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A Community Mindset

by Seth Shapiro
It is a pretty good time to be in the real estate industry. Center City is undergoing a growth spurt, the breadth of which we haven’t witnessed since the ‘80s when we rebuilt the west Market Street corridor and eclipsed Billy Penn’s hat.

The Goldenberg Group is soon to deliver our first multifamily rental project. When we were in the planning stages, one of our partners had an interesting way to describe our real estate investments. “We are,” he would say, “simply placing a bet on demographic and economic trends. Real estate is the flavor of the bet, but we could just as easily be betting on consumer goods or any other facet of the economy.” If our bet on the underlying trends leading to the resurgence of Center City is correct, then our real estate bet will pay off.

This certainly isn’t a particularly complex or earth-shattering concept, but it does help us rethink—or at least reinforce—a more comprehensive approach to how real estate companies ought to be approaching the communities in which we work.

At Goldenberg, we have a philanthropic arm with three areas of focus: volunteerism, education and community impact. We have three employees in Igoji, Kenya, where we support the community and its most vulnerable residents. In the Philadelphia region, we close our company down one day a month to do a community service project (renovating schools, shelters, etc). Finally, we engage the community in and around each of our development projects in a meaningful way. Lately, that engagement has taken the form of substantial partnership and investment in local public schools. Whereas we probably initiated that mindset from a charitable perspective, as I watch the trends in the city, I am starting to think that it is perhaps one of our most strategic business moves as well.

Many see the current real estate spurt and think that Philly must be a national leader in growth. However, of the 30 largest cities in the country, Philadelphia ranks 27th in growth. The reality is that we are benefitting from a national trend favoring urban living. These new urban dwellers live differently than the baby boomers that led the suburban real estate boom. They are driving less and biking more. They are getting married later. They are having kids later in life. They are renting instead of buying. New urban dwellers are millennials, but also empty nesters and childless professionals.

This beneficial trend also portends a huge looming risk. As the millennials grow up and urban dwellers diversify, they will need schools for their children. There are some excellent independent schools in the region, some great charter options and a growing number of high-performing special admission schools. Some neighborhoods have been successful rallying support for their local elementary schools (McCall, Greenfield, Meredith, etc). But these do not represent enough seats to provide quality options for our existing population, much less all of the children of the new urban dwellers.

So back to that third leg of our community engagement: Our founder, Ken Goldenberg, has seen fit to have two full-time civic engagement staff in our offices. They engage with the neighborhood schools with which we partner in significant ways. An example: After we developed The View at Montgomery, our award-winning student housing project in the middle of Temple University’s campus, we began a partnership with the Dunbar School at 12th & Cecil B. Moore. In the winter of 2014, the school district revoked the charter of the Walter Palmer School. During one of our weekly interactions with Dunbar, Ellen Lissy Rosenberg, our vice president of civic engagement, heard concern about the impact to the school climate of dozens of new students from Palmer coming mid-year. When she asked about the orientation plans for these students, she learned that the resources simply weren’t there for a robust introduction. She and the Goldenberg team stepped in to create a special back-to-school night for the new students. We helped welcome them to their new school and provided each with a new backpack. In addition, having learned that many were facing the burden of having to buy a whole new set of uniforms for Dunbar (having already purchased Palmer uniforms earlier in the year), we gave each new student a voucher for a new uniform.

The debate about education in our city often happens at a very high level. We hear often from adults talking about budgets and contracts and legislation and taxes. Rarely, however, do we hear about how a mid-year change of school impacts an 8-year-old child. Only by huge numbers of us truly engaging with our neighborhood institutions can we prevent the rush of new urban dwellers fleeing our newly built apartments and condos for the suburban “McMansions” their parents bought at the end of the 20th century.

At the Goldenberg Group, our civic engagement has been personally rewarding, and we think professionally prudent. We intend to do much more of it and hope we can find peer companies willing to join us.

Seth Shapiro is the executive vice president and chief operating officer of The Goldenberg Group. He also serves as Chairman of the Board of the Philadelphia Gas Works and is a product of Greenfield Elementary, Friends Select and Cornell University.

Published (and copyrighted) in Philly Biz, Volume 1, Issue 10 (September, 2016).
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