Design and finance are two pieces of the urban planning puzzle | Weatherhead

Design and finance are two pieces of the urban planning puzzle

Posted 4.5.2013

When first-year MBA student Abraham Weiner (third from the right) heard about the Gerald D. Hines Graduate Urban Design Competition, it sparked a casual interest.

“I thought, ‘A design competition? That could be cool,’” says Weiner. But as he and teammates from neighboring universities worked on their submission with help from academic and professional advisors, he realized that the experience was even more valuable, and relevant, than he had suspected.

Each year, the Urban Land Institute (ULI), a national professional association with a branch in Cleveland, chooses a real site in a U.S. city that is slated for redevelopment. Student teams enter competing plans for developing the site. This year was the first in which CWRU students joined in the competition, which is in its 11th year. Weiner formed a team with a student in Cleveland State University’s Master of Urban Planning, Design, and Development program and three students from Kent State University’s Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative. One Kent State student is working toward a Master of Architecture degree, while the others are dual-degree students enrolled in both the Master of Architecture and Master of Urban Design programs. Each team also has a faculty design advisor and a professional real estate advisor.

“And throughout the two-week period they bring in more people--designers, developers, lenders, lawyers--who look at your work,” says Weiner. “I formed so many relationships.”

Before starting his MBA, Weiner worked at a nonprofit green infrastructure firm that built green roofs and rainwater harvesting systems for small and large organizations. Such projects saved money in the long run, but financing the initial investment could be difficult. Weiner chose to pursue an MBA in part to get the tools to make it easier--and more widespread. He was pleased to find out that the ULI competition presented the chance to hone his new skills with feedback from professionals in the field. With new contacts at Allegro Realty Partners, Weston Inc, US Bank and Wells Fargo, not to mention the other participating schools, Weiner also built a network within Cleveland’s urban planning and development communities.

They plowed up a parking lot, and put up paradise

The contestants had two weeks to come up with a concept and a plan to finance and execute a full redevelopment of this year’s site: Downtown East, an area of Minneapolis that Weiner describes as 17.5 acres of parking lots around the Metrodome, which is soon to be demolished and replaced with a new stadium.

Weiner’s team came up with a mixed-use development they called Active East.

“The Metrodome is a focal point of the community, so we wanted a neighborhood that you didn’t just live in, but you played in--and not only that you played in, but that you played on,” he says.

That entailed features like a rock climbing wall on the outside of a big retail complex and a designated sledding hill. Weiner’s team wanted Active East to make year-round outdoor activity appealing for all generations and levels of ability, so a running circuit and cross-country ski trails are complemented by a bocce ball court and a curling sheet.

Nearby Downtown West has skyscrapers filled with office space. So although Active East incorporates some office space, as well as retail, for a high walkability quotient, the majority of the development is residential and includes affordable housing, condos, accommodations specifically for seniors, and a school. 

Out of 149 participating teams representing 70 American and Canadian universities, Weiner’s team received an honorable mention--the first time that a team from Cleveland has been recognized in the ULI competition. Other honorable mentions went to teams from Cornell, Columbia, and the University of Pennsylvania, among others, while teams from Harvard; Yale; Ball State and Purdue; and Kansas State University, the University of Missouri, and the University of Kansas made it to the finals. 

“There is work of great quality coming out of Kent State, Cleveland State, and Case Western Reserve, so it felt good to see those names right next to Cornell and Columbia,” says Weiner.

A crash course in real estate finance

Competing teams create professional-quality architectural renderings and site plans, and they must also provide a realistic breakdown of how their project would be financed. The process brought concepts Weiner had learned in finance class to vivid life, although their application in real estate development is very different from their application in, say, banking.

“I didn’t even realize the possibilities of debt financing, what it could mean,” Weiner says by way of example. “In Corporate Finance II this semester, Sam Thomas talked about how some CEOs will tell you that debt is terrible. Other CEOs will tell you that debt is how you make money. It depends on the industry, but I can assure you that in real estate, it is 100% about debt.”

Because courses specifically on real estate finance are not offered at Weatherhead, the ULI competition became an invaluable crash course taught on the fly by practitioners.

“I ended up with a 10-page monster spreadsheet at the end of this thing, and I couldn’t have done it without my advisors and teammates. I feel much more comfortable with financial models since participating in the competition,” says Weiner. He encourages students interested in real estate development to consider forming a team for the ULI competition next year.

“Whether you want to be on the lending side or the development side, this is an amazing opportunity for CWRU,” he says. “I learned an immense amount from my team, and I can’t speak highly enough of CSU’s urban design program and Kent State’s Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative.”

Weiner found that studying design practices in the MBA program had prepared him to work well on an interdisciplinary project like urban redevelopment.

“It was really easy to translate back and forth between the world of design and the world of finance,” he says. “I’m a diverging learner, so I love to talk about ideas and be up in the clouds for a while. Over the past few years, though, I’ve grown a serious appreciation for coming back to earth and getting some work done. I like design in management because you could end up with a pretty stodgy world if you just had one approach, but on the other hand, you could also risk getting nothing done.”

Learn about Weiner's chosen course of study, the Weatherhead MBA.


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