Uncommon View – Commercial Real Estate Development

This is a story I heard growing up:
When my grandfather was 10 years old he found a penny. With that penny he bought a pencil. He sharpened that pencil then sold it for two cents. He took that two cents and bought two more pencils, sharpened them and sold them for four cents. He reinvested his four cents in four more pencils, sharpened them and sold them for eight cents. Then, again, he bought eight more pencils, sharpened them and sold them for sixteen cents. This went on until my grandfather had amassed $10.24. That’s when my great Aunt Sophie died and left us her portfolio of shopping centers, office buildings and rental homes. Our family has been in the real estate business ever since.

The story isn’t true, but it taught four valuable lessons:

1) Sweat equity is a powerful tool;

2) If you reinvest your earnings, wealth can grow geometrically;

3) The BIG money is in real estate; and

4) It would be nice to have a rich Aunt Sophie.

Like most families, we didn’t have a rich Aunt Sophie, so my parents focused on lessons 1, 2 and 3. I mention this story as a backdrop. My life growing up was always about real estate.

In my article “Keys to Closing Commercial Real Estate Transactions”, I mentioned my father because he was, and is, a wiz when it comes to commercial real estate. It was through him that I came to represent commercial real estate developers.

What I didn’t mention was that my mother was active in the family real estate business as well. While my father focused on commercial land development, my mother focused on residential real estate. I should have known better than to mention one but not the other. This article could be sub-titled “Keys To Maintaining Harmony”.

What does maintaining harmony have to do with commercial real estate development? Stick with me on this, then decide.

My mother cared about “quality of life” issues. Comfortable homes. Neighborhood parks. Safe streets. Good schools. Museums and other cultural enhancements.

I remember watching my mother lay out walking paths around detention ponds in residential developments and looking through catalogs evaluating park benches and playground equipment for neighborhood parks. As a residential real estate investor, developer and broker, my mother focused on “living environments”. If families were going to live in her neighborhoods then the neighborhoods had to be “family friendly”.

As you might imagine, with my father focused on commercial development and my mother focused on residential quality of life issues, conversations around the dinner table were always interesting, and sometimes dicey.

On one side of the table, my father envisioned expansive commercial development for retail shopping centers, office buildings, restaurants, hotels, theaters, warehouse superstores, entertainment centers, nightclubs and more.

On the other side was my mother insisting upon neighborhoods with comfortable homes, safe streets, parks and other open areas, dry basements, clean air, clean water, and minimal noise and light pollution.

According to conventional wisdom – derived from public zoning board and plan commission hearings and community planning group meetings when commercial development is proposed near existing homes and neighborhoods – one might expect a clash of ideas turning into heated challenges and demands to forego development. Fortunately, our dinner table was nothing like most public hearings.

My mother and father each respected the vision of the other and understood the natural symbiotic relationship between residential and commercial development. Instead of complaining that one was trying to destroy the vision of the other, they anticipated each other’s legitimate development and environmental needs and sought reasonable accommodation when possible. Sometimes they couldn’t agree, but there was always a meaningful attempt to understand the viewpoint of the other, exchange ideas and come to a mutually respectful and workable plan.

My mother was a resourceful advocate. She made my father think about how commercial development would impact residential neighbors and plan ways to mitigate adverse consequences on families. Long before coming into their current vogue, I learned at our family dinner table the concept of “lifestyle commercial centers” and complementary residential/commercial mixed use developments.

The point for commercial developers and residential advocates is that they should each turn down the volume of their development debate and respectfully listen to what the other is saying. When the other has presented legitimate concerns or needs, those concerns and needs should be reasonably accommodated where possible. An idealistic dream? Perhaps. But I grew up watching it work.

To be sure, not all expressed concerns are legitimate and not all proposed accommodations are possible. In those cases, resolution must necessarily be left up to public plan commissions, zoning boards, and municipal trustees or aldermen to arbitrate and decide the debate. As guardians of the public welfare entrusted with promoting the best interests of the community at large, they must decide. In a fair and evenhanded political environment, your best bet for prevailing is to demonstrate that you have listened with respect and have made reasonable and conscientious efforts to promote public harmony rather than discord.

POINT: If you are a commercial real estate developer proposing a commercial development near existing residential neighborhoods, don’t pretend they don’t exist. Think about how they will be impacted and include in your development plan ways to mitigate any adverse consequences created by your development. Talk to your residential neighbors. Listen to what they have to say. They are not ALL crazy. Sometimes (often, actually) they have legitimate concerns about real problems. If you can include in your development plan a way to economically fix a problem they already have (such as flooding, blight, inadequate parking, lack of sufficient parks or playgrounds, poor traffic circulation, etc.), your chances of favorable governmental action to approve your development plan goes up.

Whether you are a commercial real estate developer or a neighborhood advocate, understand that, whether you like it or not, conditions change. Nothing stays the same. Obsolescence and blight are natural products of time. Redevelopment is coming. If not today, then someday.

Which brings me back to my point of promoting family harmony by making amends to my mother. You don’t necessarily have to read what follows. This is primarily for her.

My mother retired last year but says she still enjoys reading my newsletters and articles. Perhaps a mother’s love, but she always likes to read what I write about real estate and real estate development. She says her favorite is a poem I wrote about “real estate development” called The Great Pyramids Of Egypt Are In Disrepair. She thinks I should share it.

The poem was written in 1992. I have to admit, it never occurred to me that the poem was about “real estate development”. I can assure you, I was not consciously thinking about real estate development at the time I wrote it.

But my mother is a smart woman and I have learned my lesson. I am not going to lightly cross her again. So, in the interest of family harmony, here it is. I leave it to you to decide if it is about real estate development. If you don’t think so, please don’t tell my mother.

THE GREAT PYRAMIDS OF EGYPT ARE IN DISREPAIR

We looked deep into each other’s eyes and said:
“Our Love will last forever”.

When I was two my parents built a new house
next door to the one we rented from my grandfather.
It was “ultra modern” with all the latest conveniences
A garbage disposer – dishwasher – central air –
central vac – wall-to-wall carpet – a private den –
We had a bird bath – and two hundred newly planted Scottish pines.

It’s a parking lot now –
The church next door needed it.
Business was good.

The church doors were padlocked last year.
God moved down the street to nicer quarters.

I saw a news clip recently.
The Great Pyramids of Egypt are in disrepair.
They may not last unless work starts soon.
Sometimes the damage can be too great.
Even mummies get so wrapped up in what
they are doing they can begin to unravel.

Yesterday a friend asked: “Whatever happened to that girl?”

The POINT (according to my mother):

Change happens.
What seems new and permanent today
Will be gone tomorrow.

No time stands still.
Real Estate projects are no exception.
Redevelopment is coming.

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