In the early 2000s, then-banker Eric Birnbaum was working at Bear Stearns in New York City but wanted to do something more creative. He learned how creative developers are, after watching his father-in-law Alan Landis work on properties across New Jersey. Birnbaum became fascinated by how the development process included everything from vision to blueprint, architecture to finance, interior design, marketing and sales, all rolled into one.
After working with experts across the field on several projects and companies, it led him to creating his own dream project in 2019, a real estate development firm called Dreamscape. Over the past three years, he has raised over $1 billion for its development fund, focusing on entertainment and gaming venues, multifamily properties, hotels and residential projects. Some of his most high-profile projects include the Pod Hotel in Times Square and the upscale Henry Hall apartments in Hudson Yards.
“From finding a site and thinking about what it could be, to assembling a team and watching the process unfold into something that you create and bring to life, there is nothing more satisfying,” said Birnbaum.
Some of his most notable projects include The Goodtime Hotel in Miami, a stylish, pastel-hued hotel project that includes an all-star team Birnbaum put together: singer-songwriter Pharrell Williams, interior designer Ken Fulk, architect Morris Adjmi and nightlife impresario David Grutman.
“They genuinely care about producing the best possible product for people to experience, and that’s the most important thing — not just lending your name to something but actually rolling up your sleeves and doing the hard work,” he noted.
Birnbaum is currently working on renovating the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Resort in Las Vegas. The goal is to renovate over 2,500 hotel rooms, since Dreamscape acquired the property from Caesars Entertainment Corp in 2019 for $575 million.
“We want to tap into what made The Rio so successful in the first place and simultaneously update it,” he said. Birnbaum spoke to Leverage.com about his projects, a forecast for 2022 and why Vegas needs a slice of Brooklyn.
How did your development firm Dreamscape all begin?
Where do I begin? In 2019, I was running a company with a business partner from 2014 to 2019 and our partnership had run its course. It was time to step up and do my own thing.
Why did you start the company?
We focus on multifamily, residential, hospitality and lodging, and gaming. As far as our projects in Las Vegas go, what sets it apart is that we’re hoping to make it approachable luxury. We’re giving people a sense of aspiration but at an affordable price.
How do you feel about how hotels are doing right now?
I don’t think there’s one blanket answer. Parts of tourism and travel are doing really well, others are lagging behind. Corporate travel has been lagging. At some point, the pandemic will abate, and we will turn to some sense of normalcy. Those markets will come back.
How do you incorporate being “stewards of creativity” as you claim on your website? What’s your definition of that?
The creative part is like this: It’s very easy to hire the same architects and same designers, like rinse and repeat. But I’d like to think that we try to challenge that a little bit and go a bit further. We create spaces that don’t feel so commodified and commercial. But we’re still fiduciaries at the end of the day. It’s about making good investments, but those two things can go hand in hand.
Goodtime Hotel in Miami | Image provided by Dreamscape, Photography by Alice Gao
One of your popular projects is the Goodtime Hotel in Miami, you partnered with Pharrell Williams and it has a retro look. How did it come together? You got serious star power on board for this hotel.
We brought on David Grutman to do our food and beverage program first, then it morphed into him introducing us to Pharrell and all of us getting together and saying, “Lets create this brand together.” We needed a face for this new hotel. The face of it is David and Pharrell. It worked out well.
How is the Rio renovation in Las Vegas coming together?
We haven’t started the renovation yet. We’re still in pre-development. What you see has been there for a while. We’re gearing up for the renovation this summer. It’s a big project, 2,500 rooms. It’s a city. It will take time. But it’s going to happen over time. It’s not where you shut it down and do your renovation all at once. It’ll be phased in.
Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino | Image provided by Dreamscape
What’s the vision for the Rio?
It’s evolving as we speak. It’s going to be cool and authentic. We like to think of it as left of center, a bit more Brooklyn to Vegas. We think they need that there.
Warwick Hotel Rittenhouse Square | Image provided by Dreamscape
How did the Warwick hotel go in Philadelphia?
We were able to buy that at a time when the world was crumbling, and people were panicking. It’s an iconic asset. It doesn’t need a lot of work. It’s just riding the recovery, if you will.
How do you see hotels bouncing back considering the state we’re in with the pandemic? Will things get better for the summer?
There’s no crystal ball. If you believe the pandemic is going to abate, the recovery is going to happen quickly. I’m certainly not a fortune teller. It’s so hard to know if another variant is going to come, how people are going to react. So many hinge on that. You must stay nimble. You have to over-lever. Hopefully asset prices will rise as the recovery ensues.
What about entertainment spaces?
I see Vegas as that. They’re all tied together. People like to live and experience, do things. We’re social creatures. Once everyone is out of their house in full force, you’re going to see these types of assets do better and better.
How did you approach the multifamily property you created, which was featured in The New York Times?
It’s just an extension of my personality. I just wanted to create a multifamily property, a place where I would want to live. If I was 25, just graduating from college, I would want to live somewhere fun. So, for this building, we gave it a boutique hotel kind of vibe to the multifamily space. We did that well. It has been well-received.
What do you have coming up this year?
The acquisition business is unpredictable, you never know what will come up. Our focus is on the day to day, but we always have our eye up for new stuff. We buy stuff when we see an opportunity. We want to be in growth markets we feel are on the upward trajectory.
We have been inquisitive in Nashville, we bought a few things in Charleston, we’re doing stuff in Las Vegas, doing a project in Los Angeles. Good cities with good growth potential are key. Then you have to get into the micro, the neighborhoods and the specific locations that you think will escalate.
The Saint Hotel, New Orleans | Image provided by Dreamscape
When you get to the point of being in a desirable neighborhood in a good city that’s ripe for growth, how do you find the right building?
You don’t want to buy commodities. Then you’ll just be a commodity. It’s important to find something that is differentiated. We know it when we see it. It’s a gut feeling. Everything is driven by math, so at the end of the day, the math must make sense. But you know when something feels different and special. Or if you know you can create something different and special out of something that’s existing. We do ground up, as well. It all depends.
The building you created, Hudson Hall, came before Hudson Yards became Hudson Yards. Am I right?
Yes. For sure, but we knew what was going on and where things were headed. That was all part of the thesis.
What other part of New York is exciting you as an up-and-coming area?
New York is tough right now. There is no specific area that I look at in New York City and think is not overplayed. New York is retrenching a little bit. Things may evolve. Maybe they’ll become more interesting. New York has gotten a little over-gentrified if you will. A lot of neighborhoods are losing a lot of their character.