Oct. 5, 2018
UC Berkeley Master of Real Estate Development and Design student Julia McElhinney was recently awarded the prestigious 2018 Urban Land Institute Debra Stein Fellowship. The fellowship supports promising young women in their pursuit of responsible land use and urban development. We recently sat down with Julia to ask her to reflect on her experiences and the industry.
Can you talk a bit about your professional experience prior to grad school?
I spent four years working as an urban designer, strategist and planner in both public and private sectors — for an international design firm in Boston and Bay Area city government. In these roles, I learned to quickly identify urban opportunities and challenges, develop innovative ideas and solutions, rally support and see projects through to the end. I helped strengthen my firm’s pro bono services program, positioning the firm at the intersection of the arts and innovation communities. I also advanced numerous housing, smart growth, sustainable transportation and community engagement projects and policies. Together, these public and private sector roles offered me both a breadth and depth of urban land use and development knowledge.
What led you to pursue a graduate degree in real estate development?
Working for a design firm, I often acted as a bridge between real estate developers and public agencies. This taught me that great minds working together can create designs that actually exceed both developer and community expectations. Similarly, working in the public sector taught me the importance of creating policies that eliminate barriers to successful developments. My experiences as both a designer and planner inspired me to explore the third piece of the urban development puzzle: real estate finance and economics. By learning how today’s real estate interests and investments can drive great design and policymaking for the future, I hope to develop truly smart and sustainable communities!
Why did you choose UC Berkeley's MRED+D program?
First, developers have the resources and opportunity to truly shape the city, and I want to be a part of that. Second, I believe that one cannot build successful urban development without understanding both the real estate and design interests at stake. Fortunately, UC Berkeley’s MRED + D program prepares urban actors to do just this. Third, I want to be an urban disruptor and innovator. Berkeley is the first school I have found that offers a degree that I truly believe will help me think differently about urban environments. Indeed, this unique program is intended to educate, inspire and empower a new generation of socially, sustainably and design-driven development professionals. This is exactly what I want to be.
What do you think are the most important qualities a leader in real estate development should have?
I believe that real estate leaders should lead by example. Great development and smart investments in one’s urban community inspire others to also develop, invest and lead. By sharing our leadership and the responsibilities that come with it, we can all grow stronger together. We must also provide a shared vision around which others can rally. This way we can work collaboratively together with other developers as well as civic and community leaders to transform our urban landscapes for the better. Leadership, at the end of the day, is truly a team effort.
What do you think are the biggest barriers that women must overcome in real estate development?
While statistically there are far fewer women in real estate development than men, I have learned to see this first and foremost as an opportunity rather than a challenge. I believe that we as women are able to bring unique perspectives and skillsets to the table which can be particularly helpful when it comes to seeing the big picture and building stakeholder support and consensus. This sets us apart in the room, but also makes us critical team members. While gender is far from everything, I think that in many cases, being a woman in development simply makes it all the easier for you to stand out in the very best sorts of ways. I am grateful to have found both men and women eager and willing to help me succeed as a young woman in the field.
Why do you think it's important to promote a "Yes-In-My-Back-Yard" approach to urban development?
I deeply believe in encouraging our civic leadership to enable, entitle and engage innovative approaches to urban design and development citywide. I am a particularly strong proponent for the advantageous redevelopment of public lands and urban infill initiatives that bring economic growth and development to our city. That being said, we must do it right. Being a good “YIMBY” isn’t just about saying yes to any development — it’s about saying yes to development that moves our city forward through great policy and design.
How can public space and public art become a more important part of new real estate development?
I love living in and learning from the city on a daily basis. My passion for urban development stems from a deep desire to design and inspire neighborhoods with beautiful public spaces and intriguing public art. However, I believe great open spaces must go hand-in-hand with great density and design. I love the dense urban fabrics that make these open spaces feel so vibrant and special. Through savvy and socially-minded development, I would like to play a role in bringing this kind of energy and density to neighborhoods in need, along with the social, ecological and economic benefits of great new open spaces.
What excites you most about the future of real estate development?
Development today is a story of re-development, and I think that’s great! I’m so excited to play a role in reinventing and reinvigorating our urban landscapes. Our cities are constantly changing. Urban infill and brownfield development give us the chance to continuously reimagine our cities and move us towards a rich urban future together.
Visit the Master of Real Estate Development and Design webpage for more information about the program.