A Crash Course in Urban Development

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The Urban Land Institute has recently developed a day-long training geared specifically towards elected officials to help them better understand the nuts and bolts of municipal real estate projects and how they’re financed.

How can city leaders know if they are getting the wool pulled over their eyes or if they are negotiating a mutually beneficial deal that will leverage private dollars towards a community renaissance? (Getty Images)
How can city leaders know if they are getting the wool pulled over their eyes or if they are negotiating a mutually beneficial deal that will leverage private dollars towards a community renaissance? (Getty Images)

Community activists sometimes decry market-based urban development projects (and their managers) using words like monstrosity, Satan, and scumbucket. But any public official will tell you that it is impossible for a city to accomplish its development or redevelopment goals without private sector investment in the community.

To that end, the nonprofit Urban Land Institute (ULI), an NLC partner, has recently developed a day-long training geared specifically towards elected officials to help them better understand the nuts and bolts of municipal real estate projects. The training is called UrbanPlan, and it will be offered next month at the 2016 NLC City Summit in Pittsburgh.

UrbanPlan is a realistic, engaging, and demanding curriculum in which elected officials learn about the fundamental forces that affect development in the United States. Participating officials will experience the challenges, private and public sector roles, trade-offs, and fundamental economics of complex urban development projects.

The workshop was originally designed for university-level economics courses, and is now taught at colleges and high schools across the country. In 2015, ULI redesigned the curriculum specifically for city officials. The Rose Center for Public Leadership in Land Use (an NLC program in partnership with ULI) acted as an adviser in the curriculum overhaul. The revamped workshop is offered in a single day as one of NLC University’s pre-conference seminars in Pittsburgh.

Participants in the seminar will develop proposals for a hypothetical urban neighborhood. Each attendee will take on a real-life role, such as site planner, financial analyst, or marketing director.

During the process, team members will learn firsthand the intricacies of urban renewal projects – and because profit is often a primary goal, the seminar will also include some down-to-earth lessons in financial reality. Accordingly, the proposed developments created in the seminar will need to address diverse issues such as affordable housing, transit needs, open-space beautification, historical preservation, and the district’s retail requirements. Once a project plan is hammered out, the teams will construct a preliminary model of their design – using Legos – and then go before a “city council” of volunteer land-use professionals to pitch their project. After a detailed analysis, participants will tweak their product for a final presentation.

ULI, NLC University, and the Rose Center recently held a pilot session of this seminar. Two of the participants described their experience:

“Land use decisions are among the most difficult that elected officials face. The Urban Plan Workshop illustrates that a development project can be a financial success for the developer and locality as well as meet the community’s goals for sustainability, inclusion and aesthetics. The Urban Plan Workshop is fast paced and hands-on, and elected officials will gain and retain insight into their role in finding the balance between the needs of the developer, locality and community.”

– Sandy Spang, councilmember, Toledo, Ohio

“Elected officials often hold biases, even if unintentional. But today, achieving great projects requires creativity and compromise. UrbanPlan lets you participate in that process. As someone that both serves on an elected body and has gone through the UrbanPlan workshop, I would encourage my peers to do the same.”

—Michael Wojcik, councilmember, Rochester, Minnesota

We are pleased to offer a special discounted registration rate to CitiesSpeak readers for the upcoming UrbanPlan seminar in Pittsburgh. Register here using the discount code NLCUL13 and save $100 off the registration price.

About the author: Jess Zimbabwe is Executive Director of the Rose Center for Public Leadership in Land Use, a program of the National League of Cities, in partnership with the Urban Land Institute. She’s an architect, city planner and politics junkie. Follow Jess on twitter at @jzimbabwe and @theRoseCenter.