Christopher Leinberger has had a singular career embedded in urban land use issues – as a strategist, teacher, developer, researcher and author. Recently retired from academia, he most recently taught at George Washington University as the Charles Bendit Distinguished Scholar & Research Professor and chair of the Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis. His new venture is a startup, Places Platform, developing tools and methodologies to measure economic, social equity and environmental conditions in cities and metropolitan areas.
Growing up in the 1960s and 70s, Chris learned early the value of connecting coursework and theory with hands-on community engagement. Although he first put his business degree to work in the corporate world, Chris found he wanted to run his own organization and opted to take over management of Robert Charles Lesser & Co (now RCLCo), a one-office real estate consulting firm in Southern California, first as executive vice president, then as an owner and managing director. By 2000, RCLCo had become one of the largest real estate advisory firms in the U.S., with four offices nationally. Chris then moved to work as a developer full-time, co-founding the Arcadia Land Company, for which he is still a managing partner.
From 2005-18, Chris served as a fellow at Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program researching, writing and speaking on issues of walkable urbanism and metropolitan governance. He also helped found LOCUS (Responsible Real Estate Developers and Investors), serving as president from 2008-16, to help push political advocacy at the federal and regional level for a walkable urban future. In addition to George Washington University, Chris has taught at the University of Michigan, University of New Mexico and Harvard Graduate School of Design. He is the author of two books, Strategic Planning for Real Estate Development Companies (1994) and The Option of Urbanism, Investing in a New American Dream (2008).
Key findings from Foot Traffic Ahead 2023 include:
- To paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of the death of walkable urban cities and towns are exaggerated. Walkable urban places still have substantial price (rental rates and sale price) premiums over drivable sub-urban areas as of the end of 2021, the trough of the pandemic. The premiums are 35-45% for office, retail, rental housing and for-sale housing. In FTA 2019 the price premiums were 40-50%…so down by 5 percentage points but still substantial. Plus, all 35 metros saw their walkable urban places gain market share at 2.8 times their 2017 market share…which means drivable sub-urban places lost market share.
- We know for the first time ever that in the top 35 metros, only 1.2% of the metro land mass was walkable urban…in almost all of the other 98.8% of land, walkable urbanism is illegal, due to zoning and NIMBY opposition. We need to increase the walkable urban land to 6-8% of metro land use, so as to drive down land prices to make it more affordable. Our research shows that the bulk of the reason for the affordable housing and homelessness crisis is extraordinary land costs, which is created by the obsolete zoning and NIMBY opposition to housing production, especially walkable urban housing.
- This tiny sliver of land, 1.2% of the top 35 metros, generates nearly 20% of US GDP! This sliver of land is even smaller when you realize that it is 0.07 of 1% of all US land, which produces such a large share of US GDP. Plus, 7% of the US population live in this tiny amount of land.
- Past research shows that walkable urban places almost always generate a net fiscal impact for local government, while most drivable sub-urban places have to be subsidized, even high end subdivisions need subsidy. Building more walkable urbanism is the best way to keep local government fiscally healthy. Arlington, VA is a national model for this since they have 10% of their land mass built out as walkable urban. This walkable urban land has created huge financial support for their nationally outstanding schools, in spite of the fact that Arlington has a large immigrant community with 80 languages spoken in their public schools.
- The 8 highest ranked walkable urban metros are Metro NYC, Boston, Washington, DC, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Chicago and Los Angeles. Metro LA may be surprising to readers…it is due to their investment in rail transit ($180 billion, by far the most in the country) but also the urbanization of the suburbs (Pasadena, Glendale, Santa Monica, Long Beach, etc.). However, they did not fare as well in social equity ranking.
- On social equity, we demonstrated that highly ranked Metro NYC and Washington, DC rank very high…showing you can “do well while doing good.” However, rising walkable urban LA is also dead last in social equity…lack of high density zoning around their new rail stations which continues to crush the dreams of low and moderate income households for affordable, transit-served housing.
Read the podcast transcript here
Eve Picker: [00:00:10] Hi there. Thanks for joining me on Rethink Real Estate for Good. I’m Eve Picker and I’m on a mission to make real estate work for everyone. I love real estate. Real estate makes places good or bad, rich or poor, beautiful or not. In this show, I’m interviewing the disruptors, those creative thinkers and doers that are shrugging off the status quo in order to build better for everyone. And speaking of building better, I’m very excited to share that my company, Small Change, is now raising capital through a community round that is open to the public. Small Change is a leading equity crowdfunding platform for impact investment in real estate. For as little as $250, anyone 18 and over can invest in Small Change, helping to fuel our growth as we disrupt the old boys club of capital that routinely ignores so many qualified people and projects. Please visit wefunder.com/smallchange to review the full details of our raise and to make an investment if you can. And remember, investing is risky. Don’t invest more than you can afford to lose.
Eve: [00:01:45] Is the city dead? Christopher Leinberger doesn’t think so. He recently co-authored a report called “Foot Traffic Ahead 2023” that loudly proclaims the city is not dead. Post-pandemic price premiums and increased market share dominate walkable urban places. These findings may cement walkable places as the wave of the future. They point to us moving toward a more connected, environmentally sustainable way of life. Christopher has a storied career in real estate policy and development. His most recent project, Places Platform, is an information services company that tells you what location, location, location is actually worth. You’ll find a more detailed bio and report highlights on Rethinkrealestateforgood.co. Listen in to learn more. If you’d like to join me in my quest to rethink real estate, there are two simple things you can do, share this podcast and go to RethinkRealEstateforgood.co, where you can subscribe to be the first to hear about my podcasts, blog posts and other goodies.
Eve: [00:03:08] It’s nice to have you back, Christopher.
Christopher Leinberger: [00:03:11] Glad to be here.
Eve: [00:03:12] So, the common theme in your development work is the one you discovered when, I remember you said this, you were eight years old. The value of well-developed, walkable, urban land. And how did that walkable theme just come to take such center stage in your professional life?
Christopher: [00:03:33] Well, at first it didn’t. When I was first running, Robert Charles Lesser and Company, the largest real estate consulting firm in the country. And this is back in the bad old 1980s. And all that we were doing was drivable suburban master planned communities and stuff that I really didn’t like. But I just said, hey, the market wants it, got to give it to them. But then by the late 80s, early 90s, I remembered my growing up in Philadelphia and, you know, a lovely place Rittenhouse Square is and other great walkable urban places. And how come we weren’t building these places again? And then the market in the 90s began to accept walkable urbanism. I explain it that the pendulum went from only wanting drivable suburban, moving over to demanding walkable urban once again. So, I was thrilled that the market came around to where I would like it to go.
Eve: [00:04:39] I even remember that Urban was a not a good word to describe it.
Christopher: [00:04:44] That’s really true. I did a cover story for The Atlantic calling; How Business is Changing America. It directly led to the book Edge Cities that Joel Garreau wrote. You know, Edge City was basically this article, two, three years later in book form. And the managing editor of The Atlantic, I was calling them urban villages then. And he said, don’t use urban. That means it’s depressing, it’s never going to get fixed. It means it’s heavily minority. Nobody wants to talk about that. Well, we’re back to urbanism is cool.
Eve: [00:05:23] Urbanism is very cool. So, but why is walkable so important?
Christopher: [00:05:29] Well, transportation drives development. And for the last 10,000 years, we’ve been building cities. The transportation system or systems you have dictates what you build. So, with drivable sub-urban, it’s all cars and trucks. There’s no other option. With walkable urban, you can get to these places by cars and trucks or by freight rail or by transit, by bus, by bicycle, by walking there. But once you’re there, everything you need is within walking distance. And it just changes your life. It’s just a fundamentally different lifestyle. As anybody who has experienced both ways of building the built environment, because that’s all there are. There are just two, drivable suburban, walkable urban. Within each of those, there’s a whole spectrum of different ways of building. But they’re two fundamentally different ways of using the 42% of our wealth that we put into real estate.
Eve: [00:06:34] And I suppose it’s become much more important as climate change has become much more dominant because we want to find ways to leave our cars at home. Right?
Christopher: [00:06:43] Exactly. Everybody understands that walkable urban is crucial to the environmental efforts that we must undertake. What they don’t understand is that it’s the number one thing to do as far as addressing climate change. It’s number one.
Eve: [00:06:59] Oh, that’s interesting. So, you’ve now launched Places Platform, which I think I heard you say you hope will become the Bloomberg of real estate and the built environment. And tell me about that. What do you hope to accomplish with Places Platform?
Christopher: [00:07:14] We hope that this will be a decision-making engine for anybody, making a decision about how to invest or reinvest that 42% of a country’s wealth. It’s the largest asset class in the economy, and it’s all of our real estate, it’s all of our infrastructure. And it is critical to our economy. And right now, we don’t have a way to intelligently make decisions based upon the mixed-use nature of this world. We have silos in for sale residential, a silo in rental apartments, a silo in retail. Places Platform looks at all real estate product types and allows you to understand at the place level, at the dirt level, on up, where should you be making investments? Where should you be disinvesting? And what does it mean for social equity? And what does it mean for the financial health of our local jurisdictions? All of these questions are vaguely understood by the participants. We hope to give them a tool on their desktop to make these decisions in real time. It could even be used in a public meeting saying, what if we double the density of a place? What if we put in not rail transit but bus rapid transit? What will that do to the economics? What will that do to the net fiscal impact for that jurisdiction? Will it make the local government money? So, that’s what we hope to do.
Eve: [00:09:00] So, how far have you come in building the platform?
Christopher: [00:09:03] We have the 35 metros that we have all the real estate data for sale, housing, office, retail, industrial. We are moving it very rapidly to 100, the largest 100. And within a year we’ll have the entire country. So that, you know, we’ve been doing a lot of work in Grand Rapids, and we help them understand what the value of their downtown is, but also what are you subsidizing or making money as a city for these different places? And the surprising thing was that one of the downtown districts was the most socially equitable, had the most affordable housing. Also, quite vital. It was a, you know, a hip place, they had their food hall there and they had their arena there. But it was where most of the homeless services were as well, and homeless housing. That place, which was about 200 acres in size, was making scads of, tens of millions of dollars per year net profit to the city. Meanwhile, comparable places that were high income, you know, primarily white housing districts were being subsidized. The city didn’t know that. They had no idea. They just assumed that the high-end housing districts were making the money. No, they were losing money.
Eve: [00:10:36] And the further out they are, the more suburban they are, the more resources the city has to put into sewer systems and roads and everything that, the infrastructure that serves them, right.
Christopher: [00:10:49] There are 16 infrastructure categories and all of them, you know, there’s sewer, water, roads, police, parks, all of them are cheaper in higher density places. And they are 10 to 20 times more expensive on the per house basis for drivable suburban sprawl. It’s hugely more expensive.
Eve: [00:11:15] So, you studied 35 US metro areas. The 35 that you’ve got all the information for in a recent report I saw called Foot Traffic Ahead, and I wanted to talk about your findings, which was really focused on walkable areas. So, you know, how much of the total landmass of the US is actually walkable, or of those 35 US metro areas?
Christopher: [00:11:42] That was one of the remarkable things that we found for the first time. 1.2% of those 35 metros, 1.2% of their land mass is walkable urban. That’s it. Not much at all.
Eve: [00:11:59] Interesting.
Christopher: [00:11:59] And so, the other 98.8% by definition are drivable suburban. And by the way, it is, in almost all of that 98% of their land mass, it is illegal through zoning to build walkable urban there. So, we have basically ghettoized walkable urban in this very small amount of land. But the amazing thing is, is that 7% of the country’s population live in that 1.2% of those top 35 lands and nearly 20% of the gross domestic product of the country is created in that 1.2% of that land.
Eve: [00:12:41] So, density is a good thing, right?
Christopher: [00:12:43] Very good thing every which way. Density is a very good thing.
Eve: [00:12:46] So, that land, mass and walkability, how does that impact our housing crisis?
Christopher: [00:12:52] It impacts it because walkable urban land and places Being so restricted to that 1.2%, It’s an artificial constraint. As a result, the housing and the office and the retail Is much more expensive. 40 to 45% on a price per square foot basis, more expensive than drivable suburban. And that is primarily due to how much we’re paying for the land in that 1.2%, that the land prices have gone through the roof. It’s just crazy. We have no shortage of land in this country. And yet we’ve artificially constrained walkable urbanism to this 1.2%. And it’s driven up the land prices, it’s made it more unaffordable.
Eve: [00:13:48] So, we need to take the edges of these walkable areas and pull them out and make them bigger, bigger, bigger, right?
Christopher: [00:13:55] Exactly. But, you know, we don’t need to convert single family land into walkable urban. Now with single family land, we should, the only thing we need to do there is make it legal to build granny flats if the owner of the single-family house would do it. That’s not legal either in the vast majority of our single-family zoning.
Eve: [00:14:19] Right.
Christopher: [00:14:20] But we need to take that 1.2% and increase it to 6 to 8%, so we flood the market with land that will drive down the cost of housing.
Eve: [00:14:32] If the single-family housing on the edges of this walkable land, isn’t there some value in saying, okay, the single-family zoning exists today, but in the future we want to have more density on these sites as they become available?
Christopher: [00:14:49] I guess I figure, I’m a pragmatic kind of guy. And if we can solve the housing crisis by increasing the land mass that’s walkable urban from 1.2% to 6% and not take on the millions of people that are very happy in their single-family home. You know why lift that.
Eve: [00:15:15] Why rock the boat? Yeah, yeah, yeah. I get it, I get it.
Christopher: [00:15:16] When you can just focus on a much smaller piece of land.
Eve: [00:15:19] But then, where is that land? How do you find that land?
Christopher: [00:15:21] Oh, there’s plenty of land. There’s plenty of land. Oh, Lord. Keep in mind, I live in Metro DC, which is about 6 million people. And Metro Paris is literally twice the size. So, they have 12 million people. However, Metro Washington occupies four times the land of metro Paris.
Eve: [00:15:45] Right.
Christopher: [00:15:46] So, we’re built at one eighth the density of Paris. And nobody feels sorry for people who have to live in Paris. So, there’s plenty of land. There’s plenty of land. Some of the best ones. And they’ve just made this possible out in California. They’ve upzoned strip retail. And made it so that at the state level they pushed this down to the local governments that you must convert your strip retail into by right zoning that allows for high density residential on top of retail.
Eve: [00:16:22] That makes a lot of sense. So, in other words, zoning can really be like a primary driver for releasing this land and permitting more density where the land already exists. Right. That makes a lot of sense.
Christopher: [00:16:36] Exactly. And it’s going to increase the fiscal health of our cities. It’s going to increase the amount of housing in our metropolitan areas, which will help address homelessness and the housing crisis as far as just sheer affordability. It’ll be, as I said, it’s a number one thing we can do to address climate change. And the thing is, is that the single-family housing around that strip retail, right now, many times that strip retail is dead or dying. And when you create walkable urban places, it increases the quality of life and therefore the price of those homes. Because rather than walking to a strip mall, you could walk to a vital, a walkable, vital place and you’re going to increase your quality of life. We call this the halo impact of walkable urbanism. We have found that single family housing within walking distance of walkable urbanism have a 40 to 80% price premium over a comparable house. That’s not within walking distance of great urbanism.
Eve: [00:17:52] Interesting. So, the price premium, is that likely to go down if walkable areas increase in size?
Christopher: [00:18:00] I hope so. I hope that we can satisfy the market and then do what real estate developers always do. They overbuild the market, hence tanking the price during a downturn.
Eve: [00:18:14] Yeah. Okay. So, right now, what’s the highest ranked walkable city? And you have a group of eight of them, I think.
Christopher: [00:18:21] So, as you would expect, it’s always been New York. This is the fifth time we’ve done this survey and Metro New York is always at the top. Now, major caveat about New York. A, their walkable urbanism is pretty much confined to the city and pretty much confined to Manhattan Island. Everybody goes to New York; they go to Manhattan. Manhattan is 0.3 of 1% of metropolitan New York’s land mass. So, it’s tiny. But everybody has this image of New York based upon that 0.3 of 1%. The rest of metro New York is built at much lower density than metropolitan Los Angeles, much lower density.
Eve: [00:19:09] That’s interesting.
Christopher: [00:19:10] And they have very little of what’s the development trend of the future, which is the urbanization of the suburbs. Yes, they have Jersey City and White Plains and Stamford and Princeton, but they don’t have it like here in Metro DC, where there’s 30 walkable urban places in the suburbs and growing because that’s where most of the people live. Most of them live in the suburbs and they want walkable urbanism, but they don’t necessarily want to move into the center city.
Eve: [00:19:44] So, who else is at the top of the list and who’s at the bottom?
Christopher: [00:19:48] So, it’s New York and then Boston, Washington, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Chicago, and the eighth highest in this highest rank is the only real surprise, and that’s Los Angeles. I used to live in Southern California. And the thing about Southern California that most people don’t know, is that it was built around a very extensive rail transit system back in the early 20th century. By 1945, Los Angeles had the longest rail transit system in the world.
Eve: [00:20:27] Wow.
Christopher: [00:20:28] And by 1962, they ripped it out. And what they’re doing today, they’ve taxed themselves $180 billion. This is primarily local generated funds to put that system back in. There are about 60% there. So, they’re rising in the rank because they’ve invested in.
Eve: [00:20:49] They’re paying attention. Yeah.
Christopher: [00:20:51] With one exception. We also rank these 35 metros based upon their social equity. What does it mean if you’re a moderate to low-income household? Is this a good place to live? And Los Angeles ranked dead last 35 out of 35. And as best we can understand, the reason for that is zoning and NIMBY opposition to building housing. They build all these rail transit stations and then they forgot to upzone to allow the, you know, the industrial locations and the single-family locations around the stations to upzone to build high density so people can walk to the train station.
Eve: [00:21:38] It’s a perfect example of walkability being exclusive, right, for the very wealthy. What a shame. It’s the reverse of what should be happening. You assign three rankings for the cities, the 35 metro areas that you looked at, foot traffic, social equity and future momentum. And I wanted to understand how you arrived at those three rankings and exactly what they mean.
Christopher: [00:22:05] Sure. So, the foot traffic ahead ranking is what percent of your real estate inventory, office, retail, multifamily rental, for sale housing, those were the four that we looked at. What percent of that total inventory, those tens of millions of square feet of space that is in your metropolitan area, what percent is walkable urban and what percent is drivable suburban? And so, those with the highest percentage walkable urban will rank highest, and those that have very little walkable urban, you know, just a few percentage points of their total inventory will rank at the bottom. And those include Phoenix and Orlando and San Antonio and Las Vegas. These places that are absolutely built around the car. And if you want to participate in society in Las Vegas or San Antonio or Orlando, you must, it’s mandated, from on high, you must own a fleet of cars for your family, your household, to participate in society. So, that’s the ranking for foot traffic ahead index.
Eve: [00:23:22] And what about social equity, the second ranking?
Christopher: [00:23:24] So, social equity is an index. So, there’s three different components that go into it. And the most important one is how much does a moderate-income household say, 80% of the area median income. What percent of that household income is spent on housing, the number one category of household spending, and on transportation. And why that’s important is the transportation is the number two household spending category. And so, it really revolves around where do you live and are you forced to rely upon cars?
Eve: [00:24:15] Right.
Christopher: [00:24:15] The average American household spends about 18% of their household income on transportation. If you live in a walkable urban place, you spend 9%, half of that on transportation because you have transit and biking and walking. You can drop cars out of your household. Maybe you only have one, maybe you don’t have any. A low-income drivable suburban household has to spend 25% of their household income on transportation.
Eve: [00:24:43] And I assume it goes up the further out from the city they are and.
Christopher: [00:24:48] Exactly.
Eve: [00:24:48] You know, the more affordable housing now is being pushed further and further out. So, it’s just making the problem worse and worse, right?
Christopher: [00:24:55] Exactly. Basically, our affordable housing strategy in this country has been drive until you qualify. So, just go and drive another ten, 20 miles and you’ll find cheap enough land and cheap enough housing that you’ll be able to afford it. However, you’ll never see your kids and you’re polluting the planet and your public health goes down because we know there’s a causal connection between how much you drive and obesity.
Eve: [00:25:23] Yes. Okay, and then the third one, future momentum, which sounds the most interesting to me. What does that mean? What is future momentum?
Christopher: [00:25:33] The main issue with future momentum? There’s a few different factors, but the main factor is how fast is walkable urbanism’s market share growing? And so, think of this as EVs, you know, electric vehicles. EVs in this country, and I don’t know the exact number right now, but roughly there are 5% of the total fleet is EV. But 10% of new car sales are EVs.
Eve: [00:26:07] So, it’s growing.
Christopher: [00:26:08] So, they’re growing twice as fast as their market share. Same thing is happening with walkable urbanism. All 35 metros, the walkable urban is gaining market share at a rapid rate, almost three times faster than their base market that we looked at in 2017. So, the growth from 2017 to the end of 2021 growing at 2.8 times faster than their market share in 2017. And those metro areas that have high future momentum are ones that have very high market share changes, what we call market share shifts. So, Atlanta, the market share shift is four times faster. You had mentioned Pittsburgh.
Eve: [00:27:02] Well, yeah, Pittsburgh is an interesting example. That’s my hometown. So, fared well in foot traffic and the ninth spot, and then very well in social equity at the sixth spot. And then awfully in future momentum, 33rd, not a lot better than.
Christopher: [00:27:19] No. And that’s because their market share is not growing. That’s one of the lowest market share growths in the country.
Eve: [00:27:27] That’s horrible.
Christopher: [00:27:28] I know it’s a shame because you’ve got great housing stock. Pittsburgh’s been around for years, and they’ve got great, walkable urban. Basically, there’s a cutoff in this country. At about 1940, housing stock built before 1940, almost all of it was walkable urban and that’s where the biggest boom, that’s where all the gentrification is going, is homes that were built prior to 1940 that went downhill economically in the late 20th century. And now young people just say, wow, we got to live in these. My wife and I have five kids between us, all five of them, they’re all married. They all own their own homes. 4 of 5 of them are in pre-1940, housing, tiny lots walkable urban when they were built, and then all the retail went away in the late 20th century, and now all the retail is coming back. So, they have a place to walk to get a quart of milk to go to a restaurant, right.
Eve: [00:28:29] Pittsburgh also has a great walkable downtown. It’s really amazing.
Christopher: [00:28:32] Yes, it is.
Eve: [00:28:33] But what does a place like Pittsburgh do to change that outcome?
Christopher: [00:28:38] A lot of this is going to be well, obviously, we talked about zoning that you’ve got to get the zoning right. You have to make the right thing easy. I’m also a developer. I’m not active with my development company. I started this firm about 20 years ago, but I’m now just a limited partner, and this firm was involved with a conversion of 120-acre golf course to a high density, walkable urban place. Over the years, this golf course got surrounded by freeways. And it’s a half mile from the King of Prussia mall, which is the largest mall on the East Coast. It took us 12 years to get zoning approval, which included a trip to the state Supreme Court. And it became the largest zoning overturn decision in the history of the country. And we kept on writing checks for 12 years with no assurance. And today, after ten years of building it out, we’re 70% built out. It is the downtown. It’s the social center of this part of Montgomery County. People love it. It’s where they go for date nights. It’s where they take their kids for all their birthdays because of all the water fountains and all that stuff.
Eve: [00:29:58] But you know, who has the tenacity to do that?
Christopher: [00:30:01] Or stupidity. We had the stupidity.
Eve: [00:30:04] I think the tenacity. I think that’s pretty remarkable. But yeah, hindsight is pretty easy, right? I bet everyone there is saying, oh, this is wonderful and forgetting the real pain of getting there.
Christopher: [00:30:16] So, that’s number one. But then number two is engaging in place management and place strategic planning. Recognize that each of these places, I liken the place level as the fifth level of governance in our society. We have federal, state, regional, city and then place. And these places that are walkable urban must have a strategy and they must be managed on a day in, day out basis. Tends to take the form of Main Street organizations, could be business or community improvement districts. A lot of private sector developers are just doing it themselves. Boston Properties does this a lot with their major projects like Reston Town Center, and somebody’s got to be in charge and managing 24/7. The safety, the cleanliness, the festivals, the economic development, manage the parking, engage in new economic development strategies, all sorts of things that a mayor would be doing for a city needs to be done at the place level as well.
Eve: [00:31:27] So, then what’s the biggest surprise in all of this research for you?
Christopher: [00:31:31] Well, the biggest surprise was how small the land mass was. We knew it was small, but not 1.2%. I obviously made a apples-to-oranges comparison here with that 1.2% of the land in these 35 metros generates nearly 20% of the country’s GDP. If you took that land and showed what percent of the US land is it? It’s under 0.1 of 1% of US land.
Eve: [00:32:02] Wow.
Christopher: [00:32:02] Generates 20% of the GDP. We didn’t know that.
Eve: [00:32:07] I suppose, in summary, what do you think it will take to move the needle to a higher percentage of workable land?
Christopher: [00:32:14] Well, one thing that’s going to drive even the most resistant person or government official or developer, is that many of our local jurisdictions are in deep trouble fiscally. That, number one, they probably have a pension plan for their workers that is dramatically underfunded. And they’re going to have to increase taxes to pay off the promises they’ve made to their police and fire and to their civil servants because there’s just no money in these pension plans. That’s number one. Number two, though, is their infrastructure, particularly the drivable suburban infrastructure, has been in place for the last 30, 40, 50 years. That’s their effective life. You have to go in and repair them, replace them, and it’s going to cost more to replace them in real dollar terms than to build them in the first place. Because you’re using them while you repair them?
Eve: [00:33:23] Yes.
Christopher: [00:33:24] With roads, you have to, you know, you have to do the work at night and on weekends because you have to keep the road open during rush hour. Yes. And at nights and weekends, you pay two and three times the cost of labor.
Eve: [00:33:40] And you get a lot of complaints.
Christopher: [00:33:42] A lot of complaints. So, our jurisdictions can’t afford their current drivable suburban approach to life. They just can’t afford it. And we have done enough fiscal impact studies, and also our partner in the Smart Growth America has done many, many fiscal impact studies that demonstrate that walkable urban land generates ten to 20 times the positive fiscal impact on cities that drivable suburban generates.
Eve: [00:34:19] So, just to wrap up, what’s next for you? Do you have another report you’re working on?
Christopher: [00:34:26] Yes, working on digging further into the foot traffic ahead study. One of the things that we found out is that the pandemic was a bump in the road for walkable urbanism, that the premiums went down about five percentage points. So, it’s roughly now 40 to 45%, depending on which product, housing or office. And it used to be 45 to 50%. So, that bump in the road, we’ve been isolating it, and the bulk of that decrease in price premiums was due to our downtowns. Not downtown adjacent places, not urban commercial places, not urban university places, not suburban town centers, not the redevelopment of suburban malls. There’s many types of walkable urban place. Most people do think downtown as walkable urban. That’s where the problem is, in our downtowns. And the reason for that is that our downtowns got addicted to office space. Basically, there’s a theory in finance called the portfolio theory that in other words, don’t put all your eggs in one basket. And our cities put all their fiscal future in the office basket. And now downtown offices got crushed in the pandemic. And they’re going to be, continue to be crushed as these office leases roll over because these are five and ten year leases and they’re coming due and people will leave or take much less space. So, we are all obviously focusing on how can we redevelop again, our downtowns. And the obvious example or the obvious direction is to convert offices to residential. Very important that that be done, but it’s going to be very painful.
Eve: [00:36:29] So, that’s happening in Pittsburgh already. There’s already quite a few announcements for building conversions, which has been really interesting to watch. I live downtown, so it’s becoming a bigger neighborhood pretty rapidly.
Christopher: [00:36:42] That’s the important thing. One of the things we learned during this pandemic is that the downtown adjacent places that grew rapidly over the last 20 years. You know, the downtown adjacent places that surround a downtown have been doing so well. Their portfolio profile is, you know, 30, 40% office, 40, 50% residential, 10% support retail, maybe 15% retail, and then some civic functions, stadiums or museums. They have a much more stable portfolio. And they did very well, in fact, better than they did before, because many of the office workers working downtown stayed home.
Eve: [00:37:32] Yeah.
Christopher: [00:37:33] And they went to the restaurants at lunch.
Eve: [00:37:37] Yes.
Christopher: [00:37:37] They just hung around in their downtown adjacent places. So, these downtown adjacent places did better during the pandemic.
Eve: [00:37:43] Yeah, I would believe that.
Christopher: [00:37:43] Downtown has to learn from the downtown adjacent places as to balancing their portfolio.
Eve: [00:37:49] Well, thank you very much. Thanks for joining me. And I can’t wait to see the next report. I love the work you’re doing, and this is really important work, I think.
Christopher: [00:37:58] Great. Thank you, Eve. Okay. Good to see you.
Eve: [00:38:00] Okay. Thank you very much.
Christopher: [00:38:02] Okay, bye bye.
Eve: [00:38:10] I hope you enjoyed today’s guest and our deep dive. You can find out more about this episode or others you might have missed on the show notes page at RethinkRealEstateforGood.co. There’s lots to listen to there. You can support this podcast by sharing it with others, posting about it on social media or leaving a rating and review. To catch all the latest from me you can follow me on LinkedIn. Even better, if you’re ready to dabble in some impact investing yourself head on over to wefunder.com/smallchange where you can invest directly in Small Change and our mission to democratize capital formation to create impact in commercial real estate development. A special thanks to David Allardice for his excellent editing of this podcast and original music, and a big thanks to you for spending your time with me today. We’ll talk again soon. But for now, this is Eve Picker signing off to go make some change.
Image courtesy of Christopher Leinberger