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Brooks Powell, Assoc. AIA
New construction and development projects often trigger frustration and angst among residents concerned about density, traffic, and gentrification. Neighborhood leaders do their best to confront these issues as representatives for their constituencies, communicating with city staff, elected officials, and with developers themselves. Tensions can rise quickly when fear is fueled by mistrust and negative past experiences.
But anxiety turns to empowerment when we can learn about and from each other in a low-risk, structured environment — and have fun in the process.
Five years ago, I was offered the opportunity to learn about UrbanPlan, a cornerstone educational program created by the Urban Land Institute. Developed at the Fisher Center for Real Estate and Urban Economics at the University of California, Berkeley, UrbanPlan is a realistic, engaging exercise in which high school students, university students, public officials, and neighborhood leaders learn the fundamental forces that affect development in our communities. Participants grapple with challenging issues, private and public sector roles, complex trade-offs, and fundamental economics when proposing realistic land use solutions to vexing growth challenges as part of mock development teams.
The goal is to drive participants to connect more deeply with the complex nature of land-use decisions and inspire them to take an active role as engaged citizens to create better communities. When the complete story of development is understood — from community roots to investor returns — all are better equipped to engage in meaningful dialogue to achieve mutually beneficial results.
UrbanPlan teams address challenging financial, market, social, political, and design issues, develop a pro forma, and create a three-dimensional model of their plan using large, multicolored LEGO DUPLO blocks representing the building masses for different real estate asset classes available to them (retail, multifamily, office, etc.). Each team is comprised of five roles: a financial analyst, a marketing director, a site planner, a neighborhood liaison, and an environment and equity director. A thorough curriculum guide outlines the responsibilities of each position and the key pieces of data that influence their individual perspectives on how the team’s plan should come together.
A Request for Proposal (RFP) is issued by the fictional city of Yorktown for the redevelopment of a five-and-a-half block site called Elmwood.
Key goals are to:
Among the documents provided to each team are a series of letters from community groups and potential tenants seeking accommodations. They ask for restrictions on building heights and density, controls on traffic, limits on affordable housing, the removal or replacement of a homeless shelter, improvement of a derelict building housing an artist community, and access to a convenient grocery store and pharmacy — among many other requests important to them. Ultimately, each team must evaluate and prioritize these factors as part of their planning.
New to the curriculum this year are levers to impact sustainability and equity. Teams are offered the opportunity to incorporate high-performance, energy efficient buildings and offset their carbon footprint. They can also create housing opportunities for very low income families (<80 percent AMI).
At strategic times during the project, land use professionals who have attended a full day of UrbanPlan volunteer training interact with the teams, challenging participants on their roles, their vision, and the decisions they have made using Socratic interaction. The program culminates when the teams present their proposal to a “City Council” of ULI members that awards the development contract to the winning team.
I have been fortunate to see dozens of teams in my time as an UrbanPlan volunteer, including high school students, undergraduates, graduate students, and municipal and government teams.
Some of the most gratifying times are when participants’ eyes widen and a smile spreads across their faces the instant the “a-ha” moment arrives.
My passion for volunteering has led me to many rewarding experiences. Professionally and personally, none is as high-impact and meaningful as the work I do with ULI and UrbanPlan.