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Weekend Interview: Newmark’s Lauren Gilchrist On How CRE Is Like Football And Her Obsession With Saving Cities


This series goes deep with some of the most compelling figures in commercial real estate: the deal-makers, the game-changers, the city-shapers and the larger-than-life personalities who keep CRE interesting.

Lauren Gilchrist has learned to connect the dots between policy and practice, a skill that has served her well as she drew some nontraditional career lines from D.C. public affairs wonk, to researcher, to her current role as executive vice president and Philadelphia market leader for Newmark, a job she stepped into just over a year ago.

Over that time, Gilchrist learned the ins and outs of forming public-private partnerships, learned how investors think by helping underwrite deals and was involved in some of Philadelphia’s most impactful sales.

“I probably had the opportunity to touch some type of transaction involving every single building up and down Market Street that traded in the last cycle in one form or fashion,” said Gilchrist, who leads Newmark’s 100-person team — a position she likens to being a quarterback, scanning the field on each play and passing the ball when necessary.

“You've got your offense, you've got your defense. At the end of the day, everybody does things just a little bit differently, and [it helps] to have a translator across those different service lines and business lines like sales, capital markets, property management. Everybody's a little bit of a different flavor,” she said. “But, we're all working towards the same goal at the business.”

Gilchrist is passionate about saving cities, having grown up in Pittsburgh during the decline of the steel industry, and she has strong opinions about what it might take to connect the dots of Philly's future as its CRE industry faces its most challenging era in recent history.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Longfellow Real Estate Partners Managing Director of Research Lauren Gilchrist and Jacobs Principal Soha St. Juste at Bisnow's Philadelphia Life Sciences and Healthcare Bonanza event in November 2021

Bisnow: Describe how you got into the industry. Was it something you saw yourself doing at a young age or is this a switch?

Gilchrist: I actually knew nothing about commercial real estate when I first started in the business. I'm originally from Pittsburgh and I went to graduate school for economic development, specifically urban and regional economic development and international trade and development. I finished my M.S. at Carnegie Mellon thinking that I was going to be a lifelong civil servant.

Shortly after finishing graduate school, I moved to the D.C. area, working in Arlington, Virginia, for the Center for Regional Economic Competitiveness. I got to spend a lot of time working with U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics and began to actually help the organization put together training for people to understand how to do economic development research.

I didn't really care much for the Arlington, Virginia, area. It's a great place, but it was not my home. I moved to Philadelphia in the fall of 2012 to work for the Center City District, where I got a first-class education in Philadelphia. I then really spent a lot of time going through the data to create things like the pedestrian counts that they record or the housing report that they produced,  and got a really good understanding of what makes Philadelphia work.

I started to have some conversations with some people at JLL. They were saying, ‘Listen, you do this research thing. Maybe you'd like to come and work at JLL.’ So fast forward, I spent nearly seven years of my career there but really started from scratch. I like to joke with people that I walked into buildings and I thought you just turned the lights on to make them work, so to speak.

Bisnow: What was your ‘aha moment’ when you realized this was going to be your life's work?

Gilchrist: Part of what attracted me to the industry was I found that the public sector and the private sector were having two very different conversations about real estate. The public sector has its goals and aspirations for growth and safety and economic development, and the private sector speaks a very different series of languages around cap rates and price-per-SF and operating costs and return. 

Lauren Gilchrist with Newmark team members at a company dinner.

I really wanted to get into this side of the business because I thought it would provide me with vocabulary that would help me understand, and then help people in the public understand, what the realities were of the business of real estate. Because we all co-create this environment together, whether it's through policy or the actual construction of buildings. I really have often felt like there's a disconnect in the two conversations and felt that I could hopefully be a bridge across the two.

I've known what my life's work was going to be for a long time, and commercial real estate became a part of that: A way to kind of actualize that desire to build better places, build better cities, build economies. And that desire came from being from Pittsburgh and really seeing the city fall apart in my youth as a result of the collapse of steel. I kind of became obsessed with this question of ‘How do you save a city?’

Bisnow: You've been in your latest role for about a year and it coincides with one of the most challenging times in commercial real estate. There's been a dearth of new deals, there's higher interest rates and challenging conditions across asset classes. What has it been like for you to step into the role at this time?

Gilchrist: I was very lucky to walk into a business that was already fairly strong when I came in the door in terms of the overall [profit and loss]. 

Opportunities are lost when people don't cross-sell and when people don't bring in other parties into their transactions at an early stage to help relationship development. We bring different groups of people in to bring on those secondary service lines or the third service line. It's really exciting because that's not a given, necessarily, in our industry.

Bisnow: In your current role, you're leading a market instead of researching it. What are some valuable lessons from your background that you bring to this new role?

Gilchrist: I was very lucky to be able to transform the research work into a client-facing operation. That meant that I got to spend a lot of time, especially with our investor clients, helping them to do their due diligence on the market to effectively underwrite acquisitions, to effectively underwrite financings, and it gave me a lot of experience and exposure in the way that investors think and the way that investors think about Philadelphia specifically.

Bisnow: What were some moments that stood out about that part of  your CRE career?

Gilchrist: One is helping the partnership between Arden and Silverstein on their pursuit of 1735 Market Street here in Philadelphia, and helping the JLL leasing team. It was a real team effort across the board getting the owner comfortable with Philadelphia for their first acquisition.

Another is working on behalf of the Durst Organization to help them on the Delaware River waterfront for their first non-New York development site. And while the project may be on hold, I don't anticipate it will be that way forever. 

Lauren Gilchrist hanging out with her niece, Lana.

Bisnow: When did you make the decision to go to Newmark and why?

Gilchrist: I had been thinking about this kind of role for a long time and had some pretty strong opinions about how an organization like Newmark should be run at the local level — No. 1, refocusing on Philadelphia.

Newmark is a very entrepreneurial place where there's a lot of opportunity and there's a lot of talent that we have both internally and also acquired through mergers and acquisitions, and it felt like the right place for the vision that I had for how an organization like ours should be run. 

When folks are downsizing, they still need representation in the market being able to advise them from a full 360 perspective. So, we really like to think about our services as helping through the full lifecycle for the landlords, for the lenders, and also for the tenants.

Bisnow: What are some of the major strengths of the Philly market that don't get enough attention?

Gilchrist: People love to talk about Philadelphia being parochial, but the stability of the workforce is actually a really great strength of the region. When it comes to thinking about how expensive it is to hire people, if you can hire somebody and they can stay for five years as opposed to two years, you've got an environment where they can afford to live in a place that they love to work. That means that the acquisition cost … is far lower and you can keep them for longer. 

This wouldn't have always been the case, but our return to work is pretty strong, especially as compared to places like New York and D.C. and parts of the West Coast. 

That vibrancy that you get from a dense transit network as well as our walkability, really, I think, supports the market perception overall. And we really need to be telling that story. 

Bisnow: On the flip side, what are some of the biggest hurdles this market needs to overcome?

Gilchrist: There's a big perception challenge right now related to safety as well as poverty in Philadelphia. But, for example, the Center City District recently published their [crime] statistics that are actually 10% below what we were in 2019 within the core of Center City. I'm very excited about the new mayor's approach to public safety and really focusing on it as one of the core issues of her first term in office.

We do hear about the cost of doing business in Philadelphia vis a vis the wage tax [and] the business income and receipts tax. And previous administrations have certainly made some small strides to righting those challenges in the tax code. But ongoing effort is going to need to be made to again demonstrate that Philadelphia is a place where [you’re encouraged] to set up businesses, in practice. Licenses in the city are very challenging to acquire or start a business. There's a bit of a Byzantine process.

Newmark's Lauren Gilchrist with friend Allison Wilson-Maher at a football game.

Bisnow: You’ve risen through the ranks. What can the industry do to put more women in high places? 

Gilchrist: There was a period of time where I thought maybe the business was just not for me, maybe I could find an easier, or less frustrating, way to make money or have a career and a livelihood.

I spend a decent amount of time coaching and working with young women because a lot of times it's a matter of growing your confidence to a level where you believe that you can do it, or where you're confident enough to let some of the hard knocks — which, there are a lot of them — roll off your back.

Our clients are increasingly less like the stereotypical straight white man that has dominated commercial real estate. And by the way, I love straight white men. I have many friends and colleagues and business partners that are straight, white men.

But our clients are becoming more diverse by the minute, and bringing diverse voices to the table demonstrates that we're partners with them. And we can make money, but if our goal is to grow our business, how can we do that? Bringing diverse voices to the table is integral.

Bisnow: On a national level, how do you see the next 12 months shaping up for the industry?

Gilchrist: We are starting to see some transaction activity pick up. I do think some groups feel they have enough clarity into the capital markets environment to be able to make reasonably smart decisions. But you don't have 100% of investors, operators and lenders on board in terms of consensus because of the macro issues surrounding the presidential elections. I predict some ongoing steady progress towards improved conditions, but it's still going to take some time.

Bisnow: Give us a bold prediction for the rest of 2024.

Gilchrist: I'm gonna say we're going to have a new investor in the city of Philadelphia, a new capital investor, in something that we had not been able to predict and that we had not seen coming. 

I [also] think we're going to see, over the next couple of years, nonperforming office buildings be removed for the development of either single-family rental or, call it, mid-rise apartment product. I think that is going to be a big shaper of the future of the suburbs in our region.

I think the King of Prussia [area] has been the poster child for the urbanizing suburban environment. It started with a strong retail area and has evolved into pretty substantial densification of residential surrounding it. 

Bisnow: What's your favorite weekend routine or favorite weekend activity?

Gilchrist: I am pretty obsessed with my Peloton. So most Saturday and Sunday mornings, you’ll find me getting a bike ride in. I'm an [Peloton instructors] Emma Lovewell and Cody Rigsby maximalist.

This past weekend, I went to the Academy of Music with a good friend of mine, and I also love to pair that with happy hour dinner. Something about the early-bird special at the bar really appeals to me. A lot of weekends, you'll find me either post-theater or pre-theater having a drink and an appetizer at a bar in Center City.