ULI Hines Competition: A Turning Point for Rameez Munawar

Buildings have always fascinated Rameez Munawar—their facades, their infrastructure, their bricks, concrete, and glass. It is no wonder he grew up playing with Legos at his family’s home in Glen Burnie, Maryland.

As a student at the University of Maryland (UMD) in College Park, 23-year-old Munawar gravitated toward the university’s Maryland Architecture, Planning, and Preservation (MAPP) school. However, he also knew he wanted a career that combined his creative instincts with an affinity for finance and economics. Upon completing his architecture degree, he headed for the master in real estate development program at MAPP. During his second and final year, he applied to participate in ULI’s Hines Competition, which challenges multidisciplinary teams of graduate students to design and present full-scale development proposals for a specific site before a jury of ULI members.

Along with four other MAPP students, Munawar was selected to represent UMD—which had been a three-time finalist but never a winner—at the competition. So began a two-week marathon of 18-hour days, when the team crafted its proposal for Sulphur Dell, a historic but underused neighborhood in Nashville targeted by city leaders for redevelopment and rife with drainage issues. Because the competition’s theme tied into ULI’s Building Healthy Places initiative, all teams were charged with prioritizing in their designs the health, safety, and well-being of people.

To reinforce Nashville’s identity as “Music City,” the UMD team called its development “Chords,” with the “chords” being the site’s major avenues, and the “strings” connectors employing three core themes—fitness, living, and culture. “Chords” envisioned Sulphur Dell as a dynamic, mixed-use neighborhood where entertainment, culture, and commerce converge along plazas and a major green thoroughfare, with greater access provided to existing amenities and the Cumberland River waterfront.

In the parlance of Nashville, “Chords” was a hit. In April, the UMD team proposal won the competition as much for its creativity as for its financial feasibility, in no small part because of extensive market research Munawar conducted during a site visit in March. He stayed an extra day, recording every question he thought the jury might pose and interviewing Nashville brokers and leasing agents to ensure that the team’s pro forma was based on hard, real-time data.

“I don’t think Rameez is scared of what he doesn’t know,” says Matt Bell, UMD professor of architecture and principal in the Washington, D.C., office of EE&K, a Perkins-Eastman company, who served as the team’s faculty adviser. “In this business, it helps to not be scared of what is in front of you.”

“He just knows how to connect ideas, which is so important in development,” says Margaret McFarland, director of UMD’s graduate programs in real estate development and another team adviser. “His ability to communicate, bring his teammates together, and create a productive synergy is unusual for a young man.” Munawar’s teammates were Andrew Casavant, Matthew Miller, David Ensor, and Amina Mohamed.

Munawar’s meticulous approach paid off and boosted his confidence during the presentation portion of the competition.

“It was the feasibility of their proposal that took it one step further,” says juror Brian Berry, senior vice president for the eastern region of Columbia Property Trust. “Rameez was thoughtful, poised and [his presentation] showed that they [the team] had done their research.” “Chords” was a cohesive proposal and “not a series of pieces and parts mended together,” he says.

Berry was so impressed by Munawar’s performance that he met with him immediately following the competition. New to Columbia Property Trust, Berry was looking to expand his team in the regional office. After graduating in the spring, Munawar joined the office real estate investment trust as a financial analyst.

Munawar’s experience at the ULI Hines competition helped him prepare for his new position, which involves analyzing cash flows for acquisitions and dispositions in major office markets around the country. Similar to his experience during the question-and-answer session with the Hines jury, he is expected to present an accurate, succinct, yet comprehensive picture to the company’s top executives.

“You have to have solid answers on the spot,” Munawar says. “In the 45 minutes we were presenting during the Hines competition, everything was fluid and it all made sense.”