Hometown: Rockville, MD
Current City: Los Angeles, CA
Current Position: Managing Partner, Agora Partners
Other Degrees: B.A. in Urban Studies and Design of the Environment, University of Pennsylvania; M.S. in Real Estate Development, Columbia University
1. What was your work experience/background before coming to the GSD?
I had a couple of jobs in architecture immediately before the GSD while living in Jackson Hole, WY. Prior to that, I also had summer internships in Washington, D.C., and Boston with architecture firms.
2. What made you decide to pursue planning as a career?
I started undergrad as pre-med, but I wasn’t too passionate about it. I took some architecture courses in high school, and that informed my decision to major in Design of the Environment at Penn, which was the architecture major. I got some advice from a friend that the Design of the Environment major was intended as a precursor for architecture school so that I should consider a double major in the event I didn’t go to grad school. I ended up adding an Urban Studies major, which ended up being a natural fit. I loved the Urban Studies major and was able to take it in a physical planning direction. I continued in that direction and, after graduation, worked in Jackson Hole, WY, including some planning work, and decided to apply to planning school afterward.
3. Why did you choose the GSD?
When you’re given an opportunity to get a Harvard education, it’s not something you can turn down easily. When I was put into the fortunate place to pick between programs, the GSD MUP program was a natural fit for me. I thought that because it is housed in a design school, I had options to explore other design programs, as well. I ended up staying focused on planning. The professors and course offerings are phenomenal. Boston and Cambridge are a great place to learn and live.
4. What areas in planning interest you the most and how are you addressing them in your career?
I’m currently working in real estate and urban redevelopment. I like how it enables me to be in a decision-making position. I like the complexities of figuring out what is “right” for a neighborhood, which can mean many different things to many different people. I like the messiness of trying to convene stakeholders with different agendas to identify solutions, and then distilling this into an actionable item. I don’t focus on a specific product type. I take a broad perspective and use stakeholder analysis, market analysis, and planning analysis, figure out what that “right” or “good” use might be. Planning is messy and can sometimes be controversial. It is part politics. There will always be someone telling you it’s wrong, and you’re not going to satisfy everyone all the time. You need to be able to make decisions and recommendations based on the best information available. Then, when you inevitably find something that doesn’t work, you have to be able to think creatively, quickly, and holistically.
5. Can you summarize the path you have taken since graduation that has led to your current position and how the GSD prepared you for it?
I had the Knox Fellowship after graduation from the GSD and went on to study the planning legacy of the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000. Some specific development projects in Sydney caught my eye, and I met with some of the real estate professionals responsible for an article I ended up writing for Urban Land magazine. I returned to the United States and went to New York to get a M.S. in Real Estate Development at Columbia University. While in school, and afterward, I worked for BRV Corp., run by Dan Biederman, who turned around Bryant Park and many other parks around the country. At BRV, we used public spaces, parks, plazas, and streets to effectuate neighborhood turnarounds. It was an exciting niche planning job, but it also took into account design, management, real estate, politics, and finance.
I moved to Los Angeles while still working for BRV to focus on West Coast projects, and then eventually went to Macerich, a public real estate investment trust, to work on retail development. This is where I really started to get my real estate development skills, and still enjoyed the messy process of getting from point A to B. I went on to work with The Martin Group in Los Angeles and learned more about entrepreneurial development across property types and scales. After relocating back to New York, I went to work at Hart Howerton as Director of Operations and as Director of HH Development Strategies. This was during, and after the downturn, so I was advising clients on alternative investment and development strategies for their properties.
After that, I started my own company, Agora Partners, because I discovered that I am an entrepreneur at heart. In the beginning, I had some consulting clients and two investments – one in Los Angeles with partners and one in Savannah independently. They both ended up being successful and launched into the entrepreneurial real estate development business. Today, Agora Partners approaches development through the lens of entrepreneurial planning; that is to say, we espouse the principles of urban planning and couple that with the traits of entrepreneurship in order to make development become a reality. As site-driven developers, planning principles and considerations are our launching points for any project, so that I am drawing on my GSD experiences for each and every project.
6. What’s your favorite memory of the GSD?
There are too many to name! Probably indicative of my love of the GSD is that I wish it were a three-year program. There are so many great resources at the GSD. I loved being there and learned from professors and my peers. In particular, our studio on the Central EastSide of Portland, and our professors Alan Mountjoy MAUD ’96 and Greg Baldwin AB ’62, MArch ’66, MAUD ’67 brought professional and academic perspectives together and allowed us to look at both big picture planning and small site-specific efforts. Being able to work with a client, a live problem, and then figuring out a solution with multiple stakeholders shaped a lot of my thinking approaches in planning.
7. What are you current projects?
The most exciting project currently is converting a 22,000 square foot furniture warehouse into bioscience labs in East Los Angeles. It’s a beautiful double wooden bow truss building that’s been somewhat abused as a furniture and factory warehouse for nearly 80 years. We’re going to turn it into a home for 21st-century bioscience research as part of a larger economic development strategy. We’re also in the early design phases of a mixed-use and student housing project for a community college in Wyoming. We are just about done with 15 for sale townhomes in an inner ring neighborhood of San Diego as part of an emerging walkable neighborhood. We are also doing a ground-up neighborhood scale office development in Los Angeles and a transit-oriented ground-up co-living space in Los Angeles to create more affordable housing options in a neighborhood feeling a lot of affordability pressures.
8. What are some networking strategies that you’ve found most useful?
First thing is not to be shy. The GSD will get you into a lot of doors, but what you do after is up to you. Whether you realize it or not, your experiences at the GSD are unique and interesting. Share them, but also listen to other people’s experiences. If you’re going to be a planner, you better be a good listener! Second, it is vitally important to network and build two-way relationships; make sure it’s two-way and give more than you ask. Third, join professional organizations like the APA, but also more inter-disciplinary organizations like the Urban Land Institute. This will put you in the room with key decision
makers, trend makers, frontline research, and resources.
9. How did you go about securing a job at a traditional design firm with a background in urban planning?
After graduation, I did the Knox Fellowship then worked for an urban design firm in Australia. All my jobs since have come from networking and being honest about what I am interested in, and letting employers know what I am interested in learning about. I met these employers on an informational basis, and would get calls later down the road. My strategy has been to find employers that are doing what I’m in and to make connections. Also, as someone who has been involved in hiring at Hart Howerton, focus on what seem like the little things – make sure there are no spelling errors in your cover letter, make sure you have the contact name correctly spelled, make sure you do some research on the firms or people you meet with. People who will stand out to employers show an ability to think and to be excited about learning more. Employers won’t expect people to know everything. We just wanted to see people who could think creatively.