When Heiser Development broke ground this month on Abacus Southside, a 140-unit apartment project in South Austin, it marked the latest project for a family business with a nearly century-old lineage in real estate.
These days, the company is run by Robert Harris Heiser Jr. and his son Bradfield Walling Heiser, a sixth-generation Austinite. It has 20 employees and three divisions that specialize in the development, architecture and management of office, apartment, condominium and retail projects. Currently, the firm is developing and operating assets in Austin, Dallas and San Antonio.
“We’re very nimble,” said Bradfield Heiser, noting that the various divisions help it weather boom-and bust cycles.
The company’s $16 million Abacus project, due to open in spring 2014 South Congress Avenue and William Cannon Drive, comes as the local apartment market is booming. About 12,000 units will be built this year, with an estimated 10,000 a year projected for 2014 and 2015, experts say.
Steady job and population growth are keeping other sectors of Central Texas’ real estate market strong as well. But having survived a few downturns, Robert Heiser knows there’s always another one on the horizon.
“As sure as I’m sitting here, there will be a downturn,” Robert Heiser said. “Traditionally, in the ’60s and ’70s, the cycles were six years, but now they are coming faster because you’re able to build quicker and faster.” Seasoned developers know when a crash is coming, he said, “you just don’t know how far it’s going to go down.”
The Heisers said experience tells them that the Central Texas apartment market is overheatingand will soften at some point as the bulge of new supply is added.
“People are paying too much for land, and are projecting rents that are unattainable,” Bradfield Heiser said. “The (anticipated) rents don’t pencil out.” He thinks the local market can handle 35,000 new units coming to market through 2015, but “after that if you are delivering product I would be concerned.”
The younger Heiser teamed up with his father, an architect, in 2009. With degrees from UT and Southern Methodist University (which his great-great grandfather William Bradfield founded), Bradfield Heiser had worked at Goldman Sachs and UBS Global Real Estate in Dallas.
The Heisers inherited the real estate gene from previous generations on both sides of the family, starting in 1921 when Bradfield Heiser’s great-great grandfather, Tom Walling, went into the business with his son-in-law, Landon Bradfield.
They and their heirs would help shape Austin’s growth for decades. Landon and his son Tom developed the desirable Pemberton Heights neighborhood, among others, and were instrumental in developing MoPac Boulevard in the early 1970s.
In the 1990s, Tom Bradfield’s company sparked an outcry from environmentalists when it sold sensitive land along MoPac in the Barton Springs watershed following a protracted legal fight with the city.The lawsuit paved the way for the office buildings, townhomes and other development that was allowed as a result.
In an industry where as Robert Heiser says, “timing is everything,” he recalls how his father-in-law, the late Tom Bradfield, once summed up the cyclical nature of the business in an essay.“‘In good times, you work like a rented mule. In bad times, you go fishing.’ He got an A.”
Heiser Development projects include:
Abacus Southside — 140 apartments
Barton Skyway 400,000 square feet of office
Barton Oaks Building 4 and 5 — 220,000 square feet of office
Spyglass Creek — 175,000 square feet of office
The Park at Barton Creek — 210,000 square feet of office
South Lamar Storage —349 units
Villas of Lost Canyon —30 condominiums
Texas Land & Cattle, IHOP — restaurant