Stephen Karp has revitalized retail and hotel properties across the country. Now his son, Douglass Karp, is expanding the empire even further.
Going to the mall wasn’t the same for Douglass Karp as it was for most kids. In 1972, his father, Stephen Karp, opened one of the first enclosed shopping malls in the Northeast; he would go on to develop dozens of malls and other shopping complexes around the country. “When we would go on vacation, we had to see what mall was built in the area,” says the younger Karp. “What I didn’t realize was that he was teaching me at a pretty early age about foot traffic patterns and where the anchors and the food court should be.”
All that knowledge has come in handy, as Karp recently took over management of the family business. Now president of New England Development, he is sitting in a booth at Panera Bread at Chestnut Hill Square, a 340,000-squarefoot mixed-use development that his company recently built, rejuvenating a once-moribund area. It’s one of nearly 100 properties that New England Development has successfully constructed and managed in the past 35 years.
Even more impressive, the company has earned a reputation for consensus building—something that Karp also learned from his dad. “My father always said, ‘When you sit at a table, you want everyone to walk away happy.’” Case in point: When residents started banging pots over the increase in traffic on Route 9 that Chestnut Hill Square would bring, the company scaled back the project and worked with the state to ease access. “When you’re going into a community, it’s their kingdom,” Karp says. “You don’t want to invade; you want to be let in.”
Although his father became a real estate titan, Karp was never content to rest on his family’s laurels. Growing up in nearby Weston, he started his own business in 1992 while still a high school student, along with Ben Fischman, son of his dad’s partner Steven Fischman. Hip-hop culture was flourishing, and the two bugged their fathers about opening stores in their malls to sell baseball caps. They began with a cart at The Atrium in Chestnut Hill. “We had to pay rent and all the extra charges like anyone else,” Karp says. Over the next seven years, the company, Lids, expanded to more than 300 locations nationwide. Then Karp’s father asked if he’d consider becoming the project manager for a new property he was building on Nantucket, the White Elephant Hotel.
“When you’re going into a community, it’s their kingdom. You don’t want to invade; you want to be let in.” —Douglass Karp
It was a difficult offer to refuse. Karp had spent summers on Nantucket. He played Wiffle ball on the lawn of The Wauwinet, a New England Development property on the island, while it was under construction, and he fished for stripers in Nantucket Sound. Karp took the ferry to check out the White Elephant on a Thursday and started as project manager the following Monday.
Over the next 16 years, Karp worked his way up through the ranks to president. While his father presciently saw the rise of indoor shopping malls in the ’70s, he also anticipated their demise, selling a significant portion of the mall portfolio in 1999. Since then, New England Development has concentrated on outdoor shopping centers, particularly “lifestyle malls,” featuring a mix of big-box stores, high-end specialty boutiques, and restaurants.
With its wealthy, educated population, Chestnut Hill was the perfect location for the concept. Karp set out to transform the area, bringing in SoulCycle and a tony Equinox fitness center and convincing the upscale supermarket chain Wegmans to open its first urban store. As the property developed, it expanded its focus on health-conscious consumers, adding the athletic clothing store Athleta, a medical building, the locavore restaurant Seasons 52, and the salad mecca Sweetgreen.
Although his father is still active in New England Development as chairman and CEO, he has ceded control of day-to-day operations to Karp, who is currently putting the finishing touches on a new outdoor shopping center in Westwood. “I’ve had a great experience watching my father and Steve Fischman running the company over the years, so it’s been pretty seamless,” he says of the torch passing. “It’s an honor. It’s something I don’t take lightly.”