Who Are America's Progressive Developers?

Introducing a cross-country series that profiles the forward-thinking developers shaping America's cities.
By Scott Beyer | Jul 21, 2018 |
By Scott Beyer | Jul 21, 2018 |
The Pearl Brewery area in San Antonio will be one of the developments profiled in The Market Urbanism Report’s monthly “America’s Progressive Developers” series. / Flickr

[This is the intro to a series on America's Progressive Developers. Here are the pieces on Miami, Charlottesville, New Orleans, San Antonio, San Diego, San Francisco and Detroit.]

“The greed of some property developers is truly breathtaking,” moans Alex Lo, of the South China Morning Post, about a specific homebuilder in Hong Kong. What was the company's crime? Simply raising their sales prices in a city where most every housing developer is, thanks to factors outside their control, also raising prices. In another publication based out of the UK, developers are called "extortionists" for wanting to lease rather than sell their properties.

Of course, this thinking is also common in the U.S., with the "greedy developer" trope echoed at public hearings and in Twitter hashtags. Developers are subjected to this because they happen to sell a product whose prices, relative to other products, are fast rising in many cities. It's thus assumed that they must be abnormally indulgent people, more than, say, grocers, insurance agents or car dealers, and aren't just following the market signals that determine prices in every other industry.

But regardless of how someone thinks of developers personally, there is another way they should be viewed, especially by those who live in and love cities. It boils down to this: without developers, cities wouldn't exist.

Except in those rare cases where DIYers build for themselves, most every home, office, store, industrial use and government building in a city has been erected by a professional developer. We have cities because, at one point or another, large numbers of developers found it profitable to build there, creating a critical mass of structures that people define as "urbanism." So any city dweller has to, almost by definition, be pro-development.

Yet often the people who occupy cities have an overwhelming dislike for just about every building within them. They view as declasse anything from structures enshrouded in glass, to ones with siding, to ones that are too tall, to ones that are detached, to ones that don't perfectly face the street. It's as if the people who like the final sum of their cities nonetheless hate all the parts that make those cities what they are.

But some developments are, in fact, uniformly loved. They aren't always big and grand—and oftentimes are small—but they embody what people think of as making their cities great. Such projects, if they are old, came at a time when regulations weren't so rigid and builders could just build. When new buildings like this arise today, it's often because some stalwart requirement, such as parking minimums or single-use zoning, has been waived. But whether past or present, such structures are typically built by people who are of a certain mindset, who I like to call “progressive developers.”

These developers have an advanced vision of how their projects--and their cities--should look. And it shows in their work. They can be found restoring historic structures, using interesting building materials, creating well-designed master-planned communities, funding coherent community spaces, advancing socially or environmentally just ideas, and much more. For all the talk of so-called “bad” developers and development, American cities have a lot of what could objectively be called good. And much of it is still being built.

Without developers, there wouldn't be cities.

For about a year and half, I’ve been traveling cross-country as an urban affairs journalist, and have witnessed many of these developments. Now I'm doing a monthly series that profiles them, and the builders behind them. It will be called “America’s Progressive Developers.”

As readers may know, I'm on a 3-year cross-country tour during which I'm living in 30 major U.S. cities. I've completed the first half of the trip, treading through the South, the Southwest and up the West Coast.

In the process, I’ve met various progressive developers, and my article series will be based on the interviews and tours they gave me. Among the projects included will be a San Antonio developer who has revived a historic warehouse district; one in New Orleans who is reacquainting the city with its waterfront; one in San Francisco who's found a cheap and innovate way to house the homeless; and much more. I'll look forward to meeting other visionaries as I head back east, through the Intermountain West, Great Plains, Midwest, Mid-South, and East Coast.

The point of this series, besides just giving me the excuse to meet inspiring people, is to help change the perception about developers. Their constant demonization has led in many cities to knee-jerk public resistance against all buildings. This has had awful consequences for urban America, creating housing shortages, price inflation, and longer commutes.

But anti-development perceptions might change if people realized that many projects are quite good, and that the people building them are tasteful and civic-minded. My series will show that this alternative exists to the stereotypical "greedy developer."

[This article was originally published by Forbes.]