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Denver Power Women: 4 Questions With Developer Susan Powers

Want to get a jump-start on upcoming deals? Meet the major Denver players at one of our upcoming events!

This limited series profiles Power Women who have helped shape metro Denver's cities, neighborhoods, businesses and lifestyles. These women will be honored at Bisnow's Denver Power Women event Dec. 5.

Since creating Urban Ventures in 1998, Susan Powers has focused on development in urban neighborhoods close to the core of downtown. In each development, there is a strong emphasis on community-building in the context of social, environmental and economic viability. She has completed mixed-use residential loft projects in central downtown, RiNo and Highland neighborhoods and was a member of the team that developed a master plan to guide the redevelopment of a 17-acre existing Denver Housing Authority public housing community into a mixed-income, green transit-oriented development adjacent to downtown Denver. Powers was the executive director of the Denver Urban Renewal Authority for 11 years and serves on several community boards, including Denver Health and Hospital, Denver Community Health Services, Downtown Denver Inc. and Denver Bike Share.

Denver Power Women: 4 Questions With Developer Susan Powers
Urban Ventures President Susan Powers unwound from politics at Burning Man.

Bisnow: What is the biggest business problem you have faced and how did you solve it?

Powers: This goes back 30-plus years, but when I started as director of the Denver Urban Renewal Authority in 1987, downtown Denver was dying, which is hard to believe if you have arrived in Denver in the last 10-15 years, but half of the buildings were vacant on the upper floors and many were boarded up on the first floor. My job was to help figure out how to “save” it from demolition and further decay. We purchased the Denver Dry Goods Department store — a vacant 350K SF department store at 16th and California — and for several years we struggled to figure out what to do with it. Finally, we broke it into smaller pieces, similar to the phasing in which it was built over the course of 30 years. By breaking it down that way, the financing of individual parts became easier. This approach of looking for smaller pieces to take on when the economy isn’t strong enough to support the development as a whole has stayed with me and I’ve applied it elsewhere when similar times are upon us. Understanding and staying true to the long-term plan is the hardest part, but also the most important.

Bisnow: What is one thing you think companies can do to address wage and gender inequality?

Powers: Times are changing, fortunately, so there is much more attention to this than there was in the past. Women in positions to influence those issues have to speak up and show leadership. It isn’t always comfortable, but it is the only way it will happen. This is not to say that men [aren't fighting wage and gender inequality] every day, but it will happen much more quickly when women are raising the issue. Women my age and younger need to be mentors and also hire women for as many positions as they can. They are usually the most qualified and they are out there. Find them, hire them and treat them well. They will run your companies one day and when we have more women running companies, there will be less wage inequality.

Bisnow: What piece of advice do you give others entering the industry?

Powers: I joke about the MBA students who think that being a developer is so glamorous, but when I talk to them, the advice I give them is that they should seek out an opportunity to work on the public side before they jump into the private side. We all underestimate the important role that government plays in the development industry — they can kill you and your project if you don’t understand the rules and follow them or if your treat them disrespectfully. Conversely, if you understand where they are coming from, it will make your work on the private development side much less painful. This is probably not as relevant for other types of business, but for real estate development, it is critical.

Bisnow: What do you do to unwind when you’re not working?

Powers: Yoga, step aerobics classes and bike riding work the best for me for physical activity, but hanging out with grandchildren is best for my soul. These days with our crazy politics and the negativity that seems to be an ever-growing part of daily life, I find it more important to be around people who are positive about the future of the city, nation and the planet and taking part in something that can move the needle in a better direction. I’m generally an optimistic person (aren’t all developers?) so that helps me look at the possibilities, not just the daily shock of what the president just did or said today. I went to Burning Man this year and had no internet or phone access for six days — I loved the experience and that allowed me to unwind from the politics of the day to be around that group of people who truly do see a different reality.

Meet Urban Ventures' Susan Powers at Bisnow's Denver Power Women event Dec. 5 at the Four Seasons Hotel Denver.