West Philly-bred developer seeks ‘return on community’ when eyeing new projects

Long before I learned about redlining, “white flight,” and mass incarceration, I wondered how spaces that housed the dead could look so much better than those for the living.

Ridge Avenue, Philadelphia (phillytrax, EOTS Flickr Group)

Ridge Avenue, Philadelphia (phillytrax, EOTS Flickr Group)

When I was growing up in West Philadelphia, I walked past a historic cemetery in my neighborhood almost every day. It may seem like a creepy part of a daily route for a kid, but the groundskeepers ensured the grass was always neat and manicured. The rows of headstones, dating back to the late 1800’s, were orderly and beautiful. The cobblestone pavement was a reminder of how grand that section of the city once was. It was peaceful, especially compared to the other side of the street. On that side, I was confronted with messiness: uneven sidewalks, piles of collapsed bricks that were once houses, whiffs of exhaust from the mechanic’s shop, the aroma of cheesesteaks and fried chicken whirling through greasy restaurant fans. Long before I learned about redlining, “white flight,” drug addiction, mass incarceration, and all of the structural and institutional inequities that contribute to blight, I wondered how the spaces that housed the dead could look so much better than those for the living.

Increasing access to wellness or broadening a culture of disease?

This question shaped my career as a professor, social impact real estate developer, and community-based mental health practitioner. What we build in neighborhoods—and just as important, what we don’t build—can have a direct and reciprocal relationship on the health outcomes and sustainability of entire communities. Developers decide where yoga studios and bars are located, fried chicken joints and natural food stores emerge, and smoke shops or fitness centers will be built. That makes us either arbiters on the continuum of increasing accessibility to wellness or contributors to a broadening culture of disease.

Measuring financial and community benefits

Let’s say, for example, I decide to buy a two-acre lot on Ridge Avenue in North Philadelphia. It’s a blank canvas, and I could lease the space to a community garden or the headquarters of a tow truck facility. One provides a solution to food insecurity and a gathering spot for neighbors. The other creates jobs and contributes to the local economy, even as it increases pollution and the carbon footprint. Our decisions as developers carry generational consequences.

I believe public health should be the focus of community-centered real estate development. Neighborhoods can rebound and thrive when we’re invested in both the financial return on investment (ROI) and the return on community (ROC), a term I coined to center the physical and emotional benefits to people who live in a specific area. The former is a common driver in the $6.2 billion residential development industry. The latter is a long-term perspective that can be measured by:

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  • The vacancy rates of apartments or number of days properties remain on the market
  • The amount of time residents stay in the neighborhood
  • Health and economic indicators
  • The Livability Index developed by AARP
  • Residents’ sense of belonging, connection and quality of life

These elements create safe, productive neighborhoods, however investing in sustainable, equitable, mixed-income communities requires intention: It is not about expanding the scope of real estate developers. We must first build consciousness around the role that developers and their projects play in the overall health of real people in real communities.

Understanding how to achieve optimal life outcomes for residents should be a critical line item for any developer trying to pencil out a project. It is, without question, the core definition of community-centered social impact. Developers are positioned to meet the hierarchy of needs in any given neighborhood. We can contribute to public health by implementing walkable streets, high-quality food retailers, access to primary and urgent healthcare, and sustainable building designs for age-friendly living. Of course, translating concepts into action isn’t simple; creating the opportunities for real estate developers to co-design with neighborhood residents and public health practitioners is the next frontier for social impact real estate development. When you think of a public health official, you probably envision a social worker, medical doctor, school nurse or even the surgeon general. A real estate developer probably doesn’t come immediately to mind. That needs to change, and the shift starts with real estate developers themselves. When we accept our role in shaping a neighborhood’s quality of life, we position ourselves to establish what each unique community needs.

Public health and real estate: Actionable items checklist

I am not suggesting developers earn degrees in public health. But I do think the following considerations should guide our investments and decisions:

  1. Work with local public health officials and community leaders to identify the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats for each project. This will provide a baseline for opportunities that attract and sustain commercial and retail tenants that benefit public health.
  2. Create a community-defined social impact plan that includes a return on community index. This will clarify investments in social impact projects, and create co-ownership and approval from neighborhoods.
  3. Monetize return on community to help articulate potential long-term financial upsides for investors and stakeholders.
  4. Consider the long-term societal gains of sustainable projects, not just the short-term profit motive driven by commissions and investors’ traditional return on investment requirements.

Moving from a purely financial analysis of “the deal” opens the conversation to consider the collateral of real estate development. Residents who have access to goods, services, and environments that promote health and wellness are likely to prosper for a long time in place. While zoning and city planning are meant to protect the public from obvious dangers—not building a nuclear reactor next to a daycare center, for example—developers have the opportunity to consider residents’ needs in factors such as the design of the infrastructure, construction of physical space, installation of renewable energy sources and energy-efficient appliances, use of renewable building materials, and the incorporation of community voice.

When I think about the dichotomy of my childhood neighborhood, it’s ironic that the side of the street where the dead were laid to rest was better maintained than the side that was actively occupied by the living. Plans for retail and commercial spaces should go far beyond aesthetics and functionality to consider the health of residents who call an area home. As public health practitioners and real estate developers, we are distinctly positioned to understand the interconnection between return on investment and the return on community. If you’re a developer who cares deeply about communities—and I know there are many who do—let’s continue this conversation to create guidance on how to incorporate real social impact on the business side of our deals.

On Friday, November 9, Ujima Community Transformation Partners will be hosting its Age-Friendly Row House Summit at the Center for Architecture at 1218 Arch St. The all-day event is free and includes a training resource design guide session and breakouts to develop toolkit ideas.

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