I think there’s a market for real estate development that does good in the world. When you look at the scale of unbridled growth that is transforming our cities, not only should we be getting more options in the market – more choices in price points, culture, mobility, green building standards, and design – we can also feel a sense of urgency to jumpstart projects that deliver the options we want. I believe that under the right conditions, and with the right partners, private sector real estate development can help achieve a better city for everyone.
Unfortunately, that’s not happening in most places. Instead we see generic architecture, traffic congestion, too much parking, and the proliferation of national chain stores. We complain about the increasing homogeneity of mixed-use development in cities as different as Seattle and Dallas – even our “placemaking” initiatives somehow end up looking the same. Everything, it seems, has become vulnerable to market expectations for high prices mixed with aesthetic and cultural sterilization.
In many communities, this vulnerability means gentrification – the economic and cultural displacement of the people and businesses that made the community interesting in the first place. Increasing demand drives up prices but it doesn’t provide a way to help the people it hurts. Creating such a mechanism will not be easy because the problem is entwined with larger issues like white supremacy and intergenerational poverty. That said, a first step might be to establish a real estate market that recognizes real line-item values for those people and places.
In certain cities, I think there’s a market for this kind of inclusive approach to growth that is ready to be tested. I know from my own experience that a lot of new residents in older communities are attracted to the diversity there and want growth that includes existing residents. Similarly, many of the old-timers, including low-income residents who are typically more vulnerable to displacement, have been working for decades to attract growth to their community. They want the new neighbors, businesses, and job opportunities – they just want to be able to stay and enjoy the benefits of growth.
Testing the market with more inclusive growth strategies requires more than simply providing places and products designed for a specific demographic. It’s about more than housing subsidies and policy – although those are important too. If we really want to unleash the private sector to help solve the inherent challenges of growth, we need to open doors and create ladders of opportunity so that everyone gets to participate. The best scenario for community growth is not that somebody else opens a shop in your neighborhood, but that you open a shop for yourself and have the chance to build generational wealth for your family.
In the larger growth story of America’s big cities – in which not changing is not really an option – such a strategy suggests that we wrap real estate development with economic development and other tools so that the community grows alongside the new investments and new neighbors. It suggests that we identify local needs like businesses that need capital or groups that need cultural spaces, and then bake the cost of those things into each deal. By including local voices in the development and catalyzing growth that is authentic to each community, we’ll not only create better places – that authenticity will differentiate the real estate project in the marketplace, making it more competitive, resilient, and profitable. More than that, we’ll demonstrate a market for inclusive growth that over time, can push the real estate industry to experiment with similar strategies everywhere.
I’m not just blogging about this – that’s what we’re doing with Elevator. Our idea is to elevate everyone – to expand the ecosystem of people who participate in real estate development. We want to open doors to the rooms where decisions are made – the investors, developers, designers, tenants, and others who make the decisions and reap the benefits – so that the outcomes for real estate development are better aligned with the kind of city we want to live in. >> Ryan Gravel