While cities around the world face many challenges, they also play a role in providing economic opportunity and bringing people of different backgrounds together. That was the primary topic of a panel discussion among past recipients of ULI’s prestigious J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development in Kansas City, Missouri, for the J.C. Nichols Forum. But panelists said that city leaders and the real estate industry need to focus on providing affordable housing and promoting public policies and partnerships that can support it.
“Communities succeed best when they’re diverse,” said Peter Calthorpe, an award-winning San Francisco–based architect and pioneer of sustainable urban design globally who was awarded the Nichols Prize in 2006.
Bart Harvey, former chief executive officer (CEO) of Maryland-based affordable housing investment company Enterprise Community Partners and a 2008 Nichols Prize recipient, added: “So much of what happens today is economically driven. Without public policy, all affordable housing ends up going to the least common denominator, which is into blighted areas. If we are going to have a really inclusive society that works for everyone, you have to have a champion in the public sector who is going to set the policies and the framework in a way that really makes sense for everyone.”
Harvey and Calthorpe were joined on the panel of Nichols laureates by Richard Baron, chairman of St. Louis community development firm McCormack Baron Salazar and a 2004 Nichols Prize recipient; Gerald Hines, chairman of Houston-based developer Hines and a 2002 Nichols Prize winner; Joseph Riley Jr., major of Charleston, South Carolina, from 1975 until earlier this year and the first recipient of the Nichols Prize in 2000; and Peter Walker, a renowned Los Angeles–based landscape architect and 2012 Nichols Prize winner. The group’s dialogue about public and private sector roles in real estate was moderated by Paul Goldberger, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and an acclaimed architecture critic who won the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Criticism.
J.C. Nichols, a founding member of ULI in the 1930s, was considered a visionary for developing the first automobile-centered shopping center, the Country Club Plaza, and for master planning neighborhoods with diverse but interconnected land uses ranging from apartments and single-family homes to schools, parks, and retail—hallmarks of what today is considered compact, walkable “new urbanism.”
Harvey noted that ULI’s initial Nichols-inspired Community Builders Handbook in 1947 promoted a mixture of housing types and the importance of public, shared spaces—the “public realm.” Over the post–World War II decades, however, factors ranging from zoning codes to discriminatory practices led, in many places, to sprawl and separate land sites for different housing types, parks, shopping, and the like. Along the way, lower-income housing became concentrated only in urban centers, keeping those tenants entrenched in areas suffering economic neglect.
But the Nichols laureates pointed to a few examples over the years in which the public sector guided private developers to more socially equitable solutions. One was the federal government’s HOPE VI housing program, which replaced some of the nation’s worst public housing projects with mixed-income single-family and townhouse developments, designed to be pedestrian friendly and transit accessible and often located outside blighted neighborhoods. The program ran from 1992 to 2010 and produced 107,800 new or renovated housing units, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“It was a wonderful experiment to show what you could do for income inequality,” Harvey said.
Another example cited was Baltimore’s ongoing 20-year, $1.8 billion facelift of an 88-acre (36 ha) neighborhood of rowhouses, known as Middle East by its African American residents, just north of Johns Hopkins University’s downtown medical campus. It is a Hopkins-led public/private partnership to add a biotech park for the university as well as create mixed-income housing and a new neighborhood school.
Walker has worked across the United States on such projects involving city/university partnerships and has found that “there’s a shared responsibility for making cities better,” he said.
Baron added: “The big challenge is about social equity, and where these things collide is when universities and medical centers carve out areas they can control and start to invest tens of millions of dollars. . . . But the challenge is really how those efforts connect with issues of inequality.”
While the role of real estate development in battling urban inequality dominated the laureates’ 90-minute gathering, the group did have a wide-ranging discussion that touched on a variety of other urban real estate issues, including privatization of public spaces, the possible rise of driverless cars, and emerging smart infrastructure, among others. But in the end, when the panel was asked what “one thing” they could change about cities, the need for social justice stood out. Just about every panelist answered with hope for urban schools and/or affordable housing.
As Riley noted optimistically at one point, “We’re working on it.”
Jeffrey Spivak, a market research director in suburban Kansas City, Missouri, is an award-winning writer specializing in real estate development, infrastructure, and demographic trends.