Ever marvel at the contradictions in your life, and why they appear so dissonant? I spent last week at Urban Land Institute’s Spring meeting in Vancouver, one of the gleaming cities in North America, ranking among the top 2 or 3 most desirable cities in the world in many surveys, to learn from some of the top real estate professionals on the planet. I love ULI for the depth of understanding of capital markets, demand drivers and development techniques and the sheer breadth of experience of its members. And yet I sometimes find the hyper-focus on the “corporate” side of real estate, which at its core is really a service business to end consumers, to be a bit sterile, devoid of passion. Not unlike law firms that can can become so inner-focused on their practice areas that they lose site of how their clients’ businesses function and how legal service needs to orient around those needs, corporate real estate development can turn inward and become an end in and of itself – the monetization of real estate and the bifurcation of developers and capital focused on specific product types are (necessary) symptoms of a modern economy. Capital markets and the development community understand simplicity and bifurcated uses – “we finance/develop X (fill in product type).” X has a cap rate that the junior analysis can plug into his Excel spreadsheet and can be mass produced by architects, engineers and contractors and easily financed on Wall Street.
In early June I head off to Buffalo to the Congress for New Urbanism. Vancouver vs. Buffalo and ULI vs. CNU – a study in contrasts and unfortunately full of dissonance.
To over-simplify, CNU is founded on a manifesto, not an economic agenda. The “Charter” espouses the desirability of walkable, mixed use development, which in many ways is the antithesis of corporate real estate with its specialization and mostly segregation of uses. CNU talks about ethereal concepts (except to the initiated) like “transect”, “form-based code” and “tactical urbanism.” On the opposite end of the spectrum from ULI, oftentimes the “urbanists” at CNU are not very practical/pragmatic – the dialogue is more along the lines of a 5,000 level college philosophy class, the rhetoric is inspiring and sounds life changing until you re-enter the real world outside the ivory towers and are slapped in the face with the cold reality of “now how do we go about changing the world without engaging with the world”, a feeling not unknown to many post-modern Evangelical Christian suburban churches who want to share their faith but have real difficulties engaging with the world outside the church walls. Interestingly many urbanists also talk about being “post-moderism” (yet another ethereal concept).
One of the real short-comings of the Occupy Movement was that it “protesteth too much” – it liked to hear to its own voice harping in the town square – but never quite figured out how to engage with the establishment. And short of a revolution not much change happens if you can’t engage the establishment. On the flip side, listening to people tangential to your core beliefs who have often heretical ideas can change a society.
One of our aims at CNU North Texas in hosting CNU23 in DFW April 27-May 2, 2015 will be to bridge this divide between the urbanism movement and the the corporate real estate community, to create an environment of listening and learning from each other, to ferret out what the end users of real estate really desire and to find pragmatic ways to develop sustainable desirable real estate products that fit the changing needs of our booming population and that can actually be built and financed. In short, bring together NAIOP, TREC, ULI, CNU, etc. – and all of our constituent trades/disciplines, from town planner to urban planner, from engineer to architect, from small infill lot developer to large office and warehouse builders, students and professors, debt and equity providers – and learn from each other and talk and plot and plan how we reimagine real estate in DFW.
I’m not sure whether all of this brings more or less dissonance, but as they say – “variety is the spice of life.” I guaranty it will be a fascinating week.
If you want to learn more about CNU23, or be involved in planning the Congress, email me at email@example.com.