Interview with Scott Burnham
This major local commercial real estate developer talks about his newest project and why he green-lighted it as a green project.
Go back just a decade. Who would have thought that major retail centers would get green awards from planning commissions? But that’s exactly what the 300,000-square-foot South Coast Collection, known as SoCo and featuring everything from Zen gardens and a monthly farmer’s market to national retailers, pulled off with its redesign. The Costa Mesa Planning Commission recently honored the center, along with its Paul Mitchell The School, with its Green Award.
It means a lot, especially to Newport Beach’s Scott Burnham, the chairman of the board and CEO of Burnham USA, the center’s owner and developer. In fact, Burnham himself probably would have never seen this new green tendency coming. A graduate of USC’s business school, he began his career in the decidedly un-green ‘70s as a local commercial broker. He quickly outgrew that role, however, and started his own commercial real estate development company. Today, that company is Burnham USA Equities, Inc., with everything from medical and office to industrial and retail buildings in its national portfolio.
It’s here in coastal Orange County, however, where Burnham Inc. took a decidedly green turn with its projects. And the best representation of that is SoCo. So we asked Burnham about that decision and if it’s as good for business as it is for the planet.
What are some key green features of Burnham USA’s “green” projects?
Let’s start with something as simple as the landscape. All of our green projects include a landscape design that incorporates drought tolerant plant materials. Succulents, grasses, olive trees, and other comparable plant material generally are a common theme in our landscape design. Architecturally speaking, we attempt to select materials that are eco-friendly and require low maintenance (if any), such as redwood, ipe wood, treated metals, and natural plasters. With a little thought, properties can easily be designed to be politically correct and attractive at the same time.
Probably your most notable recent green project is the South Coast Collection at Harbor and the 405 freeway. Why did you take a sustainable slant with that project?
South Coast Collection, or “SoCo” as we call it, is probably the best example of what can occur when a property owner is willing to think outside the box. SoCo is located on a very visible 20-acre stretch off the 405 freeway. In this case, my partners and I felt that we needed to do something that was different for Orange County and that this property, with its great exposure to the freeway, could be a catalyst for other properties in the community to go green.
Has it worked?
Yes, I think it has already served that purpose. We get daily visitors who just want to walk the grounds to take pictures for ideas. SoCo was also recently recognized by the city for sustainability; a joint venture we did between Paul Mitchell The School and our ownership allowed us to do a unique sustainable project within SoCo. Along with Paul Mitchell, we developed a state-of the-art water reclamation system/water tower that treats up to 2,000 gallons of daily water usage from the School and diverts it to be reused for other onsite purposes, including SoCo irrigation water. This model is now being implemented in the design for other future Paul Mitchell schools in the country.
Is it costlier to build green?
Not necessarily. So long as it is properly planned out from the get go. In fact, there are certain tax incentives and rebates available to homeowners today for actual energy efficiency and saved water consumption.
Was it a difficult decision to completely redesign SoCo in a tight economy?
No, because in the case of SoCo, we made the decision to entirely reinvent the property. It was all wrong for where we wanted to take the property so an entire redevelopment strategy was implemented. This required significant deconstruction of the existing structures and a big investment to rebuild what you see today. This was done in conjunction with attracting an entirely new tenancy base that now revolves around style, which includes design, fashion and food.
What about buildings that were not built using “green thinking”? Can you do anything to make them have less of an impact?
Yes. A perfect example of what can be done is right in our backyard, here in Newport. People may be familiar with one of our buildings in Newport Center, at 270 Newport Center Dr. It has a Frank Lloyd Wright-esque contemporary flair with a lot of straight lines. This historic building was originally designed by renowned local architect Edward Giddings in the early ‘70s and much of the building’s exterior had shown its age. So I elected to incorporate more sustainable treatments, such as a redwood exterior (to replace the former old T&G wood), and cable and metal railings to replace the old wood railing on the decks, all of which is complemented by a new drought-tolerant landscape design.
The Bluffs Bungalows, located behind Our Lady Queen of Angels in the Eastbluff area, also comes to mind. Right when we purchased the property it was old and tired, and after some study, I decided to transform it into something that was more architecturally current. Again the use of sustainable finishes and landscape were key to transforming this property’s overall aesthetics.
What are the biggest challenges in going green?
First of all, any improvement will cost money, so if you’re serious about making any improvement, you need to be prepared to spend some money. There is also more bureaucracy today than there used to be, so you need to be prepared to work through the red tape.
The OC Mart MIX used a lot of reclaimed materials. Talk about that decision.
The OC Mart MIX is a cutting-edge concept and needs to be current. This reclaimed design and the use of reclaimed materials is not only sustainable but served as the perfect backdrop for the MIX venues. It just feels right!
What are the benefits – besides helping the environment?
If done properly, it can be contagious.
Why do you think it’s important for other centers to follow your lead?
Clearly, this is the direction for the future and we can all make a contribution of sorts.
Where did you grow up and what did your parents do?
I had the benefit of growing up right here in Newport. I attended CdM high school and USC. Growing up, I was blessed to have great parents as role models. My father and mother were very involved with philanthropy and my dad gave the last half of his life to traveling the world for some nonprofit organizations.
Did you always want to be in commercial real estate?
I got interested in the business working as an intern at Coldwell Banker’s downtown office in Los Angeles during my USC college days. After graduating, I became a commercial broker working in Newport Beach through 1984. I left commercial brokerage at that time to be a partner in a development firm. I’m still following that same path.
What other projects inspire you?
I’m always inspired by architecture and I’m constantly taking down ideas. I love the European lifestyle; the open market, culinary, etc. The OC can stand a bit of this, which we are attempting to incorporate into some of our projects.