The farmhouses along the French Riviera reminded Charlotte D’Elia of Italy’s Venice. They were classic European-style homes she thought represented a “long, slow” lifestyle, but they had fallen past their prime. The floors of many of the homes were uneven, some of the houses had no electricity and a few had corners of the walls caving in.
Sweden-born D’Elia was an undergraduate at the University of Monte Carlo at the time, taking the train from out of town to study with classmates who lived in homes she likened to “palaces.” She decided to renovate some of the area’s farmhouses with the help of her classmate and boyfriend at the time.
“His family had money and I was good with design,” she said. “We’d go in and re-structure it and put in electricity and put it on the market. And it looked exactly as it should look: Preserved it in a way.”
From then on D’Elia said she was hooked on what would become a career in real estate development. After 15 years of working on the Westside and overcoming personal obstacles in recent years, D’Elia is now recapturing the spirit of why she got into the business.
These days she has her sights set on Venice Beach where the development firm, RAD Ventures, she co-founded with her late husband is headquartered and currently working on a new restaurant, Barnyard, which opens in late December.
The RAD Venture offices are located in one of D’Elia’s crowning achievements: the luxury loft and work space on Main Street called Dogtown Station. The building represents much of what Venice has become lately with its sleek design and live/work environment that caters to a modern entrepreneur. It’s from here D’Elia’s business partner Andy McMullen said it’s easy for the team to think realistically about development plans in the city.
Although much of her work has been – and continues to be – projects that involve building new structures (often contemporary multi-unit housing), she now often finds herself immersed in work that brings her back to her days in France. Projects where she can restore local gems in particular appeal to her on the Westside, an area she’s considered home since she came to USC for graduate school.
“There are a lot of properties here we want to bring up to their full potential,” D’Elia said.
D’Elia said sunny Los Angeles is “like heaven” to her after she grew up in the considerably colder weather of Sweden. The more spread out urban areas mixed with trees and greenery are appealing to the developer’s eye compared to other U.S. cities like New York.
She enjoys the best of both worlds living in Santa Monica Canyon where she cares for avocado and orange trees in her yard. At the ultra-modern Dogtown Station, D’Elia’s office looks more like an apartment, with a small kitchen, couches and an upstairs office. McMullen said the team will often “sort out challenges” while playing fetch with D’Elia’s Rottweiler, Boo.
“Venice is truly a community network and it helps we’ve been entrenched in the culture for some time,” McMullen said.
D’Elia, who’s been in the development industry locally for the past 15 years, said it can still be hard at times when locals are wary of the changes that developers can bring to the city.
“It’s not so much a fight as much as it’s a dialogue,” D’Elia said. “Ultimately they hold the last card.”
And D’Elia is no stranger to challenges.
D’Elia’s husband, partner and co-founder of RAD Ventures, Robert “Bob” D’Elia, died of brain cancer this past March. Robert, a business-savvy former Wall Street trader and investment adviser, was equally in love with the Westside, and the two made great partners.
D’Elia said she and her husband were “workaholics, side by side like racehorses.” But their work life came to a screeching halt when Robert was diagnosed with cancer. For the last year and a half of his life the couple focused on spending time together.
“It’s the most important thing,” D’Elia said.
D’Elia has now taken over their development business, but her husband is still largely influential in her endeavors. Her new restaurant, Barnyard, is a project he wanted work on. The restaurant will be designed to have a farmhouse-look, but with what D’Elia describes as an “elevated rustic” style to it.
“I love what I do,” D’Elia said. “And this was something that he wanted to do to so that was also part of it. I got involved in that after he passed away and it was definitely him saying, ‘Hey we should do that together. That would be fun.’ So it’s a tribute to him in a way.”
She said that her team has been a great support and help to her as well.
“The people who work with me are amazing,” she said. “They took on a lot.”
Sharon Robinson, chief operations officer, has worked with the D’Elia for nine years. Originally hired as an office manager and bookkeeper, Robinson said she learned a lot from both Charlotte and Robert.
“It is definitely a team,” Robinson said of the five-person firm. “We really respect the different skills that each person has and each person really makes a difference. There are so many different ways to do something that it’s really good to sit down and say, ‘Well, what if we did this? What if we did that?’ and get different people’s input.”
D’Elia said her company’s understanding of the local culture and their long-term commitment to the city has kept them in business, even in the face of the real estate market crash.
“I think a lot of people got into the real estate business when it boomed to make a quick buck and when it crashed they got hurt really badly,” D’Elia said. “From a real estate standpoint you have to look into the long term and commitment and you really have to make relationships.”
McMullen said that D’Elia has been a great partner to work with, largely due to her enthusiastic commitment to the business.
“Because of her reputation and that people love dealing with her, she can get many of our challenges solved within minutes over a quick call or meeting,” McMullen said. “Her brain is always churning some new strategy, new idea, new angle. Her late husband Bob was like that too. They’d be bantering, bartering and buzzing before their first cup of coffee.”
D’Elia also owns a jewelry line – a side project that she said was encouraged by her husband. But these days D’Elia said her main focus has shifted heavily back into real estate. She said she is now often one of the few women – if not the only woman – at the table at many business meetings.
“I had the advantage to have my husband on my side in the beginning, but sure, you have to overcome assumptions initially,” D’Elia said. “But if you’re competent, intelligent people quickly get over any concerns. I’ve been lucky. I’ve worked with really competent, highly professional people so they look to you for your skills and your knowledge.”
She said in some ways she sees her gender as an advantage in the industry.
“I’ve always played with boys,” she said. “I have an older brother and I admire men. They work extremely hard. And working side by side with my husband was what I needed to understand how they do business and how they do business different from us. It’s a life commitment in a way. And they need to learn from women I think that you have to set time aside for family and for downtime and to take a bath. We take a lot more baths than men do.”
She laughed, but then added, “There should be more. Women are phenomenal in multi-tasking roles. It’s what we do.”