ULI trustee Smedes York served as chairman from 1989 to 1991. He is chairman of York Properties Inc. in Raleigh, North Carolina, and was mayor of that city from 1979 to 1983. Smedes is a second-generation ULI leader from the York family. His father, J.W. “Willie” York, joined ULI in 1946 and did much to shape the organization following World War II. Willie York credited ULI with enabling his company’s landmark development, Cameron Village, in Raleigh in 1949. Through ULI, Willie York became acquainted with J.C. Nichols, who developed Country Club Plaza in Kansas City, Missouri. York’s Cameron Village, a thriving six-block, mixed-use development, was inspired by Nichols’s work.
Smedes followed his father into the family’s development and construction business in 1968 and into the ranks of ULI two years later. Smedes has led dozens of ULI’s Advisory Services panels, which assemble volunteer teams of development and planning professionals for intense, five-day programs culminating in detailed recommendations for the host cities. Smedes chaired some of ULI’s highest-profile panels, including one in New Orleans following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, and one examining redevelopment of neighborhoods surrounding the World Trade Center site in New York City.
Your ULI chairmanship from 1989 through 1991 coincided with the last big economic crisis. How did that compare with the current downturn—and what lessons are relevant today?
Banks were not lending; they were looking to reduce their exposure. By 1990, when we met in Dallas, everything had really unraveled, so we created a credit task force. The current economic trouble is focused on residential real estate; the one in 1989–1991 was more commercial. There are some similarities, such as credit availability, but the one from 1989 through 1994–1995 might have been worse for commercial.
My advice now is just to stay the course the best you can. We have banks charging very low interest rates, and that makes it easier to hold on to properties, so there are positive aspects to the current situation.
Is there anything in particular that worries you?
I keep looking at the stock market, which is a leading indicator, and at European credit issues. The thing that worries me is if people get too negative, that breeds on itself. I’m also worried about the political divisiveness that we have. The elected officials are such ideologues in terms of position that we’re not coming up with approaches. I was always of a mind, when on the city council, that politics is the art of the possible. This intransigence, this mood, I don’t see that changing quickly.
You, a developer, were elected twice to be mayor of North Carolina’s capital city. So often developers and government officials seem to be at odds. How did you reconcile the two?
A developer is like a producer of a play, and that’s what you need in the leadership of a city. Developers should be more involved in their cities. Don’t be on the defensive regarding the perception of a developer. When I was running for mayor, I made it a positive. I said, “We’re proud of our developments; this is what we need.”
What are the biggest changes you see in the development business?
People are actually moving to the more central part of their cities, where it’s walkable. That’s a trend that will continue. Not necessarily massive properties, but a lot of smaller, unique properties. We’ve been developing a lot of smaller urban infill lately. It’s opposite thinking, really, but the more that people are able to stay in touch without being physically close together, the more they actually want to live closer together in urban settings.
Three principles are important for developments: transit, vibrant centers (as opposed to the word density), and open space. I always say density is the friend of open space, rather than smearing everybody over the whole region. A lot of the knee-jerk opposition to density has to do with design, I think. If you have good design and the amenities, you don’t get a lot of opposition if you do it in the right location.
As ULI observes its 75th anniversary, what do you think are the biggest challenges?
It’s important that ULI, probably more than ever, focus on basics. ULI is not a trade association; it’s not a lobbying organization. It’s about best practices. It is about idea exchange. It is multidisciplinary. The district council movement is particularly important; we have close to 500 members here in the Research Triangle area. That’s a great organization to learn from. It’s absolutely important to have finance folks, public officials, academicians. ULI doesn’t speak with one voice, and I think that’s a very good thing. You need to hear different perspectives.