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Innovation Hub: ULI Spring Meeting in San Diego

'Innovate' was the buzzword at the Urban Land Institute’s spring conference in San Diego, May 15-17, where some 3,500 planners, developers, and real estate and land use professionals gathered to look at new models for growth, share best practices, and learn how to proceed in an uncertain economy.
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Photo credit: ULI

Silicon Valley-based forecaster Paul Saffo set the tone at the opening session: “You’re in a perfect position to innovate, to take advantage of things that are changing,” he told the audience. The trick is to step back and assess the driving forces. “It’s a little surfing,” he mused. If you start paddling too soon, your arms get tired; too early, and you miss the wave. “Timing is everything.”

He predicted that autonomous vehicles will soon be part of the landscape. “The arrival of robotic cars will have as big an impact on your business as the arrival of suburbs and financial systems that allowed people to own their automobiles after World War II.”

With nearly 30,000 members around the globe, ULI provides leadership on responsible land use and creating and sustaining thriving communities worldwide. Founded in 1936, the nonprofit holds two conferences each year.

In San Diego, speakers including former secretary of the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development Henry Cisneros, former U.S. senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and author and Fortune senior editor-at-large Geoff Colvin touched on everything from integrating art into large and small-scale real estate developments and opportunities in cross-border development to catalysts for growth in urban pockets.

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Photo credit: ULI

In “Boomers and Gen Y: The Barbells of the Market,” panelists explored where the interests and needs of the two demographic cohorts intersect and diverge. The 80 million 18 to 34-year-olds who make up Generation Y is notable for its ethnic and racial diversity, with many born outside the U.S., said UNLV professor Robert Lang. Gen Yers spend approximately $200 billion a year; they’re looking for novelty, so retailers and developers must continually serve up new and unique experiences.

The 48 to 66-year-olds who make up the baby boom generation are no less a demographic force, representing some 75 million Americans. Alan Mark of San Francisco’s The Mark Co., said boomers and Gen Yers alike want low-maintenance living, but the younger group is more sensitive to price. Boomers, meanwhile, don’t want to compromise. He suggested that condo developers market to both groups: offering smaller, more affordable spaces and perks like fitness centers, dog runs, and rooftop decks for tech-savvy Gen Yers, and larger spaces emphasizing views and high-end finishes for baby boomers.

ULI also released results from several surveys. America in 2013 revealed a nation in flux in terms of housing, transportation and community. Gen Y is poised to have a significant impact on land use in the years to come. Along with Latinos and African Americans, Gen Y respondents are expected to spur a major shift—even if temporarily—toward compact, mixed-use developments. For their part, baby boomers are increasingly ditching the suburbs for more urban settings as they age.

“The choices being made by these groups are upending long-held notions about what is considered traditional neighborhood development,” said ULI CEO Patrick Phillips. “We've entered an era in land use that will be defined by development that conserves land and energy, and which offers consumers plenty of options in where they live and how they get from one place to another.”

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