Robert Kembel is a finance-specialist banker-turned-builder, pilot and ordained minister who doesn’t really consider himself to be in the building business
By the time Nehemiah Co. CEO and Partner Robert Kembel wraps up a pair of massive housing projects in Arlington – Viridian and Arlington Commons – almost 20,000 people will live in single-family homes, condos or apartments created under the firm's umbrella.
That'll likely mean Nehemiah will surpass the number of homes produced in the city by big-time developers like Fox and Jacobs or Trammell Crow.
Those companies had an advantage that Kembel and Nehemiah do not. Those developers were able to plat, pave and cul-de-sac former cotton farm prairies in the suburban sprawl, tract home boom of the 1960s to 1990s with few obstacles.
Not so for Kembel or Nehemiah. A $2 billion project, Viridian (loosely translated the term means “green place”) exists on four square miles of Trinity River bottoms in north Arlington that vexed nine different owners since 1970, the magic being figuring out how to elevate a flood plain across the street from a mountainous landfill into a profitable endeavor.
Until Viridian came along, failure followed failure. The area was once considered a possibility for the Dallas Cowboys. Other doomed projects included Lakes of Arlington and the Lakes at Bird’s Fort.
Moving million of tons of river bottom tends leave deep holes, which become lakes (Viridian has seven lakes), which eventually become assets because people love homes near water.
How’s it going now? Viridian in the first six months of this year was the 26th most successful housing development in sales in the entire USA. That’s remarkable. The company is well on its way to building an upscale mix of 5,000 homes, condos and apartments.
Drive a couple of miles south of Viridian to Arlington Commons, which has a separate group of investors, and there’s a different issue.
City leaders wanted to do something ¬– as in flatten – aging apartment complexes on Lamar Boulevard. They were also willing to provide public assistance as well as allow higher density and mixed use dominated by upscale apartments.
Nehemiah and an investor group dominated by auto dealership kingpin John Moritz eventually bought three of the complexes, demolished them and began Arlington Commons, 1,320 high-dollar units in four projects stretching across a decade.
A clearly elated Kembel notes that the first 353-unit portion of Arlington Commons, The Roosevelt, opened last year and is expected to reach full occupancy by year’s end. Phase II, a 358-unit complex, is in the planning stage now.
All of that collectively makes Nehemiah a complex operation involving investors that cash in and cash out, hundreds of millions of dollars spent and more to be spent, extensive public-private collaborations and creation of special districts within which Viridian residents pay a premium to live in the development.
Nehemiah itself, created in 2012, is sometimes a developer for investors and sometimes an investor itself.
Given the complexity and the dollars involved, it would be easy to assume Nehemiah’s offices would be resplendent and loaded with staff. That’s why it’s a surprise to find the corporate office in a simple portable building on Collins Street. It’s 12 people, bare bones but remarkably efficient.
That’s likely because Kembel, 54, is an anomaly himself, a finance-specialist banker-turned-builder, pilot and ordained minister who, in fact, doesn’t really consider himself to be in the building business.
“My passion is organizational development,” Kembel says. “I’ve spent my career attempting to understand what make a great company and it’s not its products. So, you won’t see anything in our mission statement about real estate.”
That said, the real estate components are going well. So well that in 2019 the company will kick off a Viridian-style project called Karis – with slightly less expensive homes -- on 550 acres in Crowley that will include ponds, jogging paths, neighborhood parks and a host of other quality-of-life amenities.
“We want to do for Crowley what we’re doing for Arlington,” Kembel says. “And we will.”
O.K. Carter is a former editor and publisher of the Arlington Citizen-Journal and was also Arlington publisher and columnist for the Star-Telegram and founding editor of Arlington Today Magazine. He’s the author of the definitive book on Arlington’s colorful history, Caddos, Cotton and Cowboys: Essays on Arlington.