How Playing Pretend in Real Estate Could Accelerate Green Building

Five students won a ULI/Hines competition for their urban design concept. Youngsoo Yang talks about the team’s vision for redeveloping a North Charleston, S.C., site.

Knot Charleston. Rendering courtesy of ULI

A team of students from Harvard University won the 21st annual Urban Land Institute/Gerald D. Hines Student Urban Design Competition. Youngsoo Yang, Tomas Quaglia, Ben Parker, Emily Johansen and Rachaya Wattanasirichaigoon competed against three other teams from Harvard, UC Berkeley and the University of Virginia. They worked on the redevelopment of a site in North Charleston, S.C., dubbed Knot Charleston, following a brief that called for a range of socially minded deliverables, including considerations for equity, housing affordability, access to neighborhood services, sustainability and connectivity to surrounding communities. 

The redesign of Knot Charleston presented by the winning team proposed the transformation of a 3.6-million-square-foot mixed-use development for an estimated cost of $843 million. The project would provide 1,873 long-term jobs, 5,496 construction jobs and house more than 70 local businesses. Housing would consist of more than 2,000 units—33 percent of which would be affordable—and more than 200 new homes. Knot Charleston would be fully powered by renewable energy, feature more than 32 acres of open space and the entire place would be served by 5.3 miles of bike lanes.

The team had three months to deliver the project. Yang was appointed team lead, and he talked to Multi-Housing News about both the challenges and the successes behind the project.

What do you think made your proposal stand out?

Youngsoo Yang. Student at Harvard University, leader of the winning team at ULI/Hines Student Urban Design Competition. Image courtesy of ULI

Yang: The biggest strength of our proposal was how well-integrated the design work and real estate financials were. We understood early on that this was a critical key to being successful in the ULI Hines Student Competition. Hence, we made the effort to ensure both aspects of the proposal, spoke to each other in a clear way and found creative ways to show the interdependence in our work. We had talented team members with the necessary skills to produce the work individually while working as a team to alchemize the components into a final product with a clear narrative on design and finance.

We also invested time and effort in understanding the site’s significance and its larger impact on the region. Since North Charleston is located next to Charleston, we wanted to gain a full understanding of the history, their relationships and the regional dynamics. These informed our strategies. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, our team worked well together and genuinely had a lot of fun. I think that showed in the work we produced and was also evident in our final presentation.

Tell us about your role in this project and the team you worked with.

Yang: The ULI Hines competition requires teams of students from different disciplines, to mirror the real-world design and development process. I served as the team leader with a project management role, which meant that I kept track of our progress and made sure that all critical tasks were on course so that the rest of the team could focus on their respective areas of work.

I also saw my role as a bridge between design and real estate finance as I was fluent in both languages and, therefore, was able to contribute to both aspects of the work as needed by the team. Additionally, my part also included being the liaison between our team and anyone else involved in the competition, including our advisors, the school and the ULI.

Winner of 2023 ULI/Hines competition. Image courtesy of ULI

Emily’s financial modeling and experience in affordable housing development were critical to our proposal’s success. Tomas gave life to our ideas with his beautiful diagrams and creative strategies for urban design, while Rachaya’s incredible renderings and her knowledge of landscape architecture proved to be crucial factors in our final proposal. And Ben’s unique design thinking and knowledge, while also wearing an in-house urban planner’s hat, gave depth to our proposal in a way that none of us could think of. If this was not a dream team, I don’t know what would be!

Knot Charleston was designed considering the post-COVID-19 environment, social inequality and climate change. Tell us about how you tackled each of these aspects.

Yang: This year’s competition site posed a unique challenge, unlike any of the previous years. Because North Charleston is a very young city, we viewed the site as an opportunity to reimagine what the next generation of the urban core could look like…

For example, we were cognizant of the post-COVID-19 challenges that the office market is currently facing with the rise of remote work and advances in technology. This has led to serious consequences for our urban downtowns, where there is typically a high concentration of office buildings. The pandemic has upended the current status quo of the urban development model.

Our response was to introduce a downtown on the site that is truly mixed-use, by supplying a significant amount of housing as well as incorporating businesses and communities in creative ways. One example was introducing flex office spaces that took advantage of community-oriented amenities to create synergy between spaces that accommodate various activities and uses. We looked at both the design and real estate aspects of the issue to come up with a solution that allows office properties to become more integrated into the spaces that we live and play in.

Knot Charleston Riverwalk. Rendering courtesy of ULI

The project is built around resilience, economy and community. Please share details about these core values.

Yang: The three core values of resilience, economy and community were a direct response to the opportunities and challenges that North Charleston faces today. To follow through with our vision for the site, we focused on these three key elements that were integral to shaping a dynamic, sustainable and equitable future for the city. They formed a robust framework that drove our design process and the financial narrative. Interweaving the three strands of resilience, economy and community was our vision for Knot Charleston.

We opened the site’s riverfront to the public and businesses, and introduced a climate-resilient green infrastructure along the river that protects the site from climate risks such as flooding and storm surges that commonly occur in the area.

We embraced the industrial economy that makes North Charleston what it is today and the transit networks that facilitate economic activities. And by extending the energy of East Montague Avenue, the commercial spine in the adjacent area, we created a loop of local businesses that weaved through our site and along the riverfront.

We were keenly aware of the gentrification problems in Charleston that have caused a dislocation of communities which have also affected North Charleston. We were committed to including and prioritizing the existing communities in the area by introducing community-driven programs and giving significant priority to living affordability.

Tell us more about Knot Charleston’s sustainability features.

Yang: In addition to the resilient design strategies along the riverfront that would mitigate future climate risks, we considered the site’s suitability for a district heating and cooling system, which would lower the carbon footprint of the project and ease burdens on existing public infrastructure. A fifth-generation system—also called cold district heating—can use lower-temperature water powered by sources such as rooftop solar, geothermal heat pumps, and latent cold from the Cooper River. We also implemented sustainable design standards such as LEED and Living Community Challenge.

What was most challenging about working on this project? What solutions did you find?

Yang: As a team leader, the biggest challenge for me was managing mostly behind-the-scenes aspects of the competition, such as coordinating and organizing our work and progress. For example, the first round of the competition took place during our winter break, so all of us were scattered all over the world. At one point, we were calling in from four different countries in Argentina, Norway, Thailand and the U.S. Coordinating and figuring out the logistical details—even something as seemingly simple as setting up a meeting time—were challenging, but this mirrored how many global firms have to work with various teams in the real world.

Despite all these challenges, we were able to make it work by being efficient with our Zoom meetings and being transparent with the distribution and expectations of the work. And the unexpected upside was that the work could be done around the clock! During the final round, it was much easier to work together as we were all back together at school, but then we had to juggle the competition’s workload with a full course load of studying during the semester. As challenging as it was, being selected as one of the four finalists was enough to keep us going and it helped that we believed in our ideas and were excited to improve and build upon our original submission.

Knot Charleston Site Plan. Rendering courtesy of ULI

What did this competition mean to you and how does winning it impact your future (plans)?

Yang: Participating in the prestigious ULI Hines Student Competition was, without a doubt, one of the most important highlights of my academic career as a graduate student. The competition was a perfect platform for me to explore my passion and career aspirations in the built environment as I pivot my career from architecture to real estate development. It was truly a privilege to make it to the final round and I’m very grateful for this incredible opportunity that the ULI and Hines have provided for my team and fellow finalists. We met incredible people along the way, and I think our team also learned a lot about ourselves.

Winning the competition also gave me the opportunity to attend the ULI Spring Meeting in Toronto and I came away genuinely inspired by Urban Land Institute’s mission and the unlimited potential of how we can make our built environment more sustainable, equitable and healthier. Winning this competition has only proved to be the beginning of my journey into the field of real estate and deeper involvement in ULI.

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