Three Key Leaders discuss their inaugural contributions and why ULI’s mission is more important than ever.

Three longtime ULI members and leaders have joined to make $17 million in inaugural contributions to the ULI Chair’s Fund. This new endowment aims to give ULI the flexibility to respond quickly to new challenges in its mission, which includes helping tackle issues ranging from reducing real estate’s carbon footprint to increasing the supply of affordable housing.

Former ULI Foundation chair James D. Klingbeil is donating $7 million through the Klingbeil Family Foundation, and past ULI global chair Thomas W. Toomey and former ULI Foundation chairman Douglas D. Abbey are contributing $5 million each.

“These three significant gifts from ULI member leaders further solidify our financial foundation and will help ensure that ULI can implement its mission—Shape the future of the built environment for transformative impact in communities worldwide—well into the future,” said Ed Walter, ULI global CEO.

Learn more about how to support the ULI Foundation.

The three participated in a recent Zoom roundtable during which they discussed how ULI has influenced their lives and careers. Edited highlights of their conversation follow.

How did you get started with ULI, and how has it resonated with you personally and professionally?

Klingbeil: I became involved back in the early 1960s. I was just starting my career; I had no background in real estate whatsoever. I went to my first meeting in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I was literally blown away by the candor and the information and advice. We took a bus out to one of the Levitt developments where I saw 300 houses and every form of construction and got to talk to [Liberty Property Trust founder] Bill Rouse, Jim Rouse’s older brother. I was getting all these insights from experienced real estate developers. Just think about a whiteboard with nothing on it: that was my brain. Needless to say, I went to the next meeting in Dallas. There was no other organization that had the information and wanted to create a better built environment. For me, it was a life-changer; it was based upon the quality of the people.

Toomey: I started back in 1996. I had been working on a redevelopment project, and I gave a presentation on it to a ULI product council, where you have 50 people taking a look at your ideas. They certainly humbled me, but they also challenged me. It was a vastly more capable audience, but they were there not just to judge but to work with me. Then after I joined UDR, my past chairman Bob Larson and others suggested that I look at becoming a ULI member. That started me on a journey that invigorated my career and my thought processes and management style.

It’s great to be around a group of people who share their wisdom and challenges, and openly have a dialogue not just about real estate and making money, but solving problems and helping you on your journey. You grow personally and professionally with a group of people.

Abbey: When I had my first experience with ULI back in 1976, I knew nothing about real estate. I had been teaching elementary school in the Bronx. In my first real estate job, I worked on a ULI publication about mixed-use development. We were coming out of the era of Euclidian zoning, where all the land uses are separate, and the idea of mixed use was to combine things to make a more interesting, 24/7 environment instead of a 9-to-5 one. One thing that was great about ULI was that you would be at a meeting and you’d see the icons of the industry like Trammell Crow or Gerald Hines. They were right there, and you could just talk to them. And they were happy to do it. It was a real opportunity to learn.

ULI has an amazing culture. There are givers and takers in the world, and ULI is for givers—people sharing their own experiences, the mistakes made, and lessons learned; real deals and real numbers. They show their vulnerabilities and create an emotional connection.

But there’s also the personal aspect as well as the professional. I’ll never forget once being on a ULI Governors trip to Egypt with 25 other couples. It was one of the great experiences of my life. We got up before dawn and climbed a pyramid to see the sunrise, and then rode a camel to the Sphinx. To be in this ancient civilization with its monumental architecture helped us to develop deep and lasting friendships. That’s very unusual in professional organizations. These are people we compete with in business, but they’re also our friends.

Klingbeil: Because of ULI, I’m a far better leader and a more observant human being, and I probably bring that to whatever real estate problem I’m working on.

Toomey: ULI is a great place for young people to learn. But also I’ve learned a lot from listening to how they think about things, and going back to the drawing board and saying that is our customer of the future, our leader of the future. How can we empower them to get there quicker? I encourage them to take advantage of ULI, and not wait until they’re 35 to join.

What are the biggest challenges that the real estate industry faces, and what role can ULI play in solving them? What are past examples that show how ULI can have an impact?

Abbey: The challenges are abundantly clear, as we’ve seen in the past few years: global warming, patterns that perpetuate inequity, and lack of affordable housing. These are problems that can’t be solved overnight, but land use is an important part of the puzzle.

Toomey: When we talk about the built environment and how to build better cities, the end goal really is to have societies that enable everybody to have an equal opportunity to prosper. Our capability to do that revolves around a few things.

First, ULI always remains independent. It doesn’t get swayed or try to become politically active on any issue. Instead, we’re an independent voice, bringing together the best minds in our field from across the planet, sharing what’s working and what’s not working, developing best practices. Second, we’re not just a think tank. We have a very thoughtful, innovative group, but we also have experience on the ground. And you can look across the globe and say that you have 50,000 people engaged every day in your mission.

Klingbeil: Affordable housing is a problem that’s never left us. But if I go back through time, there always have been different problems. What ULI does is pivot and innovate. Back when I was president [of ULI] in the early 1990s, we were in the midst of the biggest recession we’d ever had, and we had to deal with it. I would spend the first four hours of every business day talking to fellow members, trying to help them. And then at 12 [noon], I would turn to my own problems, which were enormous.

Abbey: There was a developer who went bust in that period. He talked about going bankrupt and how it affected him personally and his company, in front of his peers. The impact was very powerful and a terrific learning experience. It also connected people in that someone was able to show his vulnerabilities, which strengthened the bonds between members.

One of our core initiatives now is diversity. Aside from being something that has a social justification and value, it’s going to strengthen the industry.

Klingbeil: At ULI, you have the ability to draw on various people and help one another. One of the best things that ULI does today is the real estate advisory panels. You get together people with different, diverse experiences and skill sets to solve whatever problem that a community has—whether it’s downtown zoning or where to put the convention center in Denver. I chaired a panel that came in to help Oklahoma City [following the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building,]. We came up with a plan for their urban downtown and parks.

Toomey: We’ve done over 1,000 of those panels, so if you want to hear about them all, we need to get our sleeping bags. They’re very impactful. They leave behind documents you can use to measure the impact.

Abbey: Work that ULI did in Detroit’s downtown played an important role 20 years ago. It was deserted, and now all kinds of new business, housing, and commercial development are happening there. ULI did another study after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, on how to deal with some of the Byzantine laws and regulations in New Orleans that prevented thoughtful land use planning and tax collection. And the ULI advisory panel’s work [in 2018] on homelessness in Los Angeles will be a powerful and timely one.
What was the impetus for your gifts, and what is the significance of them being unrestricted? What do you hope the money will accomplish in terms of helping ULI’s mission?

Klingbeil: The idea with unrestricted gifts is that ULI decides where the money should go and how it can be best used to innovate, pivot, and respond to needs. What we’re trying to do here as the three founding donors is to help create something that will get larger and be able to respond to the needs of ULI as it goes forward.

Toomey: The Chair’s Fund permits ULI to have the kind of permanence that other big institutions have, to follow the mission, and ensure that it’s going to be around for a long time. ULI will face an ever-evolving set of challenges. If it has to identify a challenge or an opportunity and then go raise money, that would slow the speed by which it can have an impact.

We’ve all had the same experience where we’ve run a pretty tight, efficient dollar-for-dollar operation, but not had the reserves to get ahead of problems. This sets the table and enhances the ability of ULI to move quickly and get involved in problems early. Sometimes, being the first and bringing resources early can have a much greater impact.

Abbey: As Jim has said, we need the resources to be at the forefront of thought leadership for the next 80 years. Coming up with policies and practices to increase affordable housing is one of the big challenges, and the resources of the Foundation are able to advance that mission. We know that land use policies perpetuate people being separated by race and income. ULI’s philosophy is to create mixed-income communities and provide social services and more opportunities for people to advance themselves. It’s not easy to move this needle, but we
have to.

What should other industry leaders know about the benefits of giving at the Chair’s Fund level?

Klingbeil: I’d like to see other donors come in at the level we’re in; or if they come in lower, they can contribute knowing full well that the founding donors of this fund will look out to make sure that the money is well spent. I really want to encourage people to think about putting ULI in their estate planning.

Toomey: ULI has a good strong foothold, a good base of knowledge, and an engaged membership. But we need to do more. Does ULI need more resources? Absolutely.

I cannot think of anything else that I’ve ever given to where the gift would have so much leverage—when you combine the talent within ULI and its potential impact across the globe—in terms of bettering the lives of so many people.

Abbey: There is no other organization on the planet that’s better suited to come up with best ideas and practices for attacking these problems than ULI. Our mission is to transform communities.

PATRICK J. KIGER is a Washington, D.C.–based journalist and author.

Learn more about how to support the ULI Foundation.

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