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Designing for the Benefits of Co-Living: How Developer Dana Spain Mastered the Pivot

running-a-business | Read Time: 3 minutes

By WSFS Contributor | Published: February 2022


Dana Spain is known for many things, from her work in publishing to animal welfare and her charity work for Veterans’ causes. She has led a circuitous career that began in commercial real estate with her family’s retail chain that has led her back to commercial properties since 2013 with a myriad of her own projects.

Most recently, Spain–now Managing Member of her latest endeavor, Spain Development Group–has been designing multi-family properties ranging from rehabs, stick-built, and eventually modular. “Once I got into modular construction systems, I stayed there because it was an epiphany and now I advocate all the benefits of modular and won’t build any other way,” Spain said.

Her latest project, Quarters at 1150 North American Street in Northern Liberties, takes a non-traditional spin on housing. It was designed with co-living in mind with the hopes of building a strong sense of community, especially among the growing populations in Philadelphia of “meds and eds,” those looking to make friends in a new city, or people simply looking for a more affordable living option in an up-and-coming neighborhood.

Spain, a lifelong animal lover and founder of the Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), also wanted to ensure the building was extraordinarily animal friendly, with no breed restrictions and allowing up to 3 pet residents per apartment.

Like many projects, Quarters was not immune to the pandemic’s challenges.

“Unfortunately for all of us, we were in the midst of building as COVID hit,” Spain recalled. “There has been a slow down for permits, inspections and leasing… it’s been a bit of a struggle, but WSFS has been with us every step of the way.”

Another unique challenge of the pandemic for a residential building designed for co-living? When people were forced to be home all the time, they didn’t necessarily want to be in a shared apartment with strangers. There was a more cautious nature around who you were living with and amongst once COVID hit, so Spain’s team had to consider the best path forward for the communal setup they worked so hard to build.

“We have people living there now in co-living but we are testing the waters to start taking the smallest of the apartments and retrofitting them into market rate,” Spain said. “We are taking some of our 2-bedroom apartments and making them into ample 1-bedroom or studio+ apartments to see what that does to the stabilization of the building.”

A serial entrepreneur drawn to others with creative solutions, Spain has worked with Pamela Arms, SVP Commercial Real Estate at WSFS Bank, for 4 years and the two have collaborated on 3 projects. Speaking on the benefit of their partnership Spain shared that with Arms “there’s a creativity and a sense of transparency and honesty that if something won’t work, it won’t work. But here’s what will…”

She added, “With modular construction, not a lot of banks understand our process, when deposits need to be drawn, inspection processes, etc. WSFS has been really malleable working with us within the timelines of our process.”

When asked about advice for women looking to enter the commercial real estate industry and following an entrepreneurial path, Spain offered the following. “It’s all about perspective, taking risks, and having the stomach to ride the wave of those risks and overcome obstacles. And remember, there are those of us who have been around the block and are happy to share our experiences and misadventures, so you won’t make the same mistakes. We should all collectively be sharing that strength.”

“I am grateful for the trailblazing women in real estate who have been integral in getting me to where I am in this business and for partners like Dana who carves lanes every day,” said Arms,. “With success also comes the responsibility to share our knowledge, our mistakes, and actively mentor the next generation of women who are entering our industry.”



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