Are Urban Developers Boring?

I’ve been in this business for nearly 15 years.  I bleed transit oriented and urban mixed use.  These are high brow terms that urban planners, developers, architects and commercial real estate experts use daily.  It’s super easy to let the high brow terminology take over and in groups we act like ‘Doesn’t everybody know this stuff?’  I participate and have participated heavily in urban planning exercises, master planned joint developments, land development projects, commercial investments and all you can possibly imagine in the urban sector.  I can espouse with the best on urban form and efforts to strike the right balance of commercial mixed use and mixed income investments.  The general ideas behind all of these efforts are to improve our cities, to make urban areas thrive for people of all backgrounds and for the business community over long periods of time.  We all have the right focus – but…

 Plan Plan Plan graphic

These days we find ourselves in a constant conversation about these issues whether we attend a conference, participate in a project, or network with like-minded professionals.  We share exciting news about how we learned a better way to create public/private partnerships or finance a deal using New Markets Tax Credits.  Indeed, the business of being an urban real estate developer are ever-changing and highly complex – but…

It’s beginning to feel like the conversation on urban form and livability is getting stale.  There was a time when the market couldn’t spell TOD that these ideas were new and fresh – cutting edge in many ways.  Now they are commonplace and starchy.  Everyone knows the same thing these days, and everyone seems to be working on a project that looks exactly like the new standard of urban investing: Option 1 – a mixed use podium project with less than 10{fab79f7e6a1f7245603359390db0c9b2ed6f1b5b6d9758f88042fc0f06934e43} of the available square footage used for commercial purposes; or Option 2 – a horizontal mixed use project with higher density apartments and pad type quasi-urban retail.  Fifteen years ago these two models of development were cool and hip, now they are just normal.

boston aerialcity b and w

Unfortunately, normal is not a term best used to describe our urban places.  Cities are interesting because they change and adapt, combust with creativity and diverse energy.  When the energy of a city becomes normal, it begins to die.  When the ideas become stale the spirit of the city begins to erode.  We easily forget that cities are not buildings, but people.  If we as urban developers are not creating places for people, then we are missing the purpose.  People are attracted to places that infer good memories.  People don’t infer memories from pastel stucco or uninteresting urban forms – they seek out color, smell, music, smiles, laughter and, other people.  Buildings are the canvas for people to paint memories.  Our cities deserve better and more organic canvasses to spur richer memories.  Missing this important distinction is the fear I have for Denver and any other city enjoying the sweet success of urban mixed use development.


At BLACK LABEL, we strive to stay on the cutting edge.  As a small business our ethos is tied to what’s ‘NEXT’ in urban places.  Next is cool.  Next is the heartbeat of cities.  Next is the spirit of the creative class – the spirit of entrepreneurs.  We need Next in urban development.  We need urban developers who are focused on finding and partnering with local creative ideas to produce special places.  We need urban development that seems to breathe in pace with its underlying community character.  We need those Next level, cool ideas that don’t simply fill vacant lots with opaque walls and fake balconies, but living and moving interpretations of the city.

How are we at BLACK LABEL doing this?  We are partnering with local merchant business operators to develop urban retail in concert with their operating needs to create deeper sustainability.  We are finding hidden gem, key assets that serve as catalytic investments and bringing them into the light.  We are bringing our conventional clients into the spirit of the Next by placing them in key strategic positions and facilitating the birth of new urban energy.  We get Next and commit to its constant formation.

So, next time we’re in a collegial conversation about mixed use urban form or TOD, you might just see me drifting off.  I may wander away from the small group dialogue about creative finance or public/private partnerships.  I will, however, be that source of frustrating inspiration – the voice that doesn’t always agree – the guy who may seem off key from the group – the hand that goes up to dissent from popular opinion – the one who introduces a new way to think or do.  I can’t help it, it’s the city in me.

city lights