Core-area redevelopers mix roots, sleek design
December 2, 2013
Reflecting on the origins of HabeRae Investments Inc., Kelly Rae doesn't harken back to 1998 when she and her partner, Pamela Haberman, began buying property and transforming parts of rundown Reno one house, one building at a time.
She looks back nearly 40 years.
"It started as a rivalry between Hug and Reno girls' basketball in 1976," say Rae, who with Haberman owns and operates their namesake development firm. "I played for Hug and Pam played for Reno. Our teams always fought to the bitter end. We noticed an intense competitiveness in each other and were drawn to that."
Now, four decades and a few detours later, the pair have refurbished and sometimes built more than a hundred rental homes and commercial buildings on deteriorating lots, helping to turn around areas surrounding the city's inner core. In the process, they've won accolades and several city awards for doing what they love.
Probably their best known work is 8 on Center, one of HabeRae's biggest infill projects. Designed by Hawkins & Associates Architecture and Interior Design and built by Murphy Built Construction, a regular HabeRae partner, the eight-loft project won two awards from the city for its use of environmentally-sound design.
"I had never heard the phrase urban infill," says Rae, referring to the land planning principle of developing a city's existing lots to fill in gaps rather than build out. "We didn't go to school for this. I have a master's in public administration. We were thrown into the ocean and you better swim. We're still learning on every project, each has different challenges and obstacles. And we chose only projects and buildings that are the most difficult in Reno and we try to turn them around."
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Rae's former career was with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. She and Haberman, who worked for the DEA as an accountant, were both stationed in Mexico in the 1990s.
"During that time we saved every penny that we earned with the dream of going back to Reno and buying properties," says Rae.
The pair ended up back in their hometown in 1998 after Rae received death threats in Mexico. Two years later, after breaking her back chasing a fleeing felon, Rae's work with the DEA ended and what had started as a side job became full-time career for both women.
"We started buying little fixers. It started with two houses, 727 and 727 1/2, on Roberts Street," says Rae.
From the start, the pair hired contractors to do the work, rather than skimp and save by doing some of rehab themselves.
"We have a vision and we have professionals do the work," says Rae. "We pick out every single material, tile, fixture, paint. We do all the interior design. We even stage rentals sometimes."
They lean towards a sleek, modern look, but try to honor each project, using the design of its time for a 1930s bungalow, for example. They also refurbish even the most decrepit buildings and recycle materials. Two small, century-old farmhouses on Watt Street, which HabeRae was encouraged to tear down, were renovated into small homes, both under 500 square feet. Wood from Chinese elm trees that needed to be cut down were turned into planters. HabeRae's SoDo 4 project, in which former V&T Railroad quarters were renovated into four, 275-square-foot brick homes, removed decades of linoleum and carpeting to refinish the original Douglas fir floors. That project won another award for historic preservation.
On another site, dug-up boulders were turned into front-yard art. That project, called 2 Cubes on Stewart, also uses insulating concrete form construction, for energy efficiency. And projects with landscaping get drought-resistant plants.
HabeRae also has a guiding principle in terms of location: "Within two miles of the downtown urban core, that's out target area," says Rae. "Five minutes by car, seven by bike and 20 minutes to walk."
Right now, the pair is deciding what to do with the recently-purchased Walker Electronics building on Wilson Avenue. They bought the building from Dave Walker, who had owned it for 60 years.
"It's more of a creative process and emotional. We don't do formulas," says Rae. "And we promised him we'd do something he'd be proud of."
Also on their plate is the second phase of Dozen @ the Deluxe, in the former DeLuxe Laundry building, now a mixed-used space with residential lofts and Café DeLuxe, a restaurant operated by Barrie Shuster. The pair finances their projects without debt and sold a bunch of properties this summer to fund phase two. But estimates on the work came in higher than expected so Rae said they'll hold onto the nest egg until they can raise money enough to complete the Wells Avenue building.
"It's right across the street from where a McDonald's used to be, where Pam had her first job. She used to feed all the workers at the laundry and I used to wait for her in the parking lot," says Rae. "We just laugh our asses off about it now."