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Weekend Interview: Steinberg Hart Managing Principal Katia McClain

This series gets into the heads of the decision-makers of CRE, the people shaping the industry by setting investment strategy, workplace design, diversity initiatives and more.

Katia McClain serves as managing principal for Steinberg Hart's San Jose office. With nearly three decades of experience leading large-scale projects for civic and education clients, she is a well-known leader in CRE, focused on bringing sustainable and innovative projects to California. 

McClain's experience has led her to work with diverse clients and communities across Mexico and the U.S. She serves as the board president of the San Jose Downtown Association, a board member of the Hispanic Foundation of Silicon Valley, a member of the SJ Downtown Design Committee and a founding member of the Women in Architecture Committee for the American Institute of Architects' Silicon Valley chapter. 

The following has been lightly edited for clarity and style.

Steinberg Hart Managing Partner Katia McClain and her husband.

Bisnow: Baron Rothschild once said the “time to buy is when there’s blood in the streets.” Where is the blood today?

McClain: Rothschild was a noble man and a banker and his quote relates directly to the notion that to make money, you need money. The blood is in the unaffordability in housing in the Bay Area. The housing market is as high as it has ever been and as competitive as ever, but this is still the time to invest in housing because I don’t think prices will go down.

The important statement to make is how to not just merely take advantage of the situation but be an agent of change when we are seeing “blood” in the streets. The right approach is to invest in housing with smart deals and construction methods that make it a good business while being part of the solution — such as through affordable housing, sustainable builds, rehabilitations and renovations, or with programs that have an aspect that will lift up the surrounding communities. 

Bisnow: What is your most controversial CRE opinion and why are you right about it? 

McClain: When given the opportunity, we should be renovating and rehabilitating rather than building new. A lot of architects want to do brand-new buildings, use the shiniest new material and create a trendy statement with a specific form. While I don’t believe every building is worth saving, the existing fabric of our cities has been defined by buildings that have an inherent character and that give presence to our streets.

Thoughtful repositioning of existing buildings also allows a good architect to be creative and come up with solutions that otherwise couldn’t be implemented. It is also the most sustainable solution for a construction industry that generates nearly 50% of the annual global carbon dioxide emissions.

This opinion is not applicable to all the cities in the Bay Area and not even every area of their respective downtowns, but it is very applicable to San Jose and San Francisco.

Bisnow: If you weren’t in real estate, what path would your career have taken?

McClain: I would have been a member of Jacque Cousteau’s Calypso crew. I remember growing up seeing the documentaries of his work and being interested in oceans, diving and the magic of large creatures.

While I never went to school to become a marine biologist, I did learn how to dive, lived listening to the ocean for several years and love animals of different shapes and sizes. While this early passion and role model didn’t dictate my career, they taught me the importance of a good crew, that everybody has a place and plays a vital role in the success of an expedition — elements that are not dissimilar from the teams we assemble to design and build a project.

Bisnow: If you could make one change to the industry, what would it be?

McClain: CRE sometimes is locked in silos: hotel and leisure, residential, industrial, retail and office space. It would be amazing to see more sectors integrated into new projects in a holistic and cross-functional way.

There are a lot of financial, wellness and equity goals that can be solved when we consider the benefits of combining these sectors into one project. For example, daytime retail in a lot of downtowns is not thriving, since there are still many workers who are not back in the offices.

But what if we had built housing and offices as combined projects? I think our downtowns would be doing much better if that had been the case.

Bisnow: What is one thing you would do differently from early in your career?

McClain: I would take things less personally. Developing a thick skin has been important in my career to be able not just to continue working but also to be an agent of change in an industry where only 1% of registered architects are Latinas. Architecture is a functional art, people use your art, and art is subjective. If a client doesn’t like a design, it doesn’t mean they don’t like you.

Bisnow: As a leader, how do you decide who is worth mentoring and who is simply not a good fit?

McClain: As a leader, I have never picked and chosen who to mentor. I believe that the best mentorship relationships are those when both sides are committed to growing together and are based in mutual respect and trust. I think people choose to be my mentees more than me choosing them to be mentored.

Their curiosity, interest and engagement are extremely valuable in a successful mentorship relationship, and I have high expectations with which accountability isn’t optional on both sides. If they don’t come back after one conversation or don’t follow through on completing an assignment without communication, those are signs of a lack of commitment.

Bisnow: What are your thoughts on the metaverse? Does it have any relevance for CRE?

McClain: Since the metaverse is still being built, it is difficult to define what it means and therefore having strong thoughts about it could be very shortsighted. There is a lot of potential and impact (good and bad) on what I am seeing of the metaverse and how we interact with technology in a different way. For example, there are designs that only exist in it, real estate transactions of ethereal elements, experiencing spaces that are not built and establishing relationships where we can be someone else.

I think it is important to explore it and then take from it what works for each one of us, as a business or as individuals.

Bisnow: What do you see as the lasting impacts of the pandemic on CRE? 

McClain: Two key elements: The first is the importance of wellness and how spaces need to be designed for that elevated experience, including daylight, high-quality ventilation, access to the outdoors and sharing of space. The second is how we use office space.

The pandemic will have lasting effects on the size of office space needs, the amenities needed and the role that an office plays as a resource for collaboration and production.

Bisnow: As you know, there is a massive conversation underway regarding advancing more people of color and women into the C-suite. What are you doing to address those voices and that movement within your own organization?

McClain: Advancing people of color and women shouldn’t be a movement, it should be a norm. Diversity is a fact, but inclusion is a choice. In a creative industry like architecture, diversity brings new ideas and experiences; different perspectives lead to better problem-solving.

You can hire diverse staff and ask them to speak up, but for us, it is also important to provide the platform for those voices to be heard, and that is where I have been concentrating most of my efforts.

Bisnow: So, this is the weekend interview. What’s your typical weekend routine?

McClain: There are two different types of weekends for the McClain family. One that is typically more relaxed, where I get to run in the morning with my dog, catch up on movies and books, do some volunteering work and barbecue with friends.

My husband and I bought an Airstream during the pandemic when those relaxed weekends became too many and we were missing traveling and exploring new places. So now at least once a month, we take our Airstream and our dog and find a new place that is within driving distance and enjoy different areas of the North Bay.