An Interview With: Rick Rosan
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Rosan, an architect by training, has been president of ULI for 7 years, and before that was COO for 7 years. ULI, based in Georgetown, is considered the leading “think tank” dedicated to analyzing and improving land use development. It is a non-profit 501c(3) supported by 30,000 members around the world, divided among 47 regional councils. It has an overall budget of $50 million and a staff of 130, including research fellows as well as publication writers and planners for its many conferences. Rosan (pronounced “Rozanne”) grew up in Connecticut, went to Williams College, and got a masters degree from Penn’s School of Architecture. As head of ULI, he is an internationally prominent spokesman on environmental and land use issues relating to real estate development.
Bisnow: What were you doing before ULI?
I worked in New York City for 22 years. I had multiple jobs, but three kinds. I worked for the city government for a lot of years and I always ended up being the sort of economic development director. I worked for three mayors and ended up with Koch. Then I ran the Real Estate Board of New York, which is a real estate lobby organization, and it’s a very central organization in New York in the real estate business. And then I worked for a couple of developers including Larry Silverstein who is the developer of the World Trade Center.
What did you do for him?
I was senior vice president of development. We were doing some big projects in the late ‘80s. We converted the Gimble’s store into a mall with the Simon Company and the Zeckendorfs. I built a hotel on top of the Palace Theatre in Times Square. And I did a huge rezoning of a site way on West 42nd Street, which he subsequently changed it from industrial to residential. It’s right next to the convention center.
What does ULI do?
We are an education research organization. We do not really take positions. We try to educate our members around the world through various processes to the best practices and exchange ideas and information about real estate development at all different levels. From planning and the conceptual issues in land use, all the way to approvals and development, to the financing of projects. Our palate is multicolored!
Why is ULI in Washington, since you don’t lobby?
It’s a matter of history. ULI is 70 years old this year, and it was actually started in Chicago. I guess it was thought that it would have more prestige if it was in Washington. And there is some logic also because we deal with so many other organizations. As an analogy, we’re a little bit like the Aspen Institute. We bring people together to discuss issues. We’ll have the Sierra Club and the Home Builders and the NAR and the Conservation Fund all together in a room discussing some land use issues, which we do well again because we don’t take positions on them. And so Washington is a good place for doing that.
What’s an example of a big sexy land issue these days, about which you might have one of these conferences?
Well, I think the biggest issue in the U.S. right now is how much land is going to be gobbled up because we’re having such enormous population growth in this country. I think as a nation we don’t seem to want to accept that this is an enormous issue. 60 million people in the next 15 or 20 years will be added to the population, and they’re all being added in areas like Washington, all growing just immensely in very short periods.
How about an example of an issue that might be particularly relevant to our readers who are brokers, developers, or contractors in the DC region?
Well, there’s one issue in particular that drives an awful lot of the real estate development issues and is central to your readers, and that’s all this moving into the center city. We’re seeing that all over the country, and of course you see that with condo development in Washington. On the other hand, there’s another interesting thing that also seems to be occurring: There’s very little growth in office development in cities around the country. There is some continuous growth in the suburban office market. But it’s pretty small. And what’s really happening out there? One of the things that ULI does that adds a lot of value for our members is we’re always trying to think of what the newest trends are, where we’re going two years, three years, five years, eight years, ten years from now. We’re sort of the eyes and ears for our members thinking about that. So what is happening? We have a lot of people moving into the center city. Cities like Denver had six or eight thousand units of housing going up. Even downtown Los Angeles they’re building a lot of housing downtown now. We’ve just seen it all over the country. So there’s something happening here. We know that baby boomers are turning 60 this year. I think every eight seconds there’s a new baby boomer turning 60. And a lot of them want different lifestyles from the tradition suburban life. So they’re changing demand for a lot of things, and that would have a lot of impact on your readers.
Why is there less office growth downtown?
I don’t know the answer. I can speculate there is a fundamental change going on now in terms of the amount of space users need for offices. I believe that it may be the enormous expansion we’ve had over the last 25 years has finally slowed. This is probably a pretty good thing for real estate markets because it means the chance of building too much remains low and that keeps the market in stability. But increasingly companies many not need the per-person offices they once did. I read the other day that at IBM, a third of their workforce do not have office. They work from home, they work virtually. If somebody told you that 15 or 20 years ago, you would have said, “What are you talking about?”
Do you think the attractiveness and value of property in the center cities can continue to increase year after year? Or will it inevitably flatten out or decline?
Well, I think we’ve seen a total shift in the function of American cities, and cities globally. I go around now, and I keep thinking, what does the city make? What do they do? And now I see that people live there. So there’s all the things that you need to do for them. You have to provide services, food, cultural events. So we’re having stadiums and things like that built in the cities. We’re having a huge growth of museums and cultural buildings. But ironically we’re not having a huge amount of new office space. So that tells me that something else is happening here that’s quite a major shift in the way we’ve thought about this for a long time.
You have 30,000 individual members. Is that who tends to belong rather than organizations or companies?
We organize ULI on an individual membership basis. We do bundle up memberships and corporations that have 15, 20, 30, 50, or 100 members. We have probably between 50 and 100 corporations who have a substantial number of members, and we work with them on a somewhat of a corporate basis. Our members all belong to regional councils, that we think are one of the hallmarks of ULI. To be a full member you go through approval process. There are about 3500 full members, and the rest are associates. We have a lot of young people. We have about 6,000 or 7,000 under-35 members now who are doing a lot of activities in the district councils, especially here in Washington, where we have a very active district council.
Is the local district council in your office here?
No, they actually don’t have their office space here. They use the office a lot for different things. But they have their own office, it’s separate, and they run a whole lot of activities. Some that we work with centrally, and some that they do by themselves.
Real estate executives in this region find themselves swimming in an alphabet soup of real estate organizations…
That’s true everywhere. That’s true in London, that’s true in Germany, that’s true in New York.
What’s the differentiator, the benefit of what should cause people, especially because you had mentioned younger people, to say this is an organization that should be on my “must join” list?
The others are sort of single purpose organizations. The beauty of ULI is we’re inter-disciplinary, we cross lines, we try to bring together people and interest from all areas. And I think that’s what sets us apart. And I think it’s about ideas. We often liken ourselves to a university. Maybe we’re like a university without walls. We don’t have a place, but we act like that. And if you’re interested in ideas and you’re interested in your profession, this is a place where we try to help further all those different concepts. And we’re not up in the sky here, we’re a very practical organization. We think about real problems, not esoteric ones.
How has ULI changed over your fourteen years?
We’ve expanded tremendously. We’ve gone from 13,000 members to 30,000. Also, we had been just a national organization that had meetings nationally and relatively infrequently — just two, three, four times a year — to an organization that believes that real estate is a local issue. So that’s why we work through our district councils. The other side of it is that real estate has changed in terms of how it’s become an international global world. Some of your readers are from CB Richard Ellis. 14 years ago there wasn’t a CB Richard Ellis. Richard Ellis was in Europe and Asia, and CB was here. And now it’s one huge global company. And there’s dozens of such worldwide real estate companies. So we’re both more global and more local. And we’re moving more in that direction each year.
Do I remember that you had a big conference out in LA in October?
That was our annual fall meeting, that about 6,000 people attended. It moves from city to city. Next fall it will be in Denver. We also have a Spring council meeting that moves from city to city. The purpose of the big one is to get the people together who are interested in this field of land use and development. And it’s very organized around different sessions on different subjects, some very particular to certain kinds of real estate. We’ll have sessions on subdivision development or planned communities or golf course developments and big sessions on trends we see in finance, or what’s happening to cities. We honor people and give a couple of prizes. It’s an extraordinary meeting that lasts three or four days. And we also do the business of the organization of ULI.
How big is that business?
We are a $50 million business with 130 professionals here in Washington and a staff of about seven in London. A number of the district councils have executive directors in offices around the country, and we have coordinators in areas beyond that. I do travel a lot because we are in many areas. Last week we had our trustees and our executive committee meetings here for the week, and the week before that we had our big European meeting in Paris that 500 attended. I probably travel more than half the time.
Do the district councils operate autonomously or are they directly related reporting to you?
This is not a pyramidal organization. I’m back to my university model. Yes, they’re all paid through a central payroll, and it is one organization. The district councils have boards of the local members who set their priorities.
You have serious scholars here?
Yes, we have seven fellows here who are each individuals who know a lot about specific issues. Things like urban planning, environmental issues. They’re sort of like research fellows or professors. They don’t have any line responsibility. They’re supposed to think about housing or planning and so forth. They travel as much as I do or more.
You’ve been at ULI for 14 years.
Yes, as of this week.
Well congratulations. How will you celebrate?
I don’t think you celebrate 14 years. Maybe at 15 years. :)