March 23, 2023
Over the past several years, students attending the Master of Real Estate Development (MRED) program at Arizona State University's W. P. Carey School of Business have helped the city of Tempe staff examine affordable housing issues and generate ideas for enhancing multiple sites. Soon, they may also get the chance to weigh in on the revitalization of antiquated retail centers, according to Donna Kennedy, Tempe’s economic development director.
Kennedy provides MRED candidates with real-world projects to help them develop skills while supporting her development work in addressing city council initiatives. The result is a symbiotic relationship between ASU and Tempe in which students gain solid experience while the city gets what Kennedy calls creative, out-of-the-box ideas.
Mark Stapp, Fred E. Taylor Professor of Real Estate and executive director of the Master of Real Estate Development program. Photo courtesy W. P. Carey School of Business
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E pluribus urban
ASU’s MRED program is a transdisciplinary partnership between four schools within the university: the W. P. Carey School of Business; the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law; the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts; and the Del E. Webb School of Construction.
Assignments Kennedy and her team bring to the program are used as one of the synthesis projects students must complete.
“I was the second practitioner to teach ASU’s planning and development studio, and my syllabus included city projects I thought would be interesting for the students, such as the redevelopment of Metro Center and revitalization of 32nd Street in 2010 and 2011,” Kennedy said. “The outcome of the student projects prompted discussion among city staff and, in one case, city council adding funding for student-proposed bike lanes and landscaped medians on 32nd Street.”
Kennedy has been supplying projects to the MRED program ever since.
Synthesis projects are designed to tap all the lessons students pick up pursuing this degree. They’re often big, detailed efforts, such as the redevelopment of Danelle Plaza, a 1960s commerce center in central Tempe hampered by the ownership schema set up from its inception.
“It’s a complex where the individual spaces were sold as condominiums,” said Mark Stapp, Fred E. Taylor Professor of Real Estate and executive director of the MRED program. “That makes this site hard to redevelop because everyone has to agree on everything.”
Adding to the complexity is city property, which sits in the middle of the plaza parking lot and has no visibility to the streets surrounding the plaza. “The city buildings are underutilized in an area that’s seen growth since the plaza was created and redevelopment of the ASU campus,” Stapp said. “It’s ripe for redevelopment, but it’s an odd parcel requiring creative thinking.”
It also made for a great student challenge in which they responded to a modified version of an actual request for proposals that the city issued.
“The project entailed every detail you could think of,” said Ryan Hilbun, one of the students who worked on a redevelopment plan for Danelle Plaza as his MRED capstone project. “We had to look at the business side of the project … purchasing certain parcels, the financials and timeline on that … as well as design, design schedules, construction and a construction schedule.”
“Unlike an architecture student who may just come up with an idea for the physical plan, my students have to do that plus determine from a business standpoint how you implement something,” Stapp said. “That includes ownership, operations, disposition and financing. It’s much more detailed than simply coming up with ideas for a building.”
To help create their plans, students in the MRED program are assigned a professional architectural mentor and a capital partner mentor who guides them through the financing. While those financial mentors may impose capital constraints, students still dream big.
Building on the past
“Danelle Plaza is known right now as an underground music and art scene,” said Wil Hogue, one of the MRED graduates who also had this site as his capstone project. “We were going to play on that and do experiential retail.”
He explained that experiential retail might be a store that mimics the immersive nature of a Meow Wolf installation, where people walk through an art exhibit and are encouraged to touch what’s presented or interact with devices scattered about. In retail, Hogue explains that you might have a wind machine near the trench coats so buyers could feel how well the garments served as windbreakers.
His team’s idea didn’t stop with the retailers, either. They also planned for an event space where the city properties sit, complete with shade structures and giant video screens like those used in football stadiums.
“It was a gathering place for different artists to activate the space,” Hogue said.
On the retail side, his team envisioned artisan tenants, like candle- and guitar-makers, and a sound studio.
“We were playing off the vibe of what Danelle Plaza is. We didn’t want to change its identity. We wanted to enhance it,” Hogue said, although he does admit some of the ideas his team presented were a little ahead of their time. “We pitched experiential retail at the height of the pandemic. It was probably the worst idea we could have picked then, but real estate takes a long time to develop, so it’s not bad now.”
The extended time span involved in a redevelopment project is one of the lessons Hogue says he learned from his MRED experience.
Hilbun valued the difficulty of the synthesis projects.
“They use real-world sites, and many are problem sites because most people will develop the easiest sites first,” he said. He also liked that one of the three synthesis projects was a solo effort, not a team assignment. “Everyone has weaknesses, and these projects have so many aspects to them — legal, design, construction and finance. You must take on all those areas yourself when you're alone. That teaches you a lot.”
Along with using Danelle Plaza as a synthesis project, Kennedy had ASU students help with public outreach on what Danelle Plaza can be.
“All their efforts were documented and used for our request for proposals that two developers responded to,” she said. “We required the developers to use the student findings to guide the design of their project.”
Plans for the plaza are still being finalized.
Both Hogue and Hilbun credit the MRED program with revving up their careers. Hogue says he got his job because of the program.
“I leaned heavily on our alumni base, and a fellow alumnus approached me to write a business plan for industrial buildings. I used information from my MRED studies, and I was hired. It’s a dream come true for me,” he said.
“Local developers hire a lot of MRED students,” Hilbun said. “It goes a long way in getting you a job here. I certainly apply things I learned in the program to what I do today.”
The marketability and skill students develop in the MRED program is good news for them and the community. That’s because the MRED program prides itself on teaching students to develop real estate projects that are as environmentally and socially responsible as they are artfully designed.
“Real estate exists at this interesting place. It’s the nexus between business and society,” Stapp said. “As developers, we must recognize that not only are we doing something to create profit, value and wealth, but we’re also doing things that will exist long after we’ve created them. We inextricably alter places every time we do something, and we must respect that.”