How Real Estate Developers Think: Design, Profits, and Community

How Real Estate Developers Think: Design, Profits, and Community

How Real Estate Developers Think: Design, Profits, and Community

How Real Estate Developers Think: Design, Profits, and Community


Cities are always changing: streets, infrastructure, public spaces, and buildings are constantly being built, improved, demolished, and replaced. But even when a new project is designed to improve a community, neighborhood residents often find themselves at odds with the real estate developer who proposes it. Savvy developers are willing to work with residents to allay their concerns and gain public support, but at the same time, a real estate development is a business venture financed by private investors who take significant risks. In How Real Estate Developers Think, Peter Hendee Brown explains the interests, motives, and actions of real estate developers, using case studies to show how the basic principles of development remain the same everywhere even as practices vary based on climate, local culture, and geography. An understanding of what developers do and why they do it will help community members, elected officials, and others participate more productively in the development process in their own communities.

Based on interviews with over a hundred people involved in the real estate development business in Chicago, Miami, Portland (Oregon), and the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, How Real Estate Developers Think considers developers from three different perspectives. Brown profiles the careers of individual developers to illustrate the character of the entrepreneur, considers the roles played by innovation, design, marketing, and sales in the production of real estate, and examines the risks and rewards that motivate developers as people. Ultimately, How Real Estate Developers Think portrays developers as creative visionaries who are able to imagine future possibilities for our cities and communities and shows that understanding them will lead to better outcomes for neighbors, communities, and cities.

Peter Hendee Brown is an architect, planner, and development consultant based in Minneapolis, where he also teaches at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.


We used to call them our town founders and we honored them by
erecting their statues in our town squares. Today we just call them

—Andrés Duany, Miami architect and planner1

The Costs of Opposition

In 2002 a Chicago developer named Neil Ornoff hired the architect David Haymes and his firm, Pappageorge Haymes, to design a twenty-unit residential project on a corner site at 525 Kedzie Street, in Evanston, Illinois, a northern suburb of Chicago. “The alderman—the city councilman—was really fearful of the people who lived in the adjacent building and were concerned about losing views they had across the vacant parcel, so he asked the developer to work with them,” recalled Haymes. “We designed a beautiful building,” but the design required a small portion of the building to be a little bit taller than what the height limits in the code allowed. The site plan also required the developer to seek relief on a parking rule that required a twentyfoot setback from the street to the building face to allow for on-street parking for the property, even though all of the parking for the building was going to be accommodated onsite, within the building, and concealed from view. These were routine and modest variance requests but, as Haymes recalls, “The neighbors simply said no, we are going to oppose the project.”

So Haymes went back to the drawing board and redesigned the façade on the side of the building that faced the neighbors, adding articulation and . . .

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