Well-Designed Urban Projects Can Help Attract Young Professionals
|Carol Coletta, director of ArtPlace, with Robert S. Wennet, president of UIA Management|
Well-designed urban real estate projects can help cities attract the talented younger professionals who drive economic growth, according to two innovative national developers speaking on a panel at the University of Miami Real Estate Impact Conference Feb. 10, 2012.
“People are interested in new experiences, not new buildings,” said Robert S. Wennett, president, UIA, who was joined by Steven J. Guttman, chairman, Storage Deluxe and former chairman and CEO, Federal Realty Investment Trust, on the panel titled “The Urban Developer: Investing, Place Making and Developing in Cities (Then and Now).”
After introducing the panelists, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, dean of the UM School of Architecture, noted that the University of Miami is “preparing architects to be community leaders with expertise in design and place making,” and added that a number of UM students were attending the session.
Moderator Carol Coletta, director of the public-private place-making partnership ArtPlace, said one of the best ways for cities to attract creative professionals and entrepreneurs to an area is to develop appealing, mixed-use urban communities. She added that both Guttman and Wennett have successfully demonstrated that lesson with their high-profile urban projects, such as Guttman’s Santana Row in San Jose, California, and Wennett’s Meatpacking District in Manhattan and Old Town Alexandria near Washington, D.C.
Both Wennett and Guttman agreed on the importance of urban design, but staked out somewhat different positions. “I don’t think place-making can generate economic growth on its own,” Guttman said. “You need a local government that’s able to attract new employers. Unless the jobs are there, people will want to leave. But once those economic ingredients are in place, creating an attractive urban fabric can happen organically.”
|Steven J. Guttman, chairman of Storage Deluxe and former chairman and CEO of Federal Realty Investment Trust|
Miami Beach provides a good example of that natural evolution, Guttman added, citing the city’s free Wi-Fi program, convenient bicycle rentals, and Sunday green market on Lincoln Road.
“Even the signage and lighting makes people feel better and the urban scene more vibrant,” he said. In contrast, downtown Miami has office towers, condos, museums and American Airlines Arena, but still lacks urban vitality. “I see Flagler as a potentially great pedestrian street,” he said.
Wennett argued that urban neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., and Brooklyn, N.Y., demonstrate the linkage between young professionals and vibrant city neighborhoods.
“It was the growth of the Northern Virginia tech companies in the 1990s that activated areas like Dupont Circle,” he said. “Now it’s amazing the number of young professionals you see in Washington’s shops and retail stores. Today, if your city doesn’t have a cool neighborhood in your housing stock, you’ll miss out.”
Wennett said the Internet has changed the nature of retailing. “It’s more efficient to buy the goods that you need online, so instead of building new stores we need to think about creating new experiences. Young professionals want a place where they can socialize, connect with others and share ideas. The size and shape of the building is irrelevant – it’s the social impact that matters today.”
To design a successful urban project, though, developers must pay close attention to demographics, market demand and social dynamics, according to Wennett. A good example is 1111 Lincoln Road, an award-winning Miami Beach parking garage that doubles as a venue for weddings, VIP parties and other events, and provides residents with informal experiences, like climbing the stairs for fitness or gazing at the stars and the urban landscape at night.
“We were very conscious of Lincoln Road’s appeal in terms of dining, contemporary design and overall esthetics,” he said. “Now, people like the idea that someone took something as mundane as parking and reconceived the whole approach.”
Developers, property owners and particularly local governments should also support creative real estate ideas, according to Guttman. “If you are going to do fresh and creative projects, you need to challenge the zoning,” he said. “Very few great projects with great architecture and design fit into an older zoning code. Unless the architect is allowed to stretch the zoning, you're likely to have a weak project right from the start.”
In the question and answer session, Guttman and Wennett were asked how they achieved their initial success. Both said they were able to recognize the inherent value of urban locations back in the 1970s and ’80s at a time when most developers were focusing on the suburbs.
“We realized many tired old shopping centers had great locations, and we were able to redevelop those sites to meet the community’s needs,” said Guttman. “But you have to have confidence in your own vision. Sometimes consumers don’t know what they want until they see your project. That’s what happened with our mixed-use Santana Row development. No one else thought it would work, but we knew it would be a success.”