Timothy Johnson

Timothy Johnson

Partner, NBBJ
Tim is an internationally renowned expert in high-rise design as a business strategy. A former chairman of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH), his insights into urban transformations in the United States and Asia have appeared in business and design media around the world.

From the Growth of Tech to Economic Uncertainty, Four Takeaways from ULI’s Spring Meeting

Look to Seattle and the Pacific Northwest for a Preview of the Changes Coming to Real Estate

May 18, 2017

Partner, NBBJ

Thousands of leaders in real estate converged on Seattle earlier this month for the annual Urban Land Institute (ULI) spring meeting. Clouds parted in the notoriously drizzly Pacific Northwest town to show off its finest hour as a city engaged in building one of the most “user-friendly” cities in the United States.

As the largest urban area in the Pacific Northwest and a tech cousin to San Francisco, this 700,000-person city — with a regional population of approximately 3.8 million people — enjoys tremendous growth in the technology sector, with companies like Amazon consuming massive amounts of real estate. To counter the growing pains of San Francisco, Seattle is trying to develop its urban core to take advantage of the city infrastructure and to diversify its community. Here are four key takeaways from the conversation about these issues at ULI, and a few provocations for the future.

1) Neighborhood as Catalyst
With a strong interest in the South Lake Union neighborhood, many events and tours at the ULI event showed the tremendous impact of revitalizing this once parking-lot-filled area of Seattle into a vibrant mixed-use neighborhood. Home to a variety of organizations, South Lake Union integrates working, living and playing in a medium-density format. The area is rich with architectural character — blending the past and present with the energy of youth and optimism fueled by the millennial ethos. While not perfect, South Lake Union presents a great case study on how public and private partnerships can come together to spur development — from parks and retail, to corporate headquarters and new forms of transportation.

2) A Strong, but Uncertain, Economy
Another topic of interest was defining where we are in the economic cycle. Entering the seventh year of sustained growth after the “great recession,” there are varied opinions on the topic. Terms like “extra innings” and “double-header” were used as a familiar analogy to describe the sentiment. Are we close to a walk-off home run with two outs and a 3-2 count? Or are we in the 3rd inning of the evening game of the double-header?

One statement made by Tom Hennessy from Equity International caught my attention and I think is a more accurate assessment. Tom described the current situation as “land priced to perfection.” Unpacking his statement, Tom says the costs to continue this cycle of economic vitality are at a premium with zero margin for error. This will likely tighten the market significantly. However, the United States is and should continue to be a safe haven for international capital, which is beginning to flow into cities where vacancy rates are declining.

3) The Trump Effect
What conversation doesn’t include some discussion about politics? The market enthusiasm for bank deregulation, corporate tax cuts and support for small and medium business has everyone optimistic. However, many also expressed concern about the lack of traction and inability to move policy forward in Washington. This gridlock will likely not bode well for the markets, which could overshadow aforementioned positivity.

4) A Time for Tech
Seattle, with its tremendous development boom and 60+ construction cranes, had many people asking, “How much gas is still in the tank?” On one hand, it seems all economies are cyclical, even Seattle’s. But on the other hand, the growth of the tech industry seems to create anomalies that aren’t just based on traditional metrics. During the ULI meeting, Amazon’s vice president of global real estate, John Schoettler, announced that the company will hire 100,000 employees over the next 18 months. While that number represents employees around the world, it still equates to over 5,000 people per month — the size of a small Eastern Washington town. These figures underscore the dramatic shift that is happening in this “second machine age” fueled by extraordinary advances in computing technology. Developers and cities would be wise to continue to invest in this industry for years to come.

Regardless of these trends and what else is to come, it’s safe to say that we are just at the tip of the iceberg of the unimaginable changes that will take place in society. Over the next 10 years, disruptions such as driverless cars, more mobile ways of living and working, artificial intelligence and extraordinary breakthroughs in bio-science will transform cities and human life in profound ways. My friends and colleagues at ULI are perfectly positioned to lead and drive this discussion. Economy, ROI and politics aside — the future is bright and will be looking for innovation at all levels. It’s going to be quite a journey, so buckle up and enjoy the ride!

Image courtesy of Kevin Scott/NBBJ.

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Stop Fighting the Urban Redevelopment Battles We’ve Already Won

Now It’s Time to Invest in Inclusivity: A Conversation with John Alschuler

March 14, 2016

Partner, NBBJ

I recently invited John Alschuler, chairman of HR&A Advisors, to deliver some remarks to my firm, NBBJ, about the history of urbanism in America — and what our priorities should be for the next stage of urban redevelopment. Following is a condensed version of his talk.

 


What is it that we value about cities? They are places of culture, places of economic vitality, places of opportunity. But dynamic, humane urbanism is in danger, which requires a fundamental rethinking of how we practice urban redevelopment. This danger is present today in our STEM centers, such as Boston, Seattle and San Francisco, and is of growing concern elsewhere.

Our mindset today is a prisoner of an obsolete paradigm. After the Second World War, cities were losing tens of thousands of jobs each year and millions of people. A pro-growth coalition of labor, business and politics came together to rejuvenate the American city: first, to restore safety, and second — at the cost of billions of dollars — to bring private investment back. They incentivized companies to return and subsidized construction. They bought a new economy.

Then the paradigm shifted. Instead of pursuing private companies to induce economic growth, cities sought to create environments that attracted talent. Successful cities invested in physical beauty, in art, culture, beautiful parks, in making themselves exciting places to live, in the belief that workers would come and companies would follow.

And it worked, thankfully. The population trends fundamentally reversed. But now it’s time we declared victory in that struggle, in many of our leading cities . We did many things well, but If we keep doing urban redevelopment in the way have for the past 30 years, we will be fighting a battle we have already won. Worse, we will transform the American city into the province of the wealthiest people on the planet, and shove the poor to the periphery.

As a result of our success, a suburban attitude toward development has taken hold. We now have an unspoken, unarticulated alliance between “quality of life liberals” who love the urban form of the city and don’t want it to change, and the communities of color that have been the victims, over and over again, of displacement and gentrification. This anti-development constituency has fundamentally undermined the ability of cities like San Francisco to build. You don’t have to be an economist to understand that, if you build only a fraction of the housing you need to meet demand, housing prices will go through the roof. And this crisis is threatening many cities all over the United States. Battles are won while the war is lost.

The question is, what do we do about it? In the 1970s we assembled billions of dollars to deal with the dystopian threat to cities, but now we face a new challenge. If our values remain a humane urbanism, here is what we need to do:

We’ve spent a long time thinking about downtowns, but increasingly we need a multi-nodal urbanism. A place where multiple nodes — where people can live, work and play, all in the same place — are distributed and connected, and not just through the center. If we want a more inclusive, more open city, we need a city with multiple centers, all of which we nurture and care about.

We have to rethink transit. Virtually all cities’ transit systems are radial, designed to bring a suburban workforce downtown. But that’s not where all the jobs are anymore. And it leaves out neighborhoods and communities of color.

Our long-neglected, long-stigmatized reservoir of public housing has to be invested in and preserved while we build new affordable units. Thanks to a very powerful inclusionary housing ordinance, every apartment building in New York City going forward will have a minimum of 30% of its units devoted to low- and moderate-income people.

We have to think about parks in new ways. In Brooklyn Bridge Park, we dedicated a piece of land for housing in which 30% is designed for affordable families, so that the act of park-building becomes a home for diversity and affordability.

We have to work with the unions. I believe in unions and their right to negotiate and protect their workforce, but in some cities union labor adds 30% to the cost of building — and it has nothing to do with salaries. It’s all work rules, the requirements that add unnecessary costs. We need the unions to build affordable housing at fair wages, but with reasonable work rules.

We need to allow micro-units, to bring the size and cost of housing down.

We need to figure out how to take the distributive effects of an Internet manufacturing world and bring it back to cities. Working with some very visionary developers, we’re transforming 6 million square feet of office space at Industry City in New York into a form of inclusive manufacturing for companies like Makerbot, the largest producer of 3D printers in the United States. Many workers here are high-school graduates, who receive more than a living wage.

We need to rebuild community through culture. This is in many ways how we rebuilt our downtowns, with places like Lincoln Center, but we need to do it in other neighborhoods too. Theaster Gates’s most imaginative creations in Chicago were built within the African-American community in the South Side, including an “arts bank” that, as the library of Jet magazine, contains the history of America’s African-American communities since the Second World War.

We need to deal with climate change. New York recently built its first-ever zero-emissions school, and we need to do more of that.

We know how to spend money on the future of cities, but we shouldn’tto spend the money solely on the next High Line or Millennium Park or Copley Square. We need to spend it on affordable housing, on inclusive neighborhoods, on diversity. We can’t simply allow average incomes to rise, absent an inclusionary agenda.

We have to do this for two reasons. One, these are the values that stand behind our credo of humane urbanism. Two, if we don’t, the entire political coalition of growth will collapse on our heads, and our cities must keep growing if they are to be inclusive. We want to keep building, but we need to do so with a new agenda for a new century.

Image courtesy of Charlie Nguyen/Flickr.

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Where People Go (Back to Cities), Development Follows

Dispatches from an Optimistic MIPIM 2015

March 16, 2015

Partner, NBBJ

The mood of this year’s MIPIM — the international real estate conference hosted each year in Cannes, France — was solidly positive, with global real estate strong in many major sectors around the globe: the United States, United Kingdom and Asia in particular. It was also apparent from Norway to Normandy that many European countries and cities are starting to trend upward from the bottom of the 2008 global recession. The UK, in fact, sent some 5,000 attendees, the largest contingent from any country, and showed that London is truly leading Europe on the road to recovery.

France — the host country — was exuberant, with aspirations of large-scale remaking of its key cities. Paris in particular, with its popular “Reinventing Paris” ideas competition, sent the strongest signal of what European cities need to do to stay relevant in the post-industrialized world.

Other countries such as Turkey and Poland portrayed their aggressive stance to attract investment in thriving locations.

Noticeably absent were the once opulent and grand schemes coming out of Russia. The Middle East too was minimally present; however, their products seemed appropriate to a more modest market reality, as world oil prices are still down. As well, it was disappointing to not see more representation from Sub-Saharan Africa, as activity is just starting to increase in this last global development frontier.

The 20,000-plus attendees also seemed to embrace the idea of urban regeneration and the effect of the Millennial generation on the marketplace. Ideas for urban, mixed-use schemes that bring living, working and playing into the same space seem destined to be the way of the future.

With a worn-out larynx and a few microns less leather on my shoes, I again found MIPIM an amazing event for bringing together people who are passionate about not just making a little money in real estate, but about making the world a better, more habitable place.

Image courtesy of Simon & His Camera/Flickr.

 

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