Among the reasons real estate professionals join ULI is the chance to develop industry connections and leadership skills that can prove invaluable to building a successful career. While several ULI programs provide professional development and networking opportunities, the Centers for Leadership, based at the district council level, take a unique approach.
Currently offered by four councils—ULI Atlanta, ULI Michigan, ULI Northwest, and ULI Washington—the centers create a forum for participants to flex their leadership muscle while making a tangible impact on their communities. This program combines service, continuing education, and network expansion.
Each year, the councils recruit a class of mid-career professionals representing a cross-section of disciplines including real estate, urban planning, design/architecture, engineering, finance, law, and marketing and representing the private, public, and nonprofit sectors. Together, the class goes through a six- to nine-month curriculum, meeting once a month for formal exercises and more frequently for informal gatherings. Local experts are invited to share trends in real estate at the local and regional levels.
The capstone of each class is a mini–technical assistance panel, or mTAP, commissioned by actual sponsors—typically a local municipality or nonprofit organization seeking outside counsel on a complex problem. While each scenario involves a land use challenge, it also requires a variety of skill sets, including design, public policy, and public relations.
Much of the leadership development the program seeks to cultivate occurs during this hands-on portion of the curriculum, where participants apply laserlike focus on their piece of the project while working closely with the team to accomplish a larger vision. In this way, the mTAP experience encourages bigger-picture thinking and a high level of collaboration.
“You’re taking a group of talented, smart folks across disciplines who are, in some cases, transitioning into more of a leadership role within their own organizations,” said R.J. Wolney, a 2015 graduate of the ULI Michigan Larson Center for Leadership. “The mTAP experience gives you a much clearer idea of the mind-set of your peers across the table—not only in what others are thinking about, but how they’re thinking about it.”
At the beginning of the summer, each center celebrated its 2015 class graduations. The mTAP projects that each class completed include the following:
“Tomorrow’s Walkups” Spotlights Pedestrian Needs
The 40 members of ULI Atlanta’s Center for Leadership 2015 class were given a diverse
set of mTAP assignments to choose from, including a request by a local pedestrian safety advocacy group called Pedestrian Education Drivers on Safety (PEDS), for guidance on how to better align its goals with those of the real estate community.
PEDS wanted to raise its profile among developers to highlight the importance of pedestrian safety, walkability, and greater connectivity during the planning and design phases of the development process. While several mixed-use projects and transit-oriented developments are in the pipeline, walkability remains an issue in the city, since Atlanta’s streets—like those in many other American cities—are designed more for cars than for people.
“It sometimes gets very challenging for pedestrians to walk in Atlanta,” said panelist Mohamed Mohsen, a senior project architect at Niles Bolton Associates. “The goal was to get PEDS involved with developers much earlier in the process.”
After interviewing PEDS’s staff members, the panel decided to create a set of materials targeted to the development community that emphasize the positive impact of walkability on long-term value and PEDS’s role as a partner in identifying ways the pedestrian experience could be enhanced.
These materials include a video featuring PEDS’s executive director, Sally Flocks, explaining why she started PEDS and her own struggles navigating Atlanta’s streets as a pedestrian; a public relations plan that outlined outreach strategies to the development community, the news media, and the public; a “Checklist for a Walkable Tomorrow” tool for developers to evaluate the walkability, pedestrian safety, and connectivity of their projects; and a series of leave-behind cards that describe how the pedestrian experience can be maximized through proper site selection, street design, and building design and orientation.
The team’s proposal, called “Tomorrow’s Walkups,” also pushed PEDS toward a more ambitious agenda, beyond advocating for pedestrian safety to promoting human-scale and pedestrian-oriented design. “PEDS has a huge potential to grow and build capacity,” Mohsen said.
Not only was the panel able to shape the future direction of an ally working to make Atlanta more walkable, but its members made lifelong connections. “One of the most valuable experiences of the program is being exposed to how people solve problems differently,” said panelist Hardman Knox, managing partner at Knox Properties. “It’s really about getting out of your own silo and hearing ideas, concepts, and best practices that you otherwise wouldn’t have thought of.”
A New Vision for West Dearborn
The ULI Michigan Larson Center for Leadership tasked its 26-member class with a single land use challenge that would draw on the varied expertise of its members. The city of Dearborn approached the center for input on redeveloping a site that once served as the centerpiece of the western downtown district. Known as the Wagner Hotel block for the historic hotel that once occupied it, the site suffered multiple vacancies and a fire during the Great Recession. It is now ripe for redevelopment in an area critical to Dearborn’s future.
The home of Ford Motor Company’s world headquarters, Dearborn is unique in that it actually has two downtowns—one east and one west—and one goal identified in the city’s 2030 master plan is to unify them along the main street of Michigan Avenue. The Wagner Hotel site is an important piece of a larger effort by Dearborn to activate storefronts and public spaces, increase the number of people living downtown, and attract new businesses to an excess of vacant properties.
After extensive interviews with stakeholders, the panel proposed a mixed-use
development, consisting of 26,000 square feet (2,400 sq m) of ground-floor retail, 5,000 square feet (464 sq m) of second-floor coworking/flex space, and 71 residential units, that moves the city closer to its goals. The panel also recommended traffic calming along Michigan Avenue so that cars will slow down and people will stop to look and shop, said panelist Wolney, director of business development at Detroit-based Rock Ventures. “Michigan Avenue doesn’t need to be a quick street.”
Much of the team’s research focused on the supply/demand equation in Dearborn’s multifamily residential market. At 8.8 percent, the residential vacancy rate is higher than the national average, reflecting the small number of people—14,000—who both live and work in Dearborn. The panelists identified untapped potential in the 83,000 workers who commute into Dearborn each day, as well as the 36,000 residents who commute from Greater Dearborn on a daily basis.
To attract more residents and energize the area, the panel proposed the creation of a small urban center with workforce housing that would draw university students, young professionals entering the workforce, and other moderate-income workers. Such a development could benefit from proximity to the city’s existing assets such as the John D. Dingel Transit Center and the Rouge River Gateway Trail.
For Wolney, the panel was a chance to shape the direction of city he has fond memories of visiting from neighboring Detroit, his hometown. “It was a nice opportunity to zoom out and look at the region,” he said. “It was a fresh look at the city and a chance for them to start a new chapter.”
Activating Burien’s Alleyways
The Seattle suburb of Burien, Washington, has grown steadily since incorporating in 1993, and the downtown underwent a major redevelopment in the late 2000s. However, despite all the activity, its downtown alleyways continue to show signs of neglect, with trash, graffiti, and potholes common sights. Insufficient lighting has led to an uptick in petty crime and the perception that the alleys are unsafe.
ULI Northwest’s Center for Sustainable Leadership was called upon by city leaders to offer their ideas on how to physically and aesthetically improve the alleys while addressing environmental impacts as well. From a design perspective, the alleys presented a challenge since property lines were inconsistent with ill-defined boundaries between private parking lots and the alley. The alleys themselves were long and had few access points from parallel and cross-streets.
The panel realized that larger questions were implicit in the project goals outlined by the city, in terms of whether it was seeking modest improvements to the alleys’ road surface and design, or seeking to solve a socioeconomic or public policy problem. “We were wondering what the story behind the story was,” said panelist George Gibbs, a senior architect at Mithun.
The team realized that Burien’s alleyways were an underused resource for addressing multiple issues, from water quality to economic development to the crime and vagrancy that the alleys seemed to encourage. Panelists turned to the “living alleys” prototype as a model for what Burien’s alleys could become.
San Francisco was one of the first North American cities to adopt the living alley model for its problem alleyways; Chicago, Baltimore, and Nashville, among others, have followed suit. Living alleys (implemented in San Francisco, Chicago, Baltimore, and Nashville, among other cities) turn neglected and unsafe spaces into highly used, vibrant, and safe ones that are meant for pedestrian and social activity. The panel recommended interventions that would transform the alleys from a service-oriented afterthought to a destination and gathering place—benches, bike racks, festive strings of lights, and storefronts on the alley.
“What we heard from the city was: ‘Help us clean up the alleys’ and ‘We want them to be safe,’ ” said panelist Ryan Keane, project manager at Pine Street Group. “Coming from the ULI perspective, we wanted to go above and beyond that.”
Beyond making its recommendations to the city, the panel also developed a detailed timeline for implementing a living alleys program that was broken down into incremental steps to build momentum for future activity. Quick wins gained through centralized trash collection, lighting improvements, and event programming could generate the public support and political leadership needed to steps down the road—namely, major capital improvements to connections between blocks and acquiring property to expand the living alley principle to the entire neighborhood.
“One of the values of this approach is that there are small steps you can take towards a larger vision,” said panelist Jeff Hammerquist, an architect with VIA Architecture. “Activation of the alleys [through programming] is just as important—if not more important—than infrastructural improvements.”
Capturing Southwest D.C.’s Cultural Assets
The southwest quadrant of Washington, D.C., is undergoing large-scale redevelopment, with an eye toward capturing the value of its riverfront access. The Wharf, a $2 billion mixed-use project hugging the Potomac River that broke ground last year, will add thousands of new housing units; new hotel, office, and retail spaces; and public plazas and parks. Currently, Southwest D.C. is a mixed-income neighborhood featuring condos, townhomes, market-rate rentals, and public housing complexes, all close to several entertainment amenities.
Against the backdrop of impending change, a group of neighborhood, church, and business leaders approached ULI Washington’s Regional Land Use Leadership Institute for guidance on how a cultural district could be established to unify Southwest D.C.’s disparate entertainment assets into a cohesive identity, which would foster pride among current residents and entice newcomers to the area.
The panel studied Shreveport Commons in Louisiana and the Pittsburgh Cultural District, finding that both cities had successfully used the cultural district designations to catalyze revitalization through private investment and public/private partnerships.
The team identified initial steps that the sponsors could take toward establishing a cultural district, including creating a website with a calendar of events and developing a marketing/branding strategy. Panelists encouraged the Southwest Business Improvement District (BID), one of the three sponsors, to assume responsibility for developing more structured programming to involve the cultural assets more cohesively. The team also identified opportunities for engaging local artists, such as holding art competitions to beautify rights-of-way on bridges, utility poles, and even trash cans.
“The mTAP was a fascinating experience because it really was a planning project with three different clients,” which also included the Westminster Presbyterian Church and the Southwest Neighborhood Assembly, said panelist Christina Sorrento, associate general counsel at the Maryland–National Capital Park and Planning Commission.
What was gratifying for Sorrento was not simply engaging on a real neighborhood problem, but seeing it through the perspective of her teammates. She is now fielding inquiries from colleagues interested in applying to participate in the ULI Washington Regional Land Use Leadership Institute. “It made me want to get more involved with ULI because the program was done so well,” she said.