The assignment: Create a redevelopment plan for a fictitious five-block downtown area of an urban city, balancing the various interests of elected officials, neighborhood groups, homeless care advocates and historic preservationists, and make the project economically viable, with a return to investors and revenue for the city.
The students in the Principles of Real Estate class at Virginia Commonwealth University this summer divided into three groups and took on various roles on development teams. To visualize their plans, they used tabletop models consisting of color-coded Lego-like blocks and a board to represent the plot of land.
One group of students placed a big-box retailer, which would bring jobs to the area, on a key outer parcel. Another group decided there wasn’t space for a homeless shelter in the new layout.
All three groups liked the idea of mixed-use — with apartments over retail and a percentage of the apartments set aside for affordable housing. Some wanted more green spaces, but one group ditched the idea of a skateboard park.
All designed their developments with profits in mind.
In the end, a panel of three Richmond real estate professionals decided the fictitious “Redwood Development” team had the best plan and did the best job selling it to the mock city council.
“You are trying to meet all the needs and demands, and there can be a lot that clash,” said student Sarah Huffman, who was on the winning Redwood Development team.
The goal of the tabletop exercise was to give students a real-world look at real estate as being about more than just buying and selling.
The curriculum is called UrbanPlan, and it was developed by the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan real estate research and educational institute. The exercise is available in different formats for high schools, universities and public officials.
According to ULI, a dozen U.S. universities included the curriculum in graduate business, real estate, planning and architecture programs during the 2017-18 school year.
Real estate education programs traditionally have not offered urban planning, said Jane Milici of ULI Virginia.
“And there’s not much overlap between the two disciplines, which is unfortunate. Real estate students should be required to take urban policy or urban planning and vice versa,” Milici said.
In Virginia, VCU’s Kornblau Real Estate Program and Old Dominion University’s Strome College of Business Real Estate Program use the curriculum.
“It helps students understand that there are other forces beyond the finance and economics,” said Robert W. Taylor, executive director of the Kornblau Real Estate Program and instructor for the Principles of Real Estate class in which the students did the UrbanPlan projects.
“You have to deal with the wants and desires of the communities. ... They have to make sure they have an appropriate balance of land uses and achieve a certain financial return back to the investors,” Taylor said.
VCU’s real estate program piloted the program in the spring semester in conjunction with an undergraduate real estate law class and a graduate level land development class.
“This is our first year to bring UrbanPlan into the curriculum, so we are really trying to figure out the best place for it. I think our real estate law at the undergraduate level makes the most sense,” Taylor said.
During the summer class, the students met four days a week for four weeks, and the UrbanPlan curriculum allowed them to practice principles they were studying.
On each team, students took on the role of city liaison, financial analyst, marketing director, neighborhood liaison and site planner. VCU Real Estate Circle of Excellence members came to classes to offer the students feedback.
For a final project, the three groups presented the results to a mock city council, which in this case was made up of real-life experts in various aspects of real estate.
Michael W. Lowry, senior vice president of NorthMarq Capital, was “mayor,” and developer Kelvin Hanson of THC LLC and Melissa Canavos, president of Safe Harbor Title Co., represented districts within the fictitious city. The council scored the team presentations on how well the students’ plans matched their vision statement, projected profit, number of jobs created, financial viability and other measures.
Huffman said her Redwood Development team tried to focus the development on the needs of up-and-coming younger residents and families. The group also tried to create a plan that did not segregate residents by income. It spread affordable housing units throughout the development, mixed in with market-priced units.
Outside of the classroom, Taylor said the class used the UrbanPlan lens to examine projects around Richmond.
“We went to the Washington Redskins Training Camp, and a person formerly in economic development for the city explained the training camp, how it came to be with the economic development component of it. We talked about the Stone brewery as another economic development deal. ... We went over to the Black History Museum [and Cultural Center] and talked about that project and the historic redevelopment of it, how that came to reality and the time it took to get that to where it is today,” Taylor said.
“We try to say not only here are the Legos and you are building this thing, but let’s tie it to the local community.”