UCD's Mr. Fix-It

You always know when Ryan Spak is in the office for the day. Although he only works at UCD part-time, he makes his hours count. He’s always hustling in through the back door, barking into his cell phone, zipping from meeting to meeting, and wasting no time getting down to business so he can solve one problem and move onto the next. He’s UCD’s Mr. Fix-It, our professor of permits, the deed detective. You need a drywall guy? An electrician? Need to know how to navigate L&I? Call Ryan Spak. But chances are he’s on the other line. 

“Do you mind if I eat? I haven’t had anything all day,” Ryan says before the interview begins. It’s 4:30 in the afternoon, but Ryan has been so busy he hasn’t had a moment for a meal. This is how it typically goes for him—each day he bounces from meeting to meeting all throughout the city, checking on properties, heading to City Hall, on the phone with his employees. He declines at least five calls during a 45-minute conversation. 

Ryan is a renaissance man driven by many different interests and passions. He grew up in the Northeast, earned a degree in Political Science and American Studies from Temple University, and held jobs as a DJ, a clerk in Philadelphia Municipal Court, and as a janitor before developing an interest in real estate and development. He’s a fast-talker who speaks in short, clipped sentences, and doesn’t like wasting words. 

“I bought my first property when I was 19,” Ryan says between bites of sushi. He goes on to outline a circuitous background that involved working for Ed Rendell’s gubernatorial campaign, becoming a realtor, buying property, working for a developer, starting a janitorial company, rehabbing houses in different neighborhoods, working as a paralegal, buying even more property, cleaning offices himself, and, of course, buying more property, including in West Philadelphia at 52nd and Springfield. Got all that? To make it even more impressive, all of this happened before he was 30. Through these experiences he developed a unique toolbox of talents, including how to find people using different databases, how to work with Philadelphia’s Department of Licenses and Inspections (L&I), the ins and outs of property ownership, how to match development projects to community needs, legal paperwork, and more.

Ryan’s ascent to development mogul was stopped in its tracks in 2010 when his wife Jessica fell ill. “I realized very quickly that life is short,” he says of that time. “We were broke.” He saw a posting for an open position for a Director of Community and Business Services with UCD and decided to apply, figuring his experience running a janitorial company made him a good candidate to oversee UCD’s cleaning operations in the district. 

When looking back, Ryan admits the position was “abso-freaking-lutely” over his head. But that didn’t stop him from applying and making a big impression on UCD staff, including President Matt Bergheiser. “He’s an entrepreneur,” says Matt.  “A guy who, with limited resources, can figure things out and solve problems. That was crystal clear from the interview process.” 

Without knowing it, Ryan was interviewing for a job he hadn’t applied for, a job that hadn’t even been defined until then. According to Matt, the community had come to UCD, requesting assistance with a neighborhood issue. “People had been coming to us and asking if we could help with abandoned properties. At the time we didn’t have the resources or the wherewithal or the skill to do so. All those things coming together—Ryan as a person, the demand side of the equation and what had been asked of us by the community. It was like a light bulb going off.” 

Toward the end of the interview process the final candidates were asked to come up with a business plan to improve UCD’s safety and cleaning services, and address the problem of abandoned properties in the neighborhood. How could UCD make headway with vacant or distressed properties that seemed to be stuck due to messy estates, disinterested or absentee owners, or myriad other issues? 

“You know my personality,” Ryan says. “I’m aggressive.” He seized on the opportunity to use his knowledge of real estate and outlined what plans what look like for homeowners, contractors, and private investors.  

It was clear that Ryan was just the sort of dynamic person who would push the boundaries of what UCD as an organization could do. Drawing from Ryan’s love for basketball, Matt compares Ryan’s style to a “chucker,” or “the guy who is shooting all the jump shots and making the coach scream ‘No, no, no!’ And then when the shot goes in, the coach switches to ‘Great shot, great shot!’” Matt called Ryan to tell him he didn’t get the job he had originally applied for, but that he wanted to meet for lunch. When they met, Matt explained that they wanted to take Ryan on to develop a playbook for a program to help abandoned and distressed properties.  

“My experience in this field was slim-to-none,” Ryan says, “Other than being a gutsy kid with nothing to lose.” But in reality, he had the skillset already: he understood property law; he knew how to locate property owners who were difficult to find; he was experienced with contracting. Ryan developed a playbook, handed it in, and was hired as a consultant on a part-time basis. He was told to see what he could do over six months as a trial. 

When asked if he was excited by this opportunity, Ryan exclaims, “Oh my God, are you kidding me? I was cleaning toilets at night! Here they were paying me to try something. Initially I saw it as a way to make some extra money, but then it became an opportunity to learn more about a business that I knew that I loved, and finally it became about learning a way to help the community. The minute it became about helping the community, it exploded.” 

At the same time Project Rehab was growing, so was Ryan’s career outside UCD. Around the time he began consulting for UCD he started the Spak Group, a real estate development company, with his wife and mother as partners. Through the Spak Group Ryan uses the same skills to rehabilitate, reposition and revitalize highly distressed properties. To avoid any conflicts of interest, the Spak Group focuses on properties outside of UCD’s coverage area, mostly to the west of 50th Street.   

Over the years Project Rehab has grown into a collaboration between local community groups, the City of Philadelphia, and UCD that works to transform problem properties into neighborhood assets. Since the program’s inception, Project Rehab has helped over 120 units come to market, has aided property owners in accessing nearly $15 million in financing, and has unlocked an estimated $21 million in real estate value. It also created an economic ripple effect by boosting local construction companies, suppliers, and real estate financers.

Ryan gets involved when people need to untangle messy situations, from permitting, to financing, to tracing down ownership of abandoned properties. When approaching property owners, Ryan makes clear that he’s offering a free service meant to improve the overall neighborhood, and that UCD has nothing to gain financially from any interventions. “We’re just trying to get the lights turned on.” 

And they certainly appreciate it.  “It never would have happened without Ryan stepping in!” says Alice Haggland, whose brother moved into an assisted living facility before he was able to untangle title on his property on 50th Street.  “Ryan knew the ins and outs and knew where he had to go, he talked to [the lawyer] a lot, he came to settlement….I knew if I had any questions, I could always ask him.” Today, that property – which sat vacant for years – is Dock Street Brewery’s new canning facility, while the adjacent parcel is slated for additional commercial and office use in the neighborhood.  

“Real estate is really complicated," Ryan says, "And if you haven’t handled your stuff—if you didn’t do a title right, or your mother’s estate, or you’re in the middle of a bankruptcy and you don’t pay your attorney—if at the end of the day, you don’t know how to handle that, who do you go to? The people who live within the University City District, or want to invest in the University City District, they have us. I love being able to share my knowledge.”

Nearly seven years after its inception, Ryan continues the work because he sees it as a way to give back to the community and because, as he says with a laugh, “It’s never boring.” Although Project Rehab initially focused on homeowners, it has moved into other arenas. In 2016 we married the work of Project Rehab and our West Philadelphia Skills Initiative in a program called Community Porch Revitalization, where a cohort of unemployed local residents learned carpentry skills.  

Ryan also provides assistance to local business owners looking to expand, grow or relocate to West Philadelphia. In the past year, he aided Dock Street’s expansion and helped Rosa’s Fresh Pizza receive financing for a University City location set to open early in 2018. 

Ryan has worked on larger properties, too, like when he helped save the Frank Furness Protestant Episcopal Church of the Atonement at 47th and Kingsessing from demolition. The whole story is too long and winding for this piece, but rest assured that it involves many lawyers, T-Mobile satellite equipment, a former mayor, and some bosses who were screaming “no, no, no!” until he miraculously sunk the shot and saved the day. Today the building houses two pre-schools, a co-working space, and several businesses, and for his efforts Ryan received one of his three “Outstanding Preservation Awards” from the University City Historical Society. 

The gamble on Ryan has certainly paid off.

To learn more about Project Rehab, click here