ULI Foundation governor Ron Nahas and his wife, Mary, have donated $1 million to UrbanPlan, an interactive educational program that engages high school students, university students, and public officials in understanding the forces shaping real estate development.

ULI Foundation governor Ron Nahas and his wife, Mary, have donated $1 million to UrbanPlan. (Courtesy of Ron Nahas)

UrbanPlan organizes students into development teams to respond to a “request for proposals” for the redevelopment of a multiblock site suffering from disinvestment and urban blight. Industry professionals volunteer as facilitators to guide students as they prepare a vision, site plan, marketing plan, and pro forma to pitch to a “city council” composed of other industry professionals. UrbanPlan is typically delivered over the course of three to four weeks to students and as a one-day workshop for public officials and community members.

Nahas, a partner in the real estate development firm of Rafanelli and Nahas in Lafayette, California, says he intends for his gift to help ensure the program’s future. “Our objective is to deliver UrbanPlan to thousands of high school students every year,” he says. “That requires effort at both the district council level and the national ULI level. The key is to grow and improve it in a way that makes it sustainable while protecting the quality of the outcome.”

He notes that his father, Robert Nahas, served twice as president of ULI and led the establishment of the ULI Foundation in 1970 for similar reasons. “He felt very strongly that it was critical to have resources, in the form of a foundation, to support the research and the education and the independence of the organization,” Nahas says. “Real estate is a cyclical business, and revenue from programs is variable.”

Cofounded in the early 2000s at ULI San Francisco by Nahas and ULI governors Doug Abbey and Steve Chamberlin, UrbanPlan was jointly developed by ULI; the Fisher Center for Real Estate and Urban Economics at the University of California, Berkeley; and a group of Bay Area teachers. Since its creation, UrbanPlan has reached more than 65,000 high school students in North America and has expanded to Europe and Asia as well.

The gift will help the program continue to extend its reach. “Right now, we’re working with an incredibly dedicated group of district councils,” says Sophie Lambert, vice president for UrbanPlan. “A lot of them would like to grow their programs, and many want to reach underserved schools. Ultimately, we want to bring the program to more district councils.”

In 2020, the program evolved in response to the COVID-19 pandemic by investing in an online platform for remote teaching, which also enabled the fulfillment of a longtime dream.

“We’ve always had the idea of bringing together high school students from across the country to do UrbanPlan together,” Lambert says. “The pandemic experience showed us that we could do this virtually.”

Now in its third year, the UrbanPlan National Student Competition has teams compete against each other for a second time outside the classroom setting.

A longtime mentor and organizer of Hawaii’s UrbanPlan program, Jon Wallenstrom has seen one of the state’s teams, Iolani School, win the competition two years in a row.

“UrbanPlan is a wonderful way for ULI members to give back, and it’s an opportunity to engage with smart young people and create a society that’s more civic-minded,” says Wallenstrom, principal of Alaka’i Development in Honolulu.

“It’s empowering young people to engage in their communities in a way that’s constructive. Many students have come up to me and said, ‘I didn’t know what I wanted to do in college, and now I’m going to enroll in something that would lead to a career in the built environment.’ But what is most important is that they all feel able to engage in real issues in a civil manner.”

Another longtime volunteer, Tyler Higgins, chair of the Institute’s Annual Fund and a member of the board of the ULI Foundation, agrees. “It is a great way to recruit youth to our industry,” he says.

“I have served UrbanPlan as a volunteer in the classroom and as a city council member, and have always been impressed with how the program works and the enthusiasm the students have to learn. It truly works. On two occasions, I have joined Ron Nahas’s matching gift pledge to support UrbanPlan’s growth nationally within other district councils. Ron’s support of the UrbanPlan is heroic, and I share his passion to make it a hallmark of ULI’s success.”

ULI is aiming to raise another $1 million to match Nahas’s gift. Institute members are encouraged to volunteer for UrbanPlan or donate to the ULI Annual Fund and designate a gift.

“The first time I met Ron, I learned UrbanPlan for him is not just about teaching the next generation about the real estate industry,” Higgins says. “It’s also about teaching civic engagement, that we are all participants in our communities. Ron’s gift opens minds beyond our industry.”

RON NYREN is a freelance architecture, urban planning, and real estate writer based in the San Francisco Bay area.