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Curious Development

Why the Biggest Names in the Development Industry are Convening in Baltimore

By Blake de Pastino | Posted 5/7/2003

The news came quietly last November, to a half-full room of architecture buffs. At a lunchtime meeting of the Baltimore Architecture Foundation at Johns Hopkins University's downtown campus, those in the small crowd--made up mainly of design students, bored pensioners, and curious brown-baggers--were among the first locals to get the word: The Urban Land Institute (ULI), an organization of the world's biggest, wealthiest heavy hitters in the development industry, would be holding its Spring Forum convention in Baltimore.

At first, the significance of this was lost on the audience; ULI is a group whose flatline profile does not match the mighty influence of its members. But a few representatives were on hand to make the introduction: ULI, they explained, is a nonprofit real estate think tank based in Washington, D.C., with a $27 million budget and 17,000 members who inhabit the top tier of development, construction, insurance, and finance corporations in 50 countries. One member described ULI to the crowd as both "the place where you learn to do the deal and get the money" and "the most important source of information on real estate development in the world." In other words, from May 7 to 9, Baltimore would host some of the highest-standing captains of the real estate industry.

Since that announcement last fall, members of the Urban Land Institute have described this week's Spring Forum variously as: a showcase of Baltimore's past and future urban revitalization projects, a series of lessons in how to foster profitable yet responsible urban growth, and an all-out orgy of networking in which tens of millions of dollars in corporate-development deals will be struck. The forum may indeed turn out to be all of these things. But no matter what, it will all take place before the backdrop of Baltimore's freshly rehabbed image as the Mid-Atlantic's new paragon of urban rebirth.

"ULI selecting Baltimore as the host city for the Spring Forum is a tremendous vote of confidence in our marketplace," says Bryce Turner, president of local design firm Brown and Craig and chair of the ULI's Baltimore District Council. "It's really a big deal."

Indeed, ULI's stated mission is "to provide responsible leadership in the use of land in order to enhance the total environment," and Baltimore's role as an example of such thoughtful development will be the key motif of the three-day event. Already, ULI has devoted the April issue of its official publication, Urban Land magazine, to plugging Baltimore's real estate scene. One article recounts the Inner Harbor's transformation from derelict waterfront to festival marketplace, a conversion that author Martin Millspaugh describes as "one of the most fascinating adventure stories in modern urban history." Another is a screed by Mayor Martin O'Malley, who reminds potential investors that Baltimore is "working toward sustained prosperity."

But it's in its role as a classroom for the forum itself that Baltimore will provide the most direct lessons to visiting ULI members. As Turner points out, "Baltimore has a lot to showcase. The city has a great reputation nationwide in the real estate development industry, because we're having a lot of innovative things happen." Owing to that belief, programs for the conference will include a walking tour of the Inner Harbor conducted with an investor's-eye view, an "insider's guide" to Camden Yards, and excursions that explore entertainment-based development for the inner city.

Of course, while the 2,000 expected ULI conventioneers are squired around town, the city will be presented not only as a model of success but also as an investment opportunity waiting for the attention of canny capitalists. Local ULIers are candid about their hopes that the forum will stimulate an infusion of cash into the local real estate market and, eventually, into their own businesses.

"One of the reasons this is a big deal is that there will be over 2,000 high-level executives in the real estate industry here, and it happens at a time when Baltimore is actively pursuing national developers to get involved in the next Baltimore renaissance," Turner explains. "We're talking about significant decision- makers, all of them. This isn't lower-level staff--this tends to be the executive-boardroom types. I think that's a good thing."

And with such terrific influence there always comes at least a little controversy. Aside from a bout of unwelcome scrutiny in 1997--when ULI's then-president was censured by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for overseeing the award of a $490,000 housing contract to one of his own cohorts--most of the questions raised about ULI have had to do with the group's larger vision. In particular, some critics have voiced disappointment with ULI's follow-through on its professed conviction in "smart growth," an approach to city planning that calls for more restrained and sustainable development, instead of free-market urban sprawl. ULI's role as a developer- driven organization, these observers claim, inhibits it from pursuing a truly aggressive anti-sprawl agenda.

"Well, they do honestly support smart-growth development," says Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Washington-based Coalition for Smarter Growth. "They're big supporters of transit-oriented development and mixed-use development on a pedestrian-friendly scale.

"But that said, they are serving as a developer arm, so they also do these publications about cost-effective industrial park construction or, you know, how to make more out of your shopping center."

In short, ULI advocates urban revitalization so long as it's in the interests of its members, which may explain the group's ardor, Schwartz suggests, for the recent, lucrative trend toward entertainment-based city developments. "They're good at making money," he says. "So if developers are into theme-park downtowns, for instance, they'll be promoting that."

Whatever the heavyweight decision-makers of ULI learn about Baltimore while they're here, the one exercise everyone is sure to take part in is the art of the deal. ULI member Bob Nilsson of Stevensville, former president and CEO of the Turner International construction management company, is one of the group's most active and articulate advocates. As he points out, when it comes to enrolling in ULI--and attending its forums--membership has its privileges.

Last November, Nilsson explained to the roomful of architecture enthusiasts that the biggest benefit of ULI membership was the benefit of access. "I realized it was all owners and developers--my potential clients--which means getting business," he said then, of his decision to join ULI more than 20 years ago. "It put me in a room with people I couldn't get on the phone."

Today, on the topic of the networking opportunities that ULI affords, Nilsson is even more enthusiastic.

"I don't care if you're an architect, engineer, or developer, it's the place to be if you're in the real estate industry," he says. "Because here's where you're going to hear about the opportunities and meet the people you want to do business with."

By way of illustration, he returns to his phone-call example. Thanks to ULI, he says, he can now get callbacks from even the loftiest industry pros.

"If I were to call [Houston real estate magnate] Gerald Hines or [international development corporation] Tishman Speyer--just to take two very well-known, big developers--and tried to reach somebody, I'd never get through," Nilsson says. "But by being in a ULI meeting with them, by spending an entire day and evening with them, and having a drink with them, and socializing with them, you develop a relationship, a rapport. So when you have a question, you can call them."

Nilsson, now a construction consultant, is currently working on a commercial development in the Persian Gulf emirate of Dubai, and he's planning on making the most of the Spring Forum by finalizing plans with designers and managers on the project. "You don't normally think of Baltimore as a place where you'd be having a meeting to discuss what's happening the Middle East," he says. "But it will be."

In the end, that's what ULI's Spring Forum is all about, Nilsson suggests. Aside from the litany of Baltimore success stories, the lessons in urban planning, and the possible politics, the Baltimore convention will work above all in service to the industry itself. "People doing business," Nilsson says. "There'll be more people huddling away talking about deals than you could ever imagine."

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