There’s a growing recognition among real estate developers that the old way of doing things needs to change. Even before the pandemic, more and more projects were being canceled or put on hold due to environmental or social concerns. The past year has only reinforced the need for a more sustainable and equitable approach to development that also preserves commercial viability.
I’ve been a real estate developer for 15 years, and lately I’ve seen recognition across the industry that business-as-usual no longer cuts it. I’ve also seen the industry fumble for alternatives. There are some promising trends, including new impact investment funds, renewed commitments to corporate Environmental, Social, and Governance standards, and some leading-edge development projects. But meaningful change has been slow — slower than communities need — and developers have much farther to go.
That’s why I was excited to join Sidewalk Labs as Head of Urban Development, and why I’m even more excited to announce our development advisory services. We create comprehensive innovation plans to help development teams achieve more sustainable and equitable outcomes alongside strong returns. And we offer hands-on guidance from vision to implementation to help make those plans a reality.
We’re currently working with developers across the U.S., including in or around Las Vegas, Miami, San Francisco, and Portland, spanning a range of downtown infill and suburban retrofit projects (more details below). If you’re a developer interested in working with us, you can contact us through our new web page.
How we work
Our engagements begin by aligning on project outcomes. In line with our mission, we emphasize pushing toward more sustainable and equitable development while meeting financial targets. We also know every project is different and work closely to get a shared sense of local goals.
Our next step is outlining a path to achieving those goals. That requires understanding exactly where a project is on the development timeline.
Pre-acquisition or early in a project’s visioning stage, we can do a simplified feasibility analysis to support go/no-go decisions. We can also create a comprehensive innovation strategy designed to hit key outcomes. For example, we can use our proprietary in-house software, which assesses the entirety of a project’s greenhouse gas emissions, to guide the selection and design of thermal grids, waste and water systems, and other advanced energy infrastructure. This digital tool includes cost-benefit analysis and localized climate data to determine the systems with the greatest carbon emissions reduction per dollar spent.
In the master plan stage, we work alongside design consultants and can leverage Delve, a generative design product that uses machine learning to discover better designs, optimizing for a project’s specific priorities across a number of competing variables. We then provide recommendations on adjustments to things like the program mix, density, and mobility strategies to improve project economics and achieve other specific project priorities.
To launch implementation, we create incremental, actionable roadmaps that turn an innovation strategy into a project reality. For example, a roadmap for a mass timber neighborhood might start with us reviewing the site’s zoning, collaborating on schematic design with the project’s design team, and actively comparing the cost-benefits of timber versus traditional materials. The roadmap would lay out the various points during the design process where we could provide “design assist” and “delivery assist” for factory-made mass timber buildings. Our objective with the roadmaps are to make action-oriented plans that mitigate the risks of innovative ideas, such as providing our specific expertise to a traditional design team and running pilots before scaling up for radical change.
At the heart of all of our engagements, whatever the stage, is a commitment to sustainable and inclusive development.
Our sustainable development work focuses on reducing embodied and operational carbon, with the ultimate goal of driving toward climate-positive development. This work includes building innovations such as factory-made mass timber construction, mobility innovations such as shared parking plans that save project costs while reducing vehicle emissions, and advanced infrastructure such as neighborhood-wide clean energy systems.
Our inclusive development work begins from a place of recognizing the historic impact urban development has had on disadvantaged communities, and taking an intentional approach toward making a place more equitable. That approach considers strategies for inclusive economic growth such as local asset ownership and new models for shared equity, along with broad affordability and collective stewardship.
Sidewalk’s approach to responsible technology also stretches across all these areas. For example, every Sidewalk team incorporates concepts like Privacy by Design and data minimization into their work from the earliest design phases. We view technology as a tool to achieve project outcomes — not something to pursue for its own sake.
A few recent projects
That’s a high-level view of how we work, but let me share some details about a few of our recent projects.
Downtown Summerlin (Las Vegas). We’ve been working with the Howard Hughes Corporation to assess innovation opportunities across their portfolio. One current focus is on improving parking in their 300-acre Downtown Summerlin project in Las Vegas. Parking is a major pain point for developers and cities alike: it costs a lot to build, it’s a less valuable use of land than alternative uses, and it leads to traffic and vehicle pollution. Leveraging the parking analytics generated by Pebble for over 3,000 existing parking spaces, we’re helping the project gain acceptance for lower parking requirements and an improved shared parking experience. The work now underway could lead to a 21 percent reduction in new spaces — a significant cost savings that also leads to more opportunities for vertical development or parks.
Mana Wynwood (Miami). In Miami, we’re working with Mana Common to support project master planning, using Delve to optimize for quality of life and aid in tackling climate change. Within the framework of the master plan, we will identify neighborhood-scale infrastructure systems that significantly reduce carbon for their 23-acre mixed-use Wynwood project. These systems will aim to reduce grid demand by sharing local renewable resources among buildings and leveraging demand management tools for residents and tenants. We’ll also explore waste systems to promote landfill reductions and consolidate operations. We’re working with our innovation network for this project to secure system partnerships and financing strategies.
The Power Station (San Francisco). We’re working with Associate Capital to create a district energy plan that can enable a first-of-its-kind all-electric development at The Power Station, a new 29-acre mixed-use neighborhood on the San Francisco waterfront located on the site of a former power plant. Sidewalk Labs will leverage our digital sustainability tools to plan and advance the implementation of neighborhood-scale energy systems that significantly reduce carbon emissions, supporting new city policies and local utility initiatives that seek to tackle climate change. Sidewalk Labs will work with our innovation network to identify potential system partnerships and assist with financing strategies.
Vancouver Innovation Center (outside Portland, Oregon). In collaboration with Rabina and New Blueprint Partners, we developed an innovative development strategy to convert a 180-acre industrial-manufacturing site into a mixed-use development focused on diverse housing options, flexible workspaces, and new parking solutions. Our plan included specific roadmaps for implementation — all underpinned by a financial model showing that the project outcomes could be achieved within the developer’s return goals.
We plan to announce other projects soon in the Midwest, South, and West Coast, including projects aimed at creating flexible buildings to expand housing options (in collaboration with Sidewalk portfolio company Ori) and a new model for distributed neighborhood amenities to support social equity and economic opportunity.
More and more developers have a strong desire to make their projects as sustainable and equitable as possible, while being financially feasible. We hear that time and again from everyone reaching out to us. The developers we’ve worked with have been both pleasantly surprised and excited to hear about all the practical urban innovations available that can help them realize their most ambitious outcomes. We know there are many more developers out there with similar goals, and we look forward to working together to accelerate adoption across the industry.
That’s the greater goal: to create a new normal in which developers and communities can achieve shared goals and work together toward better cities. That’s a business-as-usual we can get behind, and a future that can’t arrive soon enough.
If you’re a developer, landowner, or local institution interested in working with us, reach out through the contact form at our website.