, Nubian Square, it’s a great location. I’m a big fan of the North Shore, like Revere, Everett, Chelsea, East Boston.

What are some qualities in neighborhoods and in specific projects that really catch your interest?

You want to be in a neighborhood you’re comfortable with that is up and coming, or could become one. I look at like, how long does it take to go in your car to downtown Boston? Are you close to the T? Are you close to the water? What are the demographics in the neighborhood? Are there a few coffee shops and things? Then there are established neighborhoods that you already know what they are.

As far as what types of projects, if I’m buying an existing building, like a brownstone, I look at what’s the width, what are the ceiling heights, does it have a bow, what are the views like, how deep is it, how is it all going to lay out. Are there interior features that can be maintained that are interesting? How is the building on the outside? Was it built by a developer or by an end-user? That can impact whether there’s more or less detail. Buildings that aren’t necessarily brownstones, you could be like, OK, this is cool, this was a factory, a printing press, look at these amazing Southern Yellow Pine beams. How’s the window structure? Is there beautiful exposed brick? Can I take part of the building down and add a crazy glass facade, and juxtapose it with the old brick, the old windows, the old steel structure.

I love the mixing the old and the new. I think it’s fantastic to mix really modern architecture with the old base. You see that in some beautiful cities of the world, London, Paris, Chicago and whatnot. I’ll look at all that when it’s an old building.

For new buildings, it’s really like, where is the parcel located? What are the other buildings next to it? What’s the height of the other buildings? What kind of density am I going to get here? How will I design it? Is it a corner lot? A deep lot? That’s kind of the thought process.

If you were to start over in another city in the US as a developer, where would you go?

I like Los Angeles. It’s a very tough city to do business in, but what I like about Los Angeles is you have a downtown area that’s very dense, but there’s still lots of space in that downtown area, so you could build some really cool new construction buildings there. In LA, there’s also that kind of modernist architecture culture, which is already there, which I really like. There’s opportunity to tap into that.

There are lots of neighborhoods that are very different now, so you could do lots of different things. You could build a really cool modern building in like, Venice Beach, right? With super cutting-edge architecture, you could build a crazy tower in downtown LA. You can build a crazy mansion in the Hollywood Hills, like on stilts, with fantastic views.

And in LA, there is all that space in the surroundings of LA where there is a need for affordable housing, where you can build newer, much better conceived communities. You can tap into the whole affordable housing thing over there.

Having all those different neighborhoods, all that space, it’s like a fun playground to do different things. And it’s fun to be somewhere where the weather is nice, all year-round. But business is difficult in California. Lots of bureaucracy. So I don’t know if I would go. But if we put that aside, the creative call is there.

Last question: As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to be a rock star. As a kid, I wanted to be in a rock band.

OK then, followup: What music are you listening to these days?

[Laughter] I have a very, very eclectic choice of music. I love everything, but I have a sensitive touch to rock and roll. I love Guns N' Roses, all the 80s, 90s stuff, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nirvana, Pearl Jam. Like grunge rock, rock and roll, hard rock.


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