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Disruptive City, a DIY Real Estate Boom

Think about the disruptive innovations of the twentieth century like Henry Ford’s Model T or Steve Job’s Macintosh personal computer, which started at the bottom of the market and eventually displaced established competitors. Now think about all the vacant or underused space in your city. New approaches and technologies for using that space are increasing in popularity and could soon change the commercial real estate business as we know it.

This post will introduce emerging disruptive real estate innovations such as Better Block, which uses temporary community placemaking and pop-up shops to build momentum for new real estate markets, and Opportunity Space, which opens data about underused government property to developers. Real estate professionals who understand the appeal of these disruptive innovations will hopefully recognize that they provide the potential for the greatest expansion of the real estate practice in modern times by inviting more people into the symphony of building cities.


There are now hundreds of examples of disruptive innovations in real estate. Some are probably fads, but at the very least, these innovations recognize that people have gone from users of the city to active participants in it. There has been a fundamental shift in culture, and these ideas are here to stay. Like the recent transformation of print media, users are expecting a more social, interactive experience; comment sections, Twitter feeds and Facebook posts allow people to be active participants in news. The same transition is now happening in the city as Code for America, StreetBlogs and Tactical Urbanism are giving people the tools needed to directly influence the development of the city.

Even more interesting are the disruptions now occurring in the financing of real estate. Social network investment platform Fundrise contends that only 3% of the wealthiest Americans are considered “accredited investors” and are allowed to invest in real estate development. Their connecting of investors directly to individual properties online is disrupting the Security and Exchange Commission’s outdated rules and inviting more people into real estate.

Also, there is an increasing demand for more flexibility from commercial and office property owners. New companies like Storefront and Liquidspace are facilitating short-term leases for the ever-mobile retail and office markets; a space can be an art gallery one day, designer fashion boutique the next; a conference room one day, IT hackathon the next. Retail and office will likely never be dominated by a pop-up model, but innovation in real estate could create new profit models for underperforming spaces in new and existing buildings.

Disruptive ideas sneak up on you. At first they seem too small or unscalable to pose much competition. Why would big cab companies or mega hoteliers ever fear a smart phone app? Now, Uber and AirBnB transport and lodge more people than their competitors. Better Block and Opportunity Space methods may not erase current real estate practices, but the cultural shift they represent will disrupt the business sooner or later. Over the coming weeks will speak with experts in Real Estate and blog about how the change is manifesting, stay tuned!

Better Block Inspiration: Jaime Lerner

As early as the 1970s, Brazilian politician and urban planner Jaime Lerner has emphasized the importance of mobility and sustainability within cities. With a focus on multi-modal transportation, reduced carbon emissions, and mixed-use spaces, Lerner has been a proponent of quick, affordable changes that can improve a city in less than three years. Like Better Block did in his wake, Lerner developed early on a series of guidelines to follow to stimulate economic development and encourage livable, accessible cities:

Make it cheaper

In his much-lauded TED talk, Lerner said, “Creativity starts when you cut a zero from your budget. If you cut two zeros, it’s much better.” Here at Better Block, we’re also big proponents of the “lighter, cheaper, faster” school of thought. Expensive, unwieldy projects take decades to plan, and are likely to become forgotten or ignored as the plans are passed through generations.

For example, his Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system revolutionized public transportation in Brazil, and cost a fraction of the amount of a light rail or trolley system. BRT simply took the idea of subway transit and combined it with a bus system, making buses more efficient and convenient to use, and encouraging multi-modal transport in the heart of his city, Curitiba. The buses run every minute, have their own lanes, never competing with vehicular or subway traffic, and mimic the loading and unloading of subway cars. Today, BRT systems have been implemented in 83 cities worldwide.

Do it quickly

When projects can be done for less money, they’re more likely to be done more quickly. Lerner also recognized that planning and hypothesizing cannot overpower the end goal of a more sustainable, lively city. When you start, he says, you can’t be insistent on having all the answers. Just do it, collaborate with the right people, and they will let you know if you’re on the right track. He calls his quick, inexpensive method “urban acupuncture.”

The Better Block team has its own way of getting things done quickly: blackmailing ourselves. When you blackmail yourself, you create pressure on yourself to make something happen by a certain deadline. To do this, make posters, a website, or a Facebook page to promote your event, even if it’s not fully planned. Tell your friends that it’s happening, and contact people in your network with whom you want to collaborate. That way, you know you need to make it happen by the date on the posters, and, in all likelihood, it will.

Transform use

Lerner noticed a perennial problem in large cities: most people work in the city, but live outside of it. This wasteful structure increases carbon emissions from its heavy dependence on cars, and makes the implementation of public transportation systems impractical, decreasing mobility within the city. Instead, he said, successful, sustainable cities are those where you can work, live and find leisure all in the same place.

To do this, spaces within cities need to be flexible and multipurpose. “You can’t have empty places for 18 hours a day,” Lerner says; sections of the city can play different roles at different hours. For example, a quarry can double as a public park, or a business district can become an outdoor marketplace on the weekends. This variety of use encourages people to live where they work, and work where they live, thereby saving energy, time and the environment.

Better Block implements this multi-use model into all of its events and demonstrations, encouraging organizers to program the street, have activities for all ages, and give attendees a reason to be there all day: a coffee shop for the morning hours, a sandwich place and independent shops for midday, alcohol and live music for the evenings, and outdoor gathering spaces throughout the day to create a perception of safety and a place for neighbors to exchange ideas. If the City and the community see the value in the Better Block project, the block can quickly become a place where people want to live, work and hang out, decreasing the likelihood of urban sprawl and its negative environmental impacts.

Better Block Harvard

How do you change a city? One block at a time. How do you change an institutional body on knowledge? Start at the top! Better Block co-founder Andrew Howard, A.I.C.P. is going to Harvard for a ten month Loeb Fellowship at the Graduate School of Design (GSD). His time will be spent researching with the top minds in the U.S. on the changing planning process in America using the Better Block Method of rapid revitalization. Mixing with experts in affordable housing, crowd-sourced financing and innovative construction methods, Andrew will bring back more ways to take the Better Block from weekend experiment to permanent transformation.


Andrew, joins a network of over 400 fellow Loebs that are making the World a better place for all! Not too bad for a guy that thought he might go to jail for breaking zoning laws and painting streets illegally. In all seriousness, this is a perfect time to take some time to reflect on a career that he began in government working 7 years in long range transportation, then 7 years as a consultant at a top engineering firm and now having 4 years of personal business ownership testing the Better Block.


 The time will also provide a breather for Jason to complete his long awaited book! He will continue speaking with the Lavin Agency and taking on select Better Block talks and workshops over the next year.


A big thank you to our community in Oak Cliff Texas that inspired this whole movement. The talent in this community made us want to share the message with everyone and we have found that every city has all the resources it needs to be great! We are looking forward to learning more about city building and broadening our message of rapid change to more people. Thank you!

Baton Rouge Better Block being made permanent

We’ve talked often about how the Better Block process leads to more rapid infrastructure changes than traditional planning methods. Here is the latest example of a street in Baton Rouge, where residents and stakeholders demonstrated a Better Block, and within a year, permanent changes tested through the activity are now being moved into permanent development. Kudos to the Baton Rouge Better Block team for pulling this together!



Richmond Better Block kicking off at Church Hill North

CommunityWalk1Planning for Richmond, Virginia’s first Better Block has kicked off in the Church Hill North neighborhood beginning with a successful community walk that took place at the project site (25th Street and Venable Street) on March 11th. A group of nearly 100 residents, stakeholders, and activists showed up to begin laying out the groundwork for the effort.


While walking through the site, property owners who held vacant structures offered access to their buildings for use by pop-up shops during the project. A handful of great, historic structures (above) have the potential to be quickly converted to cafes, markets, or art galleries. If you’re interested in developing a shop for the project, be sure to fill out the following application form. The cut-off date for applications will be April 29th. A tour for pop-up shop participants will take place on April 15th at 6pm on the corner of 25th and Venable Street.


After the community walk, participants learned more about the history of the Better Block project as well as hearing examples from recent projects. The following schedule has been laid out for the complete project:

April 15: 6pm Corner of 25th & Venable – Tour of vacant properties with potential pop up shops
April 29: Application for pop up due
June 11 and 12: pre build workshop*
June 13 and 14: Better Block

For additional questions regarding the project, please contact Max Hepp-Buchanan, Director of Bike Walk RVA at

* the Pre-Build workshop will take place on site of the Better Block and allows a chance for participants to gather their materials, gain access to vacant properties, and help assemble things needed for the completed project. More details to come!

Better Block a Workaround for all Cities

“A workaround is a bypass of a recognized problem in a system. A workaround is typically a temporary fix that implies that a genuine solution to the problem is needed.”

Andres Duany has just launched a project with the Knight Foundation, which seeks to accelerate city revitalization by helping citizens and entrepreneurs work around cumbersome regulations. The first question today on a webinar between Andres and Carol Colleta VP of Knight foundation was how can we apply Lean Urbanism across a broad spectrum of US cities?

Better Block uses the special event permit process that is found in every city to demonstrate changes to the street, seed entrepreneurs, and test zoning codes. Here is an example from a recent project in Norfolk, VA were Team Better Block identified limitations in the zoning code and then empowered young entrepreneurs to test the market with new business ideas. Better Block documented what worked and then city staff created a workaround to the zoning code that made the temporary changes permanent:

Pop up Shop Alchamey NFK in Norfolk VA during Better Block April 2013
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Building was first an auto parts dealer, then a furniture store that was put out of business when the Ikea came on the bypass. Now what do you do with all this space?
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During Better Block the building was host to a Market, Maker Space, Coffee Shop, Beer Garden and Skate Park…where does that fit in the zoning code?
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The pop shop wanted to go permanent, but how do you make it legit? City staff found a workaround by calling it a beer serving flea market!

So we need both the agitators and the experts to work together to make our cities better. This process gets around the non-contributors, the people that say changes will not work, and gets to the folks that have ideas and the will to find a way to make it happen. Cities that get this will excel and attract the greatest talent to them.



Take Away a Zero, Now a Scientific Fact

“Do you want to change things quickly?”  he asks.  “Remove one zero from the budget.   Do you want to change things even more quickly?  Remove TWO ZERO’s from the budget.” Former Mayor of Curitiba Brazil Jamie Lerner

Over the past four years we have learned this lesson over and over. Our best Better blocks have always been in less affluent neighborhoods and our projects that have had the most resistance were in affluent ones.

Science now explains what we’ve been experiencing, but have been unable to quite understand: Why do some folks who have a lot more money than others seem to be less nice and more selfish to everyone around them? Read More:

So does this mean we all need to get poor? No, money is not the problem or the answer. The issue is with wealth we get comfortable, depend less on each other and feel entitled. Wealthy people that get this, like Jack White remain creative.

“All the money in the world kills creativity… do things to make it hard on yourself…set short deadlines to make things happen,” Jack White says.

Better Blocks’ remind us that together we can do things that money alone can’t. Borrowing, giving, receiving, building together and crowdfunding are essential to the human spirit. Lets put these practice back into the way we build cities


How many Permanent Better Blocks can fit in this closed grocery store?

As a follow-up to the Building a Permanent Better Block post, we now analyze a “suburban formed” grocery anchored commercial block (across the street from our office) in Dallas, Texas, only 4 miles from Downtown Dallas.


This was formerly a grocery store that recently closed leaving a large void in the area. Beside it is a strip of small chain businesses including a Little Caesar’s, O’Reilly’s Auto Parts Store, Bank of America branch office, Go Clips Salon, ACE Cash Express, and an Insurance office. All total, including the now vacant grocery store, 7 businesses. The lot itself, including parking lot is 120,000 square feet, half of which is parking (ie. unusable land that will generate no revenue, taking up potential product shelf space).


Now let’s look at the Camden High Street commercial and residential block example again from the past post. Taking less than one quarter of the same land area at 18,700 square feet, you see far more productive use of the land with residents, businesses, and vibrant street life:

And to break this down further, notice that we can comfortably fit 4 of these blocks into our semi-productive commercial block:


From 7 businesses to 96 in the same area. Also, 300+ people living in the same block. Far more productive, far more efficient for the utilities (that we all pay for) that run under the ground, and the potential for a lively, neighborhood destination. And if we can figure out the financing mechanism at a local scale, where each building (total of 96) is constructed by individuals as opposed to single master developers, then we’ve got a new model built on historic precedence, which spreads ownership to a broader group.

Next, we’ll break down the sheer metric tons of concrete poured surrounding the area for roadway and parking lots to show how this (comparatively) unproductive land use can’t generate enough tax revenue to even cover the maintenance costs of the road that fronts it, yet we still build it without questioning it’s long term viability.