Recently I had the privilege of speaking at Lincoln High School’s College and Career Day. You probably know the drill: a professional goes in and speaks to classes about their job, what their day to day looks like, what education and interests led to it, and, yes, salary.
Now the story of my career, like most, involves some twists and turns, and I am a commercial real estate developer and investor turned Community Designer. In shifting from skyscrapers to sidewalks, mixed-use developments to home redevelopments, one common thread has always been economic development.
So I begin by talking about my experiences in commercial real estate and transition over into public interest design, the concept that a neighborhood or community should be designed by those that experience it. That conversation began with me simply asking what the students liked and didn’t like about their neighborhoods. What are the pros? What are the cons?
The students were quick to list a lack of services; everything ranging from the lack of quality grocery stores to the lack of a Walmart. I’ll be honest, in urban-planning circles and many others, a Walmart is not the most desirable tenant because of the way it alters a neighborhood’s fabric, but I believe the important part to focus on is that they wanted all the goods and services a Walmart represents. So I talk a bit more about what that looks like, how one structures a deal to land a big-box retailer in a retail shopping center and all the different roles in the process. Hey, my job that day wasn’t to lecture about my preferences, it was to provide exposure to different careers and industries, right?
After we exhaust that conversation, I ask again, “What do you like about your neighborhood?” One student mentions Bexar Street, a redeveloped street in the Bonton neighborhood that has been a project of many partners, including the City. Now, Bexar Steet is much more of my cup of tea; it’s designed to be a complete street, safe for those aged 8 to 80 using all forms of transportation, and provides an engaging public space at the street level. I feel the smirk grow across my face. We talk a bit more about what they like, and I describe what some of the planners and architects I work with at bcWORKSHOP do to help build a complete street like what Bexar is striving to be.
The bell rings and the first class leaves, and I take the break to look around the classroom a bit. Sure enough, right behind me are a bunch of student-drawn streetscapes with engaging retail-fronts, wide sidewalks, and varied businesses. THESE are the services they are talking about; this is the environment that they are literally dreaming of and drawing in Art class. My smirk grows wider.
For the second class, the kinks in my talk are worked out, and I’m moving from one topic to another, comforted by the experience I had in the first class. And then, in an unforeseen moment, one student, who admittedly struck me as the class clown (or what I would have been in high school if I was funnier), raised his hand and asked me if I could answer his question.
This student who hadn’t seemed engaged told me he wanted to start a business. He wanted to provide opportunities to those that were down on their luck. He wanted to provide shelter to those that needed it, but more importantly he wanted to provide a way for them to pull themselves up, and with them, move the entire community forward. He told me the building he wanted to do this in, which, no joke, happened to be where my Grandmother went to elementary school, and asked what he needed to make it happen. He got out his pen and paper, ready to take notes and get moving!
I was blown away. His vision and passion was inspiring. It was profound. This student was out to change the world; he just needed some help developing his plan.
Now, one thing I left out about Bexar Street: they have an occupancy problem. Many of the storefronts, while charming, modern, and inviting, sit empty. Progress is coming, but not at the pace that most would prefer. And this is one street; we can’t realistically expect external businesses to fill all the retail fronts if this is hopefully only the pilot complete street.
I believe that within that student holds the solution. There is the entrepreneurial spirit throughout D/FW and that is no less true in Southern Dallas or within its Dallas ISD schools. Fortunately, there are many organizations out to help these visionaries along, including Lincoln’s own Entrepreneurial Culinary Arts Program and the Young Professional Coalition for Dallas ISD (YPC4DISD), but we need more of it. Help students engage in school and enrich their communities? Sounds like a win-win.
Mark Lea | MSC Class 2013-2014