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How Hard Could it Be?
You build on failure. You use it as a stepping stone. Close the door on the past. You don't try to forget the mistakes, but you don't dwell on it. You don't let it have any of your energy, or any of your time, or any of your space.
For the past 30 years I’ve been doing retail redevelopment - fixing up compromised buildings to accommodate shops, entertainment, and restaurants. But as a precursor to finding product market fit (for my career), one of my many jobs was as a short order line cook.
The job I landed was located at the top of a Colorado ski mountain where I’d be flipping hamburgers - and making chili, slicing onions, chopping lettuce, washing dishes, cleaning grills, and bullshitting with a wonderful collection of other overachievers.
There was a three-hour training program the day before the mountain opened where I was to learn everything I needed to know about my new occupation.
I was to take the ski lift up to the training session, and all I needed was some skis to get back down. I’d never skied before but how hard could it be? I’d been sledding several times.
Surprised at how much they cost, I found a pair of skis at a deep discount (total price $15 including ancient Marker bindings) due to what would prove to be a severe crack on the right ski.
Training day went as anticipated, with none of the trainees paying attention to the exasperated bohemian trainer attempting instruction on proper food preparation and sanitation techniques.
When it became obvious that any further instruction was useless, the trainer relented and the trainees busted out of the lodge like school kids starting summer vacation. I watched, taking mental notes as they effortlessly clipped into their boots and clicked onto their skis.
And they were gone.
I sat alone, learning the boots I bought without trying on were way too small. I got them on, but my feet felt like they were on an episode of COPS, handcuffed and shoved in the backseat of a squad car.
The second struggle was getting the boots into the bindings without an instruction manual.
With the sun setting I then began my self-taught journey down 2,000 vertical feet. My first attempt got me two vertical feet, and after five minutes of righting myself, made it another ten feet before sliding another 30 feet.
And it continued as I cussed my way to the bottom, arriving well after dark and with a broken right ski. How hard could it be?
Quite, it turns out.
Years ago our company managed a property that sat at the midpoint of three miles of strip shopping centers, interspersed with gas stations, fast food joints, and car washes on a six lane road with pole signs - one of those special places found only in American suburbia.
Next to us, between our property and a side street was an overgrown lot with a dilapidated vacant house.
We’d made some friends in the neighborhood because we’d taken a closed big box electronics store and cut it into six smaller spaces, adding awnings, ivy, granite patios and a hometown favorite cafe.
In a flash of ambition, I thought we could expand our mini empire onto the lot next door and add some more shops and charm to what we’d already done. I commissioned a site plan and it showed how everything fit nicely and even had room for a buffer from the neighborhood in back.
The owner was happy to sell at a reasonable price and as a next step I inquired with a land use attorney as to how hard it would be to rezone the property from residential to commercial.
After some quick research he determined that the municipality’s long-term land use plan showed the parcel as commercial to match the zoning on either side and across the street.
He spoke with the planning department staff who confirmed our intended development matched their vision. To avoid any hiccups, though, he scheduled a meeting with the adjoining homeowners.
We met on a Saturday morning at the attorney’s office. I brought coffee and donuts and he walked the group through the building plans, describing the zoning change we’d be requesting and why, and then asked for their thoughts.
They were a pleasant group that had a few suggestions on brick color before the conversation veered off to the cost of prescriptions and the new high school football coach. The attorney brought it back to the subject at hand.
One neighbor asked that deliveries be limited to daytime. “Done”, I said.
Another asked that we landscape the buffer with Leyland Cypress trees. “Done”, I said.
Another asked that we add a turn lane on the side street to make their commute easier. “Done”, I said.
With no other requests, the neighbors thanked us for what we’d done with the existing property and the transparency and willingness to modify the plans on the new one. We shook hands, and one of the older women took the remaining donuts to go.
Two weeks later I showed up at City Hall for the planning meeting where we were to make our formal rezoning request. The room was jammed but I found an open chair mid-way across one of the rows. I folded myself into the seat and wondering when our case would be up, asked the guy next to me if I might look at his agenda.
He smiled, handed it to me along with a big yellow “NO” button that he and everyone in the room was wearing. Then he asked me if I knew the jackass who was trying to rezone residential property to commercial.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably interested in real estate.
And you know how - despite a developer’s best efforts to make a nice place - sometimes the vibes are off and that place feels sterile and fake? While other places just feel right and have a terrific energy that makes you want to spend time there?
If you want to learn how to create wonderful places, and how those places can increase surrounding real estate values, sign up for the Tacos & Patios Workshop - a free online gathering where we unpack the how and why behind unique mixed-use developments.
Join now and get a recording of the last meeting, a workshop with Casey Lynch, CEO of Roundhouse, one of our country’s most talented multifamily developers.
And if you’re interested in a deep dive, apply to join the epic in-person gathering on October 16 & 17 where we bring together real estate developers interested in making wonderful places and the independent retail & hospitality brands, designers, contractors, and capital providers that bring those places to life.