The ULI Fall Meeting presented glimpses of what can be accomplished when an individual, a team, or a company envisions a future not yet imagined – while staying fully present in the realities of the business cycle. Pressure and constraints can create value as often as they can erode it. Leadership is the antidote that creates value.
I recently went to the Urban Land Institute’s ULI Fall Meeting in Boston, Massachusetts. The real estate industry has a profound impact on the climate and the economy, and the conference provided an opportunity to gain insight in how the industry’s leaders think about the economic, environmental, and human impact of real estate. Here are my key takeaways from the four-day conference:
Social practice installation artist Theaster Gates inspired attendees with his place-based development oeuvre that spanned a decade. He showed the hard money crowd how community-based projects are simpler to execute than they might think; and that the real work is imagining how to create value out of the Arts Bank, which many viewed as a dilapidated property ready for demolition.
I loved this opening session because ULI highlighted value creation through a non-traditional approach (boot-strap equity) for a non-traditional vertical (cultural and community) by a non-traditional role (activist). Despite this unconventional setup, the value creation strategy produced results. Good on ULI for expanding the conversation.
Leading real estate executives reminded us that leadership matters in the industry. While their executive roles all had the common remits of vision, high stakes, and risk management, they had different working styles. Each offered insights into the behaviors that made them successful, including ‘never work alone’ and ‘be tenacious’. Their leadership edge was revealed to be common human gifts.
Amy Cuddy closed the conference at her keynote “Presence’, where she outlined the concept of being present as a path to influence and compassion, especially in professional life.
Theaster Gates, the executives, and Cuddy each reinforced a key behavior – stay present – a theme that many of the technical sessions tended to skirt. In those sessions, data, technology, and product diversification were used to mitigate risk, but not to address the risk head on, present in the reality of the risk’s origination.
Sustainability and LEED
Sustainability was a minor thread of the conference, with LEED serving as the foot-note on most built projects showcased. Wellness and WELL certification surfaced in the conversation often, although superficially. Four prominent projects pursued and achieved WELL certification to admittedly gain first-market advantage, and the presenters had little to offer as proof of WELL’s value creation. The split incentive between developer and tenant remains a barrier in the wellness domain. Certification is still a dominant contribution to the sustainability conversation, but there were not a lot of clues for the value creation strategy of specific projects.
Resiliency had a special place in the conference as Boston has tackled climate resilience with a seriousness and sophistication not found in any U.S. city other than New York. Given the extent of the surge tideline on the climate change maps, Boston is a city to follow as it develops best practice for the rest of us. This city is very present with its climate influenced reality.
The City of Boston and the State of Massachusetts held a convincing key note conversation about working across the political aisle on common goals. The consistent theme was creating shared value, believing the best of your opponent, and trusting motives.
Climate change discussions centered on risk assessment, and less so on mitigation and adaptation. Big Data is the tool of choice for institutional investors assessing risk on past performance and climate change scenarios. The connection of climate change risk to urban design and building performance awaits further development. Corporate reporting to both CDP and GRI seems stuck in the assessment phase. No single user in the presentations I attended demonstrated actionable programs aimed at value creation. The team at GRESB seems closest to making the link between portfolio reporting and business value creation.
Smart building controls, instrumentation, and sensor technology are flooding the market, outgunning the industry’s strategists. There are business advantages created by the tech sector, but I fear the anticipated economic slowdown will inhibit experimentation. If the human side of operations needs a moment to catch its breath, the slowdown will create one.
Scott Galloway provided an entertaining and alarming presentation about technology’s impact on real estate based on his book, The Four. Galloway made a convincing case that the tech giants Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google are impossible to avoid and challenge. The runaway growth of these companies provided a sobering lesson of how sector cycles don’t always align to real estate. And of course Amazon announced its HQ 2 selections shortly after ULI.
The ULI Fall Meeting provides an outlook on real estate investment and development trends covering all aspects of the real estate industry. The national conference brings together more than 6000 leaders including developers, investors, architects, planners, brokers, academics, attorneys, decision makers, and public officials.
The attendees gave sharper focus to economic factors in the business – and understandably so – but there is a failure to demand and expose the connection between healthy, sustainable, and resilient development and economic resilience – value creation. The more that rating systems are treated as the outcome rather than a tool, the less valuable they will be to the big money decision makers in the industry.
The development cycle is slowing, and a soft-landing is expected with an economic slowdown likely – but the market is continuing to demand sustainable features like transit-oriented multifamily housing, city-centered development, and flexible co-working spaces along with demonstrable sustainability and wellness features.
The weakness I see in connecting green building to resilient businesses is solvable. Here are three case studies that show how it is done: