Collaborative real estate development program makes a difference across Metro Detroit

"Oh my gosh, I don't belong here." That was the first thought to go through Ann Leen's mind when she started the Urban Land Institute's (ULI) year-long Robert C. Larson Center for Leadership program in 2015.


At the time, Leen was the director of community development for Wayne County, working primarily with single-family and small multifamily projects. In the program, she found herself among a cohort of professionals from the real estate and land use industry, many of whom worked on much larger projects in the for-profit or nonprofit sectors.


The greatest common factor among the cohort members was the challenge they had accepted: devoting eight full work days to the program's professional enrichment sessions, and working with their cohort to use their newfound skills in a detailed analysis of a given real-life local development challenge.
Ann Leen 

Leen's concerns were quickly proven wrong. She and her cohort members established an easy interchange of perspectives from their different worlds and built relationships that Leen still relies on today.


"Together, we had a lot to offer one another," she says. "It changes the way you think about working with other people, how you think about your own projects, and how you need other people."


Collaboration for better results


That's exactly what the Center for Leadership's namesake would have wanted. Shortly before his death, prominent local real estate executive Robert Larson hashed out the basic idea for a national leadership initiative at a 2010 meeting of the nonprofit ULI. An endowment created by Larson made possible ULI's national Larson Leadership Institute, which has launched the Center for Leadership program and other initiatives at the national and local level.


"He really, truly believed that when you have achieved a level of success and a level of access, it becomes an obligation to give back," says Larson's son Eric Larson, a Detroit development powerhouse in his own right and chair of the leadership institute's advisory board. "Most of his life was focused on being able to provide opportunities and thoughtful leadership in evolving the individuals in our industry."
Eric Larson, chair of ULI's advisory board

Eric Larson says his dad was dedicated to the idea that the best way to achieve those goals was through collaborative leadership. And that's the fundament of the Center for Leadership program, which is now available in Seattle, Charlotte, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C. ULI Michigan adopted the program in 2012.


ULI Michigan director Shannon Sclafani says each Center for Leadership cohort consists of 20 to 30 mid-career professionals considered "rising stars" within their organizations. Over the course of the year-long program, participants observe development sites across the state as they study topics including regionalism, private-public partnerships, the roles capital markets and the philanthropic community play in the development and building healthy places. Many of the topics may be familiar to some cohort members, but none are familiar to all.


"By the end of the program ... they understand the entire process and everything that goes on in making decisions for real estate development," Sclafani says.


Spurring change


In the process, Center for Leadership participants also have the opportunity to make a very real impact on Metro Detroit communities. Each Center for Leadership cohort conducts a technical assistance program (TAP) project examining a specific, often vexing development question in the metro area.


John Petz, director of real estate and public affairs for Domino's Farms Corporation, chaired ULI Michigan's Technical Assistance Program for its first several years and helped get the program off the ground.


"We looked to partner with communities that were prepared to try and move forward, and maybe they just hadn't come up with the right answer yet, or maybe they haven't thought outside the box enough," says Petz. "We were not looking to impose an idea or a development solution. We've trying to help a community realize that."
John Petz, former chair of ULI Michigan's Technical Assistance Program

Each project begins with a stakeholder meeting that includes the client, other constituents such as specific businesses that might be impacted, institutional players, and residents.


Projects have tackled topics that run the gamut of Metro Detroit's development challenges. So far, TAPs have looked at the possibility of "daylighting" the Clinton River by bringing it back above ground in downtown Pontiac, considered options for cultivating a walkable city center at the busy intersection of 15 Mile and Gratiot in Clinton Township, studied how diversification of housing stock in Detroit's Grandmont-Rosedale neighborhood can accelerate revitalization, and proposed a walkable redevelopment in downtown Dearborn.

The current cohort's TAP is focused on developing revitalization strategies for the East English Village, Morningside, and Cornerstone Village neighborhoods on Detroit's far east side.


TAP participants are divided into teams focusing on development, design, engineering, finance, and planning. The team members' previous career experiences don't necessarily match the focus of the team they're assigned to. But again, that's part of the point.


Attorney and developer J. Patrick Howe, who was in the first Michigan Center for Leadership cohort and has since served as the program's co-chair, says this approach allows a diverse group of professionals to tackle TAPs with "a very, very fine-toothed comb."


In some cases, TAPs have helped to catalyze major development projects. The 2015 cohort's TAP focused on West Dearborn's Wagner Hotel block, which had stagnated and developed multiple vacancies after pre-recession development efforts stalled out. Ford Motor Co. has since announced a $60 million redevelopment plan for the site, calling for a mixed-use development that will employ 600 Ford workers and create new commercial space.


Dearborn community and economic development director Barry Murray says the Center for Leadership's TAP report likely "spurred" Ford's interest in the site, creating a visible public blueprint for revitalization. What's more, he says it's not something city staff could have pulled off on their ownnor would the resulting findings have held the same weight if they did.
Barry Murray, community and economic development director for the city of Dearborn

"I think you come away with a lot more refined product and something that looks professional that you can start to show developers and other parties of interest," Murray says. "It makes such a huge difference to have that kind of document in hand as opposed to just talking about it."


But the Center for Leadership doesn't just rubber-stamp every development it considers. In the case of the Clinton River TAP in Pontiac, cohort members determined the project simply wasn't feasible from an economic, environmental, or engineering standpoint. Larson says the Center for Leadership's status as a "relatively agnostic and neutral party" allows it to consider problems "holistically and, quite frankly, realistically."

"We have been able to come in and convene a discussion that is much more open, much more real, and much more accepted," says Howe. "And because of that, I think we see a willingness to consider what ultimately is defined as the best path forward."

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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Patrick Dunn is the managing editor of Concentrate and an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer for numerous publications. Follow him on Twitter @patrickdunnhere.