Born and raised in Baltimore, Thibault Manekin embodies a healthy idealism which has helped drive the choices he has made, and now, the career he has embraced. He describes his company Seawall Development, as a team of “social entrepreneurs who happen to be in real estate,” noting that real estate touches everyone. His goal, through Seawall, is to work against the division of communities by real estate. And to reimagine the power of the built environment to unite cities.
Thibault comes from a family long involved in real estate and development in Maryland. His grandfather started a real estate company in 1946, as a broker for commercial and industrial buildings. In 1975, Thibault’s father was drawn into the business when he saw that “the business was not about crunching numbers, but had everything to do with building relationships.” By 2000, when Thibault’s father retired, the firm had offices in Baltimore, Columbia and Frederick, and 144 employees.
Thibault, after graduating from college in 2001 worked with a friend on a non-profit, Playing for Peace (later called PeacePlayers International). They used basketball in Northern Ireland to bring children from divided backgrounds together. Thibault helped raise money for an expansion into South Africa, and then joined the team that helped launch the program there. They went on to replicate the model with Israeli and Palestinian children, and then in Cyprus with Greek and Turkish Cypriot children.
After five years, Thibault moved back to Baltimore, more confident in his abilities. He asked his father to help him start a real estate company, but one that “used buildings to create community and empower people.” When they co-founded Seawall, their initial focus was on creating affordable housing communities for teachers with centralized space for education nonprofits. Their first project was Miller’s Court (2009), a 100,000 sf former tin-can factory, abandoned for 30 years in a not-so-great neighborhood. Teachers were able to design their own apartments and amenities, and choose their own rent. Based on the rent the teachers said they could afford, Thibault and his father reverse-engineered the project to come up with a budget, which was $6 million, $14 million short of cost. So they assembled a team of ‘guardian angels’ made up of attorneys, accountants, banks and other lenders, and found creative financing solutions that included historic building tax credits, and local and federal assistance, finding that people wanted to help this project because it wasn’t a “real estate deal.”
For this project and the followup housing project, Union Mill (2011), Thibault was recognized by the White House as a Champion of Change. Since then Seawall has worked on a number of projects that are mixed use and geared to build community. Currently, they are working on the $40 million renovation of Lexington Market, the longest continuously operating public market in the country.
Insights and Inspirations
- Seawall believes in re-imagining the real estate development industry so that the built environment empowers communities, unites our cities, and helps launch powerful ideas.
- They strive to be neighbors, not guests, in the communities they work in.
- Thibault just helped to launch Larger Than Yourself a collaborative space for brave people to share how they are helping small ideas become powerful movements.
Information and Links
- Thibault loves watching how their R.House project has become one of the most diverse places to hang out in Baltimore.
- Seawall transformed a Victorian-era dye factory into yet another teacher community, this time in Philadelphia.
- Thibault is excited for the work they are doing to bring the Lexington Markets back to life.
- Thibault was honored by the White House in 2011 as a Champion of Change for developing affordable housing for teachers.
Read the podcast transcript here
Eve Picker: [00:00:13] Hi there, thanks so much for joining me today for the latest episode of Impact Real Estate Investing.
Eve: [00:00:19] My guest today is Thibault (Tee-bo) Manekin, the founder and CEO of Seawall Development. Seawall is rolling out the red carpet for teachers. They are building high quality, affordable housing, which in itself is a big task. Layer that with the inclusionary design process they employ and the fact that they are creating this housing by restoring large and stunning vacant buildings and seawall is altogether fantastic.
Eve: [00:00:55] Be sure to go to rethinkrealestateforgood.co to find out more about Thibault on the show notes page for this episode. And be sure to sign up for my newsletter so you can access information about impact real estate investing and get the latest news about the exciting projects on my crowdfunding platform, Small change.
Eve: [00:01:15] Hi Thibault, I’m really excited to talk to you today.
Thibault Manekin: [00:01:20] Hi Eve, I’m excited to talk to you, too. Thank you for having us.
Eve: [00:01:23] It’s a pleasure. So, you started your company by building quality, affordable housing for teachers, and that’s a really targeted mission and I’m wondering what led you to this work?
Thibault : [00:01:36] Yes, I probably have to go back a little further than that. When I first graduated from college at around 21 years old, I helped, with two buddies, we started an international non-profit organization called Playing for Peace. It’s called PeacePlayers Today. And the idea is that we would go to war-torn countries and we would use sports to get kids from two sides of a conflict, meet each other, finding common ground and eventually becoming friends. So, we raised about eight thousand dollars and was enough to get on a plane to Durban, South Africa, at the time, where we were going to try to get, use sports to get black kids and white kids post-apartheid meeting each other, finding common ground, becoming friends. And it had an amazing run with that organization, really grew it to be quite international. We had a program in Northern Ireland with Protestant and the Catholic kids, Cypress, the Middle East, with Israeli and Palestinian kids.
Thibault : [00:02:36] So in all of my travels with PeacePlayers, one of the reoccurring things that I continued to notice was that real estate had done more to tear us apart than bring us together, especially with my experience in South Africa, seeing what the apartheid government had done with townships and informal settlements. And then, as I would make trips back to my home city of Baltimore, seeing the negative effects of redlining. So I came back, I think it was around 2006 and I asked my dad, who’s a hero of mine, to go out to dinner and I pitched this idea of starting a company, a real estate company, but with the idea of really reimagining the real estate industry all together so that everything that we did used buildings and the built environment to empower communities, unite our cities and help to launch really powerful ideas. You know, I had seen the impact of reimagining the sports industry to bring people together, especially young people, and I wanted to do more with it. And if real estate was indeed the most powerful connected industry on the planet, then truly reimagined, there’d be the opportunity to bring people together in ways that possibly hadn’t been done before.
Thibault : [00:03:53] So, we launched this company. And, you know, we had an amazing dinner conversation around what we were going to focus on first. And my dad did spend a long time in real estate but was really passionate around education. And he had done a ton of listening to all of these new teachers and first year teachers that were showing up to Baltimore, maybe for the first time, and were having a really tough time figuring out the city. Figuring out where to live, figuring out who to live with, figuring out their classes and jumping into arguably what’s the hardest profession on the planet, educating the future generation. He basically was like, there’s a great opportunity to continue to listen to this community of educators and provide them what they’re asking for, which at the time was collaborative, affordable, well located, funky housing that would take the mystery for them out of where to live, provide them the ability to live some place special with like-minded people, which hopefully, over time, would translate to them agreeing to stay in the classroom for longer, falling in love with education, falling in love with our city of Baltimore, and maybe even making a permanent investment in buying their own home once they had a better lay of the land and been able to save some money as a result of staying in one of our projects.
Eve: [00:05:20] So, basically really supporting the pool of teachers who serve our city and, our cities, and really can’t afford to live in them anymore.
Thibault : [00:05:29] That was the idea behind it. And we coupled it with a similar thread that we’d been listening to, which was that there were all of these non-profits focused on kids and education and supporting the school system. Programs like Teach for America and Playworks and Wide-angle Youth Media and Baltimore Urban Debate League. They were spread out in dozens of buildings all over Baltimore all essentially doing the same kind of work around kids but with no ability to really deeply collaborate. And so, these non-profits who focused on kids and education and come to us and said it would be amazing if we could all be located under one roof, if we could share resources and have free conference rooms and training facilities that we don’t need all of the time but that we need throughout the day at different times. And so, our first project ended up becoming called the Center for Educational Excellence. We’ve always looked for a cooler name than that but that’s the one that’s kind of stuck. And it was a adaptive reuse of one hundred thousand square foot collapsing old factory building that got turned into about 40 apartments for teachers and thirty thousand square feet of collaborative office space for the non-profits underpinning the success of the school system.
Eve: [00:06:43] That’s a pretty big project to tackle for a first project.
Thibault : [00:06:46] It was funny. Yeah, we look back on it and, you know, when we first started the company, which is called Seawall, we weren’t sure if it was ever going to make it. And we had kind of said that we would, you know we’d been listening to teachers for so long, we’d probably buy a little four-unit row home and converted it into four apartments for teachers and that would be the first thing that we would do, which would probably cost four or five hundred thousand dollars. And our first project ended up costing 20 million dollars and we had no business taking on a project of that scale. And, you know, we can get into the movement that came as a result of it and what really propelled us forward. But that was, yes, that was our first project.
Eve: [00:07:31] How do you involve teachers in the process of creating these buildings? You’ve done three now, right? Three for teachers, is that correct?
Thibault : [00:07:39] We have, we have. So, everything that we’ve ever done has been built inside out. And what we mean by that is that we start with the end users, the people that are going to be living and working in our buildings. It’s important for us that they have a sense of pride, of authorship and ownership in what’s getting created. So, we start out by deeply listening to those people that are going to be occupying our spaces. And we let them drive the direction and the program of the space. We don’t ever pretend to have any of the answers. Our job’s to be quietly behind the scenes, asking the questions that held their thinking forward in a way that results in a finished product that makes them really proud and allows them to be more successful in whatever it is that they’re doing.
Thibault : [00:08:29] So in the case of the teachers, we assembled a group of, a focus group of about 10. We walked them through the collapsing building as we first bought it. They worked with our design team over the course of twelve months to design every square inch of their apartments. We let them pick their own amenities they needed like a resource center in the building that had access to copiers and laminating machines and staplers and hole punchers, so that they could plan their lessons within the building and not have to run out to Kinko’s in the middle of the night. We did the same thing with our non-profits. We let our teachers choose their own rents based on the salaries that they had and what felt like an affordable rent for them to be paying. And we really spent a ton of time with both the teachers and the non-profits from day one, letting them design what is their building.
Thibault : [00:09:19] I want to add something to that, because there are two other levels that we really focus on. As important as the teachers are, and whoever the end user is for any specific project we’re working on, equally as important is the community that we’re working with that. At the end of the day, they’re the ones that have been staring at these dilapidated, collapsing old buildings and it’s critical that they have a seat at the table in helping to shape what those new buildings are going to get turned into.
Thibault : [00:09:50] One of the things that developers are famous for, kind of going into a community and telling the community what they’re going to get, and we take the complete opposite approach. In the case of the first teacher housing project, we went to our first neighborhood association meeting, introduced ourselves and explained that a bunch of teachers and non-profits had this idea of creating the first Center for Educational Excellence and that the building that seemed to be a good fit for that was this one building in their neighborhood. And they loved the idea. And for the most part, everyone was thrilled.
Thibault : [00:10:24] And I remember this one young man stood up and raised his hand, kind of defiantly, at the end of the meeting as if he was going to oppose the project and he, he said look, as great as this is, what you’re missing is a little cafe or coffee shop on the corner of Howard and Twenty Sixth Street, which is where the project was. And there is no decent place to get a fresh sandwich or a good cup of coffee in this neighborhood and that would be an amazing thing if you guys could figure out a way to program a cafe into the corner there. And then he continued to say that if we brought in a Starbucks that they would throw rocks through the window at night when we weren’t there, that it was really important that it be locally owned.
Thibault : [00:11:06] So I’m sitting there, and I think that what this guy is suggesting is a terrible idea. The corner of Howard and Twenty Sixth Street is, at the time, was not a corner that anybody would feel safe walking to. We had programmed a two-bedroom apartment for a teacher to go in, for teachers to go in there. And that seemed way less risky than putting a coffee shop that we really had no control over and just didn’t feel like a retail type of location. But the community had spoken up and everybody kind of clapped and applauded and thought that it was a great idea. And so, we listened, and we took out the two-bedroom apartment, made space for a little thousand square foot coffee shop that ended up being one of the most powerful things that we did.
Thibault : [00:11:50] A local co-op started. They called themselves Charmington’s, and they opened up this rad little cafe that just was the place to meet in the community. It was the place to have a affordable cup of coffee, to come and chat, big communal tables and just a really beautiful vibe. So inspiring was this little cafe and the co-op and ownership behind it that, jeez, I guess, five or six years ago I was in it and unannounced, President Barack Obama showed up to speak with the owner and they had been working on something together and it was just such an inspiring moment. And it kind of goes to show the power of giving up control of the perceived ownership and authorship of a project to the end users in the community and the momentum that that can build in a project, especially a really complicated project coming to life.
Eve: [00:12:54] So, and I suspect it did more than just give something to the community. It probably added something pretty spectacular to the teacher community, having that.
Thibault : [00:13:03] Yeah, yeah. Charmington’s was amazing. You know, they committed to opening up at 6:00 a.m. so that the teachers on their way to school in the morning could stop and get a cup of coffee. One of the things that our management team is, we ended up setting up a property management company to manage every one of our properties because we’ve interviewed all these third-party property management groups and it felt like if you were about to have a baby, or had a baby, and you were going to give it to somebody else to raise. Like, nobody was going to love it as much as we would. And so, we set up this property management company. One of the things we did is, once a month at like five thirty in the morning, we would post up at the entrance and exit to the building and we’d be there with Charmington’s coffees and muffins and bagels and fruit. And we would, like, serve the teachers a cup of coffee and we’d walk them to their cars with their books if they had too much to carry and just kind of send them on their way with like a big hug and a warm smile and a fresh cup of Charmington’s coffee.
Eve: [00:14:03] That’s a very nice story. So, I have to ask, every developer has stories about putting in an amenity like a roof deck that everyone says they want and then no one uses them, right? So, did that, has that happened at all? The teachers who were involved and the amenities that were requested, have they been used?
Thibault : [00:14:26] Yeah, so look, so the amenities include like fitness centers and lounges and free gated parking. The one amenity that’s evolved is the idea of a resource center, right? The room where the teachers can make their, plan their lessons and photocopy. When we first built the building in 2008 or 2009, when it opened, teachers were still going to Kinko’s to make photocopies of their lessons. The evolution was that the classroom got more digital and people stopped making photocopies and printing hundreds of pages to hand out to students. And as that trend started, the need for the resource room, for the most part, went away entirely.
Eve: [00:15:19] So amenities evolve, right? And needs evolve it’s pretty fascinating. Going back to something you said earlier, which was that you allowed tenants to basically choose their own rent. How did you fill the inevitable financing gap? Because you can’t possibly restore a building like that and provide affordable housing without some sort of, I suppose, funny money, right?
Thibault : [00:15:44] Yes. This is a beautiful story and really a learning moment for us. You know, we had set off to do a project that would cost about five or six hundred thousand dollars to start. And we kept striking out. And eventually, a friend of ours pointed us to this collapsing old factory building that was way past our ability to wrap our heads around at the beginning. And we worked with the teachers and they told us what their rents needed to be. And the non-profits the same thing. And then we kind of backed into how much debt we could afford. And so, the number based on the net operating income was that we could afford about six million dollars’ worth of debt. And we went out and had a architect and contractor help us figure out what it would cost to build, this being our first project. And the price tag came back at 20 million dollars, all in for the project. So, we had a 14-million-dollar gap in our capital stack, which to most would have felt insurmountable but we were so driven by this, this movement of providing amazing space for the people doing the most important work in our cities that we were never going to give up on it.
[00:16:54] And we called a good friend of ours from Enterprise Community Partners, Bart Harvey. Enterprise was the brainchild of the late Jim Rouse, A total urban visionary. And we toured him through the building. Most of the people who we toured throughout the building told us we were crazy and that the idea would never work. And we toured Bart through the building and we went out for coffee afterwards and we told him about this fourteen-million-dollar gap and he said, Guys, I know just what to do. You’re in good hands now.
Thibault : [00:17:25] And I’ll never forget that moment. He started to tell us about Historic Tax Credits, which is a program that for every dollar you invest in keeping a historic building, rehabbing it, the federal and state government give you a tax credit for that which turns into actual equity into the project. There is also something called the New Market Tax Credits, which we knew nothing about, which encouraged commercial investment in low income census tracts. And so, Bart starts telling us about all this and he starts making introductions around the country. And before you know it, the phone’s ringing off, ringing off the hook with all these great community-driven lending institutions who want to be a part of the first Center for Educational Excellence. And with Bart’s help and Enterprise’s help we ended up closing that gap with all of those tax credits. We were still short about a million and a half dollars and we went to the city and state and just pled with them of the importance that this project had to the education community and to the neighborhood that it was going to be located in. And they collectively came up with that last million and a half dollars of, you know, fairly soft money. Certainly, we would owe it back at the end of the day, but the terms were super flexible. It allowed the building to, kind of, really ramp up and stabilize. So, when you kind of have the vision set for you, as hard as it’s going to be to get there, there’s always a way to push it forward. And it was an incredible learning opportunity for us around really not giving up when things got complicated and pushing forward. no matter how challenging the situation was.
Eve: [00:19:18] Yeah, I’ve done projects like that, they’re extremely challenging but very fulfilling. So, have you been able to stick to the choose your own rent mantra? Like, what happens now that the building, I suppose the first building, is stabilized?
Thibault : [00:19:30] Yeah. I mean, look, for sure, you know, the first building’s been a great success as a result of that and I’ll say, I will point out that when we started leasing the property, the entire building was fully leased nine months before we finished construction. And by the time we finished, there was a waiting list of over 300 teachers waiting to get in. There was clearly a demand for it. I mean, I think that was driven by all these teachers spreading the word and have it go viral organically.
Thibault : [00:20:03] You know, we’ve got this crazy developer that let us choose our own rent and pick our own amenities. He’s building this brand new building for us, it will probably never work, but if it does you’ve got to get in. And as a result of, kind of, the collective success of the first projects we got invited to do another one in Baltimore, and then we were asked to replicate the model in some other cities across the country. And yeah, across the board, we’ve held our rents low for teachers. They’ve certainly crept up. it’s been kind of maybe 12 or 13 years since the first project was completed. But we’ve actually had to artificially freeze the rents, even though expenses continue to go up, to remain committed to the teachers and what seems affordable to them.
Eve: [00:20:49] And so how many units have you built to date?
Thibault : [00:20:52] I think we’ve probably built around 400 apartments to date.
Eve: [00:21:01] OK, a hefty number.
Thibault : [00:21:02] Yeah, it’s a huge number considering where we started. You know, the original goal was to start off a little four-unit apartment buildings.
Eve: [00:21:11] Very different.
Thibault : [00:21:11] We’ve ended up doing about three hundred million dollars of really transformative, collaborative real estate projects over the last decade.
Eve: [00:21:20] So I have to ask, is there another group of needy tenants that you’d like to serve beyond teachers? It’s really interesting because I see that the very targeted mission has actually helped market the projects for you.
Thibault : [00:21:34] Yeah, look, we get a lot of requests to figure out a way to do some sort of similar housing for nurses, right. And first responders and police officers, many of whom can’t afford to live in the districts that they’re working in. And we’ve been evaluating that over the years. I think one of the things that’s been really fascinating to us is the impact of retail on communities and especially locally owned small businesses that reflect the demographics of the neighborhoods that they’re in, or not. Small retail, especially in today’s e-commerce world, is increasingly challenging. And finding really creative ways to provide space for these social entrepreneurs and small businesses to take real risk and to get their ideas out in the open is something that I think is really critical, a critical next step and something that we’re really studying very closely.
Thibault : [00:22:44] We’ve done a couple projects around that. And the more we learn and the more challenging we understand it to be, the more inspired we are to figure out ways to continue to push that forward.
Eve: [00:22:57] So what other projects are you working on right now? I think I read somewhere, a market building that you tackling?
Thibault : [00:23:04] We organically happened in to the food hall world. We don’t like to think of it as a food hall. About five years ago, a group of chefs in Baltimore approached us and asked us to do for them what we had done for teachers, which was to provide collaborative plug-and-play space at affordable rents where they could focus 100 percent of their energy and attention on what they do great – cooking, good food – and leave the, like, back-end side of running a restaurant to us. And we launched a project called R. House (R period House). It was incredibly successful, and we had 10 chefs open up. We had over 100 chefs apply for the 10 spots and we really looked at ourselves as a launchpad, not as a food hall but a launch pad for creating community and for helping chefs launch really inspiring ideas.
Thibault : [00:24:03] As a result of the work that we did with that, of the success of that project, we were invited to apply for RFP for the redevelopment and really the saving, of the oldest, longest continuously running public market in the country. A project called Lexington Market in Baltimore City that at one point was the place to be in Baltimore. My dad tells stories of taking the trolley down there on Saturdays with his father and literally, you didn’t start a weekend before showing up at some point at Lexington Market. That area where Lexington is in, has suffered from significant disinvestment and it’s really a shell of its former self and the market was at risk of closing. And so, we responded to the RFP with this idea of, on a citywide scale, doing the deepest listening that we’ve ever done and helping to breathe a new life back in, in essence, transforming Lexington Market into something that would work for the entire city of Baltimore. It’s the largest, most complicated, riskiest project that we’ve ever taken on. But it’s also the most soul fulfilling one that we’ve ever done. It literally checks every box of things that interest us as a company. And it’s pushed us so far out of our comfort zone that the amount of learning that we’re doing on a daily basis is so inspiring and I keep telling everybody that asks about it and I keep reminding our team that it’s impossible that we’re going to get this right the first time, even with the deepest listening that we’re doing. A project of this scale and magnitude is going to continue to grow organically. Our job and our role is to set it up, to evolve to be what all of Baltimore expects it to be and wants it to be as they close their eyes and dream of what this project should be.
Eve: [00:26:08] It sounds pretty fabulous. I cannot wait to visit it. When I travel, the local market is always the first place I go because I think it’s kind of the life and heart of every city. They’re always fascinating places, I think, so it’s really great to hear that it’s being revived. Have your plans for housing or housing amenities or the market changed at all with the pandemic? That’s a tough question, but I’m going ask – it’s a pretty tough time.
Thibault : [00:26:36] It’s a beautiful question. We think about it and we talk about it every single day. The challenge with the pandemic is that a plan you make one day is no good by the time you wake up the next morning just because, like, everything is changing so rapidly. I think we’re in a really fortunate place because all of the work that we’ve done has been around providing affordable, kind of, workforce, discounted apartments. And I think there will always be a need for that product.
Thibault : [00:27:11] We are watching it really closely. We’re trying to wrap our heads around how we can be even more helpful and supportive in these rapidly changing times, especially as it relates to how people live and interact with each other. But we don’t have any of the answers yet, and we’re just continuing to ask the questions that help us wrap our arms around what role we can play in that.
Eve: [00:27:35] Yeah, I worry very much about places like the little coffee shop surviving this and I have a number of tenants myself and I’ve been, sort of, we’ve been limping through this disaster trying to figure it out. So, it’s a big question but let’s move on to something happier and that is like, you know, what’s your big hairy goal. Where are you going with all of this?
Thibault : [00:28:00] Yeah, look, a lot of people ask us that question for me and for us it’s somewhat simple, right? Like, our goal and the work that we do is almost 100 percent driven by the communities that we work in. We want real estate to put the power back into the hands of the communities. So, this neighborhood where we did our first project for teachers, the neighborhood’s called Remington in Baltimore City. As a result of the relationship that we formed with the community associations that are there, they came up with this master plan of other things that they wanted to see happen in their community.
Thibault : [00:28:41] And we worked with them, we did a lot of listening and we’ve slowly but surely been chipping away at that master plan. We’ve helped to bring the first bank to the community. We’ve helped to bring the first pharmacy to the community. We’ve helped to bring the first dry cleaner to the community, the hair shops and hair places, the gyms. And all of it’s been done in an incredibly inclusive way where we’ve just, kind of, continued to ask what else, what else could serve you guys and what else do you guys think that you’re missing?
Thibault : [00:29:14] So in large part, our work’s been driven by the communities that we’re in and the cities that we’re in and what they collectively think that they’re missing. And what role real estate and what role our company Seawall can play in helping them realize their dreams.
Eve: [00:29:30] It sounds like you’re having fun. I have to ask; do you think socially responsible real estate is necessary in today’s development landscape?
Thibault : [00:29:40] I don’t know that necessary is the right word. I think mandatory should be the right word, especially with how quickly the conversation has been changing and especially with how aware we all must be around the inequalities that real estate has spread throughout our communities in our country. To sit on the sideline and pass blame on previous generations for how things are and hope that somebody else is going to fix it, is no longer an option. Now, more than ever, we are fully aware of it and we all have a responsibility to ask what role we can play in helping communities, especially disenfranchised communities, use real estate and buildings to help them achieve what it is their they’re after.
Eve: [00:30:35] Yes. So, are there any other current trends in real estate development that you think are most important for the future of our cities? Maybe things that you’re not working on?
Thibault : [00:30:48] Look, I think transportation is such an important part around the real estate and urban planning conversation and the cities that have gotten it right, and who are getting it right, are the ones that we all need to look to. Without adequate and exceptional public transportation, so much of this work that we’re all doing is just going to have its growth stunted. And I think that’s one of the most important things that cities and urban planners need to be thinking through, is exceptional public transportation.
Eve: [00:31:28] Of course, that’s shifting rapidly at the moment too, with the pandemic. So, we don’t even know really what that will look like. But perhaps the ideal is that, you know, the next time you build a building for teachers, they won’t need to have on-site parking. They’ll have transit that can get them to their jobs. So, whatever that looks like. Yeah, I totally agree with you. And what community engagement tools have you seen that have worked best? It’s always very difficult for most developers to contemplate how to engage a community.
Thibault : [00:32:09] Look for us, it’s been really important to come into a community as neighbors and not guests. And we’ve lived our entire professional career that way. And I think that’s really one of the differentiating factors around connecting with communities. Not just, kind of, coming in and being one and done, but spending real time there, sitting on people’s front porches and stoops and listening to what it is that they want. Those are the really important lessons that we’ve learned along the years, over the years, as we’ve worked in the communities where we have.
Eve: [00:32:52] Yeah, I can see that. It’s perhaps not part of the original job description for a developer, but it’s certainly a really important one. So, I have one final question, and that’s what’s next for you?
Thibault : [00:33:08] We’ve been asking ourselves what’s next for us for some time now, and I think that conversation has been amplified given what’s going on in the world around us. One of the things that we’re really aware of is the unintended consequences of successful development. You know, when we set out to do the first teacher housing project in that neighborhood of Remington, fully supported by the community, it was all high fives and hugs. And then when we worked with the community to start to chip away at their master plan to bring in all of these resources in retail and apartments and office space, all kind of things driven by the neighborhood, you know, hundreds of millions of dollars later, that little, somewhat forgotten community had become one of the premier destinations and places to be in the city. And as a result of that, the gentrification conversation became very real. And one thing that we’re really aware of is that we cannot run from it. We are responsible for it. And in hindsight, as well-intentioned as we were, we would have done more from the very beginning to make sure that if the neighborhood succeeded, people that had lived there for generations, the legacy residents, would never be displaced. And there’s been incredibly hard lessons learned along the way.
Thibault : [00:34:43] And so, our mandate, and one of the things that we think so much about today, is now that it is what it is. It’s not too late. And how can we creatively work with the community to continue to find ways for them to attain their development goals? But in a way that is going to really limit displacement and make sure that nobody’s ever kicked out of their store or their office or the home that they lived in for decades. And that’s really hard work.
Eve: [00:35:18] It is, it’s really hard to balance.
Thibault : [00:35:21] Yeah, it’s really hard to balance and it’s incredibly vulnerable. But it is something that we’re committed to and as we approach new communities and new projects, we’re even more aware of it going in at the early stage so that we can plan and get ahead of it if the development projects succeed.
Eve: [00:35:21] So, do you think, I mean I think about this a lot too, do you think government has a role in this?
Thibault : [00:35:44] Yeah, I’m hesitant to pass the blame on to…
Eve: [00:35:49] I’m just saying, you know, by the time a community is feeling the pain of gentrification, it’s too late. It’s over, right? So, I think a lot about what you could put in place decades before to encourage good development and investment in neighborhoods that need it, and safeguard people who are already there. It’s hard to think about. But I think you have to think about a long time before you show up.
Thibault : [00:36:19] You do. And you interviewed a friend of mine, Brian Murray, in Philadelphia that’s done things a little bit of the opposite way as us with Shift Capital. They went in and bought millions of square feet of projects with the idea of having gotten in early enough, bought it at the right price, and being able to have the community involved every step of the way as the neighborhood starts to meet its goals.
Eve: [00:36:47] And controlling real estate so they could control what happened to it, right?
Thibault : [00:36:51] Yep. You know, ours has been a little bit of the opposite. We’ve just been kind of, like, piecemealing things together totally unintentionally, just driven by what the neighborhoods wanted. But as a result of that, and it’d success, now other landlords are taking advantage of the rising tide and not doing it in an inclusive way that honors the people that have been there forever. So, it’s a little too late, it’s hard to buy anything in that community and invest in it in a way that would keep it affordable. And that’s the challenge.
Eve: [00:37:28] It’s a huge challenge. I’d love to know what strategy you come up with for your next community. I think it’s a really important challenge because not doing anything is bad too, right? These communities need investment because they’re disintegrating, and they haven’t been invested in for a long time and then when you invest, you become an unhappy player in the gentrification game, which is not what we intend, right Very difficult.
Eve: [00:38:00] Ok, well, thank you very much for this conversation. And I’d love to hear what you’re doing next. You’re tackling some really huge projects, and I really appreciate what you’re doing.
Thibault : [00:38:13] Yes, thank you so much. I’ve enjoyed listening to some of your past episodes, and it’s certainly a little bit of a niche market but you’re asking all the right questions. And I’ve enjoyed learning from your past guests over time so keep up the great work!
Eve: [00:38:29] OK, thanks, Thibault. You have a really great day. Bye.
Thibault : [00:38:32] You too. Thanks so much.
Eve: [00:38:45] That was Thibault Manekin, Seawall believes in reimagining the real estate development industry. They want the built environment to empower communities, unite our cities and help launch powerful ideas. Seawall’s projects tackle three things. First, they want to save large, historic and blighted buildings. Second, they want to create affordable communities with rents that are customized to pay checks. And finally, they strive to be inclusive in the communities they work in.
Eve: [00:39:19] You can find out more about impact, real estate investing and access to the show notes for today’s episode at my website rethinkrealestateforgood.co. While you’re there, sign up for my newsletter to find out more about how to make money in real estate while building better cities.
Eve: [00:39:36] Thank you so much for spending your time with me today. And thank you, Thibault, for sharing your thoughts with me. We’ll talk again soon but for now, this is Eve Picker signing off to go make some change.
Image courtesy of Thibault Manekin, Seawall Development.