The Urban Land Institute’s New Mexico chapter led the state’s first iteration of the UrbanPlan program earlier this month, which allowed 20 graduate and undergraduate students at UNM to run a two-day simulation bringing an empty parcel in a fake city from blueprint to approval.
Dan Majewski, district coordinator for ULI’s New Mexico chapter, said the program is more than just (nerdy) fun for architecture students.
The program is designed to get students familiar with challenges, from cost constraints to neighborhood opposition, that they’ll face once they begin developing projects for real.
“Your project can look really beautiful, and be really nice and be great for the community, but if the financials don’t work, then you’re never going to get it off the ground,” Majewski said.
By connecting students with ULI volunteers, several of whom work in New Mexico’s development world, Majewski said he’s hopeful that the program will help students find mentors and ultimately stay in New Mexico.
“We see this as one of the many, many tools to retain talent here in Albuquerque,” he said.
Majewski said UrbanPlan has been a popular tool at ULI chapters all over the world, but this is the first time the simulation has been done in New Mexico. Because of the pandemic, virtual design tools replaced physical building blocks.
Students divide into teams of five and pick different roles needed to bring the project to completion: financial analyst, city liaison, marketing director, neighborhood liaison, site planner. Each team must create a site plan developing an underdeveloped parcel – picture the Rail Yards in Albuquerque or Santa Fe’s Midtown Campus – while navigating hurdles like a request for proposal process and demands from neighbors.
“It very much is trying to replicate the challenge of development, which is that you have a whole range of stakeholders, and there’s a whole lot of tradeoffs that need to happen,” Majewski said.
After several rounds of review designed to strengthen the program, the program ends with a presentation to a mock city council. Majewski said the team with the winning design received a one-year membership to the Urban Land Institute.
More than the cash prize, however, Majewski said what he hopes students got out of the event is a sense of how to work within the constraints of a given project and community. Too often, Majewski said there will be tension between planners and the community members who live in the neighborhood where a project is going. Having more people go through simulations like this can help foster trust in communities that are skeptical of new developments, Majewski said.
“I think there’s a real opportunity, with this type of tool, for increasing equity,” he said.
The March event is just the start. Going forward, Majewski said he’s optimistic that UrbanPlan can expand to other groups in New Mexico as well, and could even act as a springboard to a new real estate-focused course in partnership with UNM.
“I think there’s an opportunity to empower a broader swath of the community with this exercise,” he said.
Stephen Hamway covers economic development, health care and tourism for the Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com.