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A Conversation With John Alschuler

A Conversation With John Alschuler

“Nobody has to be a poet, but if you feel like that’s what you have to do, it’s at least better to try.”

John Alschuler is Chairman of HR&A Advisors in New York.

Francis Aguillard (FA): Did you study Urban Planning?

John Alschuler (JA): Never, no. When I was an undergraduate, my interest was 19th century intellectual history. I focused on the evolution of thought in Europe during the 19th century. I wasn’t sure what I would become, but I decided first and foremost I wanted to be an educator. So by a somewhat odd process I ended up getting a doctorate in education. I have very little training as an educator because I went to school at a time when formal training wasn’t particularly important, at least in the school where I was studying.

In terms of urbanism, urban design, real estate economics, and politics—the things that I practice—I am entirely self-taught.

Sarah Whiting (SW): Do you think that is still possible today? Or do you think those areas have been more professionalized? It’s not that you’re a thousand years old and that was so long ago—

JA: —It was a long time ago. The answer is yes, it’s entirely possible. My company has about 100 people in it, and I hire about fifteen people a year. I hire five or six young people right out of their undergraduate degrees; some have studied urban planning or architecture, some haven’t, and they’re just wickedly smart and interesting. Right now the technology of knowledge acquisition is radically different than it was previously; you can acquire so much. Some of the leaders of my company are people who have no formal training and are substantially younger. But we’re an odd company in that we succeed by integrating multiple disciplines. We integrate real estate economics, we integrate politics, and we integrate urban design.

The most successful attributes of somebody who is a leader in my company—there are really two. One is a good integrator, to be able to connect economics and design to politics, which gets taught nowhere. And two, they have to have immense courage, because we move around the country, we deal with multiple projects. All the interesting projects are sui generis. They’re not replications.

Most consulting companies become successful by becoming very disciplined experts in a single field. It’s like an architecture firm that has chosen to be the best firm in the world in the design of hospital interiors. The big firms get big because they become incredibly good at doing very few things. Since my firm is fundamentally about integration, we can’t function like that. We’re constantly being asked to go somewhere, to a city we don’t know, so we have to have immense courage as learners. Neither of those attributes are teachable.

SW: To students I think working in an integrated fashion makes sense, because that’s what we ask them to do. It also makes sense in today’s world. How you start a firm that gains enough expertise to where people will come to you for that expertise when it’s not a typical consulting firm? How does that happen?

JA: It happens, at least in my instance, very slowly and painfully. You start a business like mine like you choose to become a playwright or become an artist. It’s not a rational choice. If you decide to become architects or planners or lawyers, doctors, people understand what that is. At some point everybody needs an architect, right? At some point everybody needs a lawyer, right? Not everybody needs an urbanist. Not many people have a clue what I do.

I founded the firm mostly because I couldn’t find a place I wanted to work. I looked at what was available, and it was unimaginable to me that I could work in any of these places. Like a lot of entrepreneurs I couldn’t imagine having a boss—that was unimaginable to me. So working for somebody didn’t feel good to me.

Second, none of them would hire me to do what I wanted to do. When you’re in your mid-thirties, it’s time to do what you want to do. You know, you can experiment in your twenties, but at some point, your time of your great professional richness sort of starts in your late thirties, early forties, sometimes younger. I wanted to be doing what I really wanted to be doing, so I had to start my own firm. It was extremely difficult. I had very few clients and not much money for many years. It took me five years until I could hire a secretary; it took me seven or eight years until I could hire my first staff person. Gradually, you develop a reputation, you develop a network, people begin to know you, and things build.

Gradually we became what we are today, which is 100 people operating out of five cities in a very successful business model. But it’s a very odd business model. It’s both terrific and it’s terrible. It’s terrific in the sense that I have virtually no competition, because nobody else does what I do. On the other end, if there’s no competition, what that tells you is that the market is teeny. If this was a big market, there’d be a lot of people doing it. I have a huge marketshare of a very small market. It works for me, I love it, but it’s an act of affirmation—there are easier ways to do what you want to do. Nobody has to be a poet, but if you feel like that’s what you have to do, it’s at least better to try. It was certainly better for me.

FA: I’m wondering if you see your role as understanding what types of incentives and political atmosphere and what type of energy there is and then responding to that? Or if ever bleeds into lobbying for a certain outcome or a certain proposition that a city is voting on that would really help a project? Let’s say you’re working on affordable housing in Chicago and there’s a bill saying “Let’s fund this through raising taxes.” Would you say “Yes we explicitly support this?” Or, “Let’s observe and respond either way?”

JA: I have no interest in being an observer. As you can probably tell I have lots of opinions and I’m not bashful about showing them, but I don’t judge my firm by the clarity of our opinions or the elegance of our work. I judge my firm’s success by, “Did we get things built? Did things happen? Did we change policy? Did the project occur? Am I proud of it at the end?”

I have two very different roles. Cities are all very different but they’re all kind of the same. The dynamics of race and class and power and money have infinite varieties but they’re varieties of the same story, in one way or another. I can figure it out pretty quickly in a lot of cities, so I give people advice about how to do it.

My role in New York is different. I’ve been there thirty-five years and am, for whatever reason, somewhat respected by a pretty wide range of people in and out of government, so there I am a direct and active participant. You may not have used the word as technically as I’m going to imply it, but you hire a lobbyist to go argue for you, like you hire a lawyer to argue your case. I won’t do that kind of work. At of times people will come to me in New York and say, “John, we want you to go talk to the mayor, we want you to go talk to the governor.” I won’t do that. My credibility is not for hire on that basis. But if I have a project I’ve worked up and I believe in it and I know it and I care about it, then it’s a pleasure for me to go talk to mayors and governors and city council people, people in communities, neighborhood meetings, civic associations, churches, and PTAs. A lot of the work I do really starts out at a grassroots level.

I worked for five years on Brooklyn Bridge Park. It is, I think, one of the great parks built in America in the last twenty years. It was immensely controversial. We spent two years going school by school, church by church, recreation center by recreation center, to get citizens to understand and care what we wanted to do, because we were trying to reinvent what an American park was, which I think we did very successfully, but it was a very radical reinterpretation of what park land is in New York City. We had to run it like a political campaign, because the idea was useless if we couldn’t get it built. It was a bitter, bitter fight which, frankly, continues to this day. There’s still bitterness and division in the community over pretty much the same issues that we fought about in 1998, and are still fighting about today.

FA: I meant “lobbying” definitely more in that latter sense of advocacy, in the way you described.

JA: Advocacy for urbanism is an art form in itself. What’s particularly hard is, what we’re doing are things that people by and large can’t imagine. They’re not design professionals. Most people, I would say probably rightfully, don’t trust change. Change, for most neighborhoods in urban America, has not been kind to them. They’re usually worse off at the end than they were in the beginning. So to say, “Hi, I’m here to change your neighborhood”—that’s not what you say, but that’s kind of what you’re doing, right? It’s the fact that you start off with mistrust and a lot of understandable fear. I’m a somewhat affluent white man talking to, by and large, people of color who have a very different socioeconomic position in New York City. There are a lot of reasons for them not to trust me very much. It takes a lot of time, and you have to go very slowly, and you have to go very respectfully, and you have to genuinely convince people. That takes an immense amount of time and care. You have to listen, you have to be willing to change your mind. It’s among the more important arts.

It’s very different in Houston. Because you don’t have zoning, it gives you a very odd governmental structure here, odd by American standards, with enormous advantages and enormous disadvantages. Ninety-five percent of the architecture and planning profession is very bad at it. They’re very didactic, there’s a lot of arrogance, there’s a lot of “Good design should be self-evident.” There’s a lot of phoniness. Give everybody a little sticker and have them write what they want and have them paste it on a map and say “I want this, I want that,” which is usually just a bunch of bullshit. It’s usually fakery.

Your question was about outreach, so the answer is yes, you have to. Unlike a building, urbanity—really important urbanity—happens over a generation. It takes that long. You can build a building in three to six years; you can’t build urbanism in three to six years. One thing I always tell my clients is, there are going to be several mayors, there are going to be multiple governors, there are going to be different city council people, so you have to figure out who’s not going away. Who is constant?

At Brooklyn Bridge Park, we’ve been through three mayors. We started with Rudy Giuliani, we ended up with Michael Bloomberg, and now we have Mayor de Blasio. My guess is those three people don’t agree on the time of day. [laughter] Three radically different human beings. They were all extraordinarily supportive of the park because they understood we built a base there that couldn’t be ignored.

When you’re doing urbanism, you have to think about a generation, and how you build a constituency that will last a generation.

This text is edited from a conversation that took place at Rice University in Houston on October 29, 2018.

HR&A Advisors is currently working with Rice Management Company on its redevelopment of the Sears building in Midtown Houston into an innovation district. See this article for one critique of the project.

Thumbnail image of Brooklyn Bridge Park courtesy Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates Inc.

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