An Interview with Jee Mee Kim, Principal at HR&A Advisors
by Jee Mee Kim
May 17, 2018
This interview with Jee Mee Kim, principal at HR&A Advisors, was conducted and condensed by frank news.
What is the role of an advisory firm in relation to government agencies, city planning, and architects? How do you fall in to that mix?
Our work is really focused on helping cities. Either at the level of a private developer or a land owner trying to figure out what they should build on their site or helping the mayor of the city determine how to create an economic revitalization strategy that will bring jobs and reinvigorate downtowns and position them for the next economy. So, it really varies.
We also have a lot of open space and transit projects. For open space projects in particular, we help clients think through creating a design that is respectful of the urban context and supports their vision and goals? We help clients think of ways to pay for upfront costs of construction and ongoing maintenance, often through real estate as a vehicle for funding.
We also help clients think through the political and community buy-in needed for a project of scale and impact . It boils down to bringing all of those different pieces and perspectives together to create and help shepherd a project along that both satisfies the public goals as well as private interest.
We like to talk about ourselves as being positioned between public and private sectors.
Public projects like parks and transit stations create value around the neighborhoods where they're located.
Which projects do you see as a passion?
I've been exposed to a lot of places that are not big cities. I've been a planner for almost 20 years and spent most of my time in New York. Recently I started to get projects in the Midwest. I've been spending a lot of time in Indiana which is having a bit of an economic boom. For example, Indianapolis is really thriving: Salesforce just located its second headquarters there.
There are so many small cities across the US that are thriving and doing really innovation, interesting things. And some of these cities are former Rust Belt cities that are reinventing themselves. As New Yorkers, big city dwellers, we tend to think we’re the center of the universe
What I'm seeing across the board, are more and more communities embracing urbanism.
These places that are in the middle of cornfields that have traditionally been very auto-centric. Maybe have a small Main Street, but these places are largely single detached homes with the yard and garage.
They're really trying to embrace this downtown urban model because they realize now that jobs are following talent rather than the other way around.
If they want to entice young people, professionals, and if they want to grow their population, they need to create places that are like the neighborhoods of New York.
As a consultant, I have the privilege of being able to travel across the country and see so many different types of projects. I love being able to share what I see and learn with my clients all over the country and even now in Saudi Arabia.
We keep hearing that young, expanding families are choosing to move out of New York to other cities, rather than to the suburbs.
I'm totally seeing that. I think places like Indianapolis and Pittsburgh, are realizing they have competitive edge because the quality of life is still pretty good. But the housing costs and the cost of living are so much lower.
They're trying to figure out, how do we create these amenitized communities that can really attract people who once lived in New York or Chicago or LA, and entice them to come to their cities? They're really making investments in their downtowns, parks, and waterfronts. That's really cool.
How do you see this playing out as a planner? What are your biggest concerns and hopes?
I think there's a running debate. I was just at a planning conference, and I was on a couple of panels talking about the future with autonomous vehicles.
There's a lot of debate about whether autonomous vehicles are going to increase the population of cities, and promote transit even more, because people will want to be in these close-knit quarters.
The other scenario is that because you have broader and cheaper accessibility to AV technology, people will want to live even further out. We'll see greater sprawl. We'll see more cars and more driving.
Obviously, it's unknown right now. What I think is really positive is the move towards creating these downtowns. It's really heartening because a lot of these places, especially the Main Streets that we're looking at, those Main Street retailers have suffered over the past 30 years. The discussion you hear a lot is there's still a future for brick and mortar retail because people want to go to a store where they can have an experience. I think of Warby Parker, that revolutionized how you purchase glasses. I was in a Warby Parker and I said, "there's never a crowd like this at a LensCrafters."
They used to feel special going to the mall because they could get out of the house. But now that's not enough because the mall is online.
I think that's what cities are embracing now, that they have assets they can take advantage of. I think on the optimistic side, with more people living in cities instead of living in these big sprawling suburbs, where you're driving everywhere, land value is tied to walkability. There are clear statistics that having access to transit, parks, and bikeable, pedestrian friendly streets, actually increases property values. It's this virtual cycle of what makes a great place.
But the suburban revolution, is it really over? No, the suburbs are actually trying to figure out what to do now. How do we become relevant again?
What are your thoughts on loneliness? When you're driving your car alone there's loneliness, highways, loneliness, shopping online, loneliness. We're craving human interaction, and I wonder if this psychology factors into your work.
How people are experiencing technology is changing, social norms are changing, and so many people work from home. They work these off hours, and somebody could have made the case, well, we won't need offices anymore. But WeWork spaces and coworking spaces are so popular. People are willing to pay money to be surrounded by other people, even if they have nothing to do with the business that they're in. Maybe it is the loneliness. Being at home and working all day in your pajamas isn't all that interesting.
Secondly, people still thrive on the social interaction and the bumping into each other and sharing ideas and this notion of the agglomeration. There's a reason why institutions and hospitals are clustered together. Because of that bumping into each other.
That's really the basis of cities, people need to be close to each other to share ideas and create better ones.
As planners we always think about those spaces. There's a reason why public plazas are so popular. There's a reason why people are craving sidewalks, and bike lanes, and nice parks.
It's intrinsic to the human condition. Cars and the highway revolution took some of that away. There's still a place for it, I'm not going talk about it as someone who wants that one-acre lot with a yard. We should still provide options. I think if we can create better cities, it's going go a long way for everyone.
Density and cities go hand-in-hand. It makes more environmental sense to build in the city. Every time you add another building in the suburbs, you're stretching out your infrastructure.
You're creating more vehicle miles, more travel - there's just more of an impact. Whereas you add a 10-story, 20-story tower in Manhattan, most of those people are going take transit or walk or bike.
In a past job, I worked on the Barclays Center Arena. People were freaking out. I worked on the transportation side and said, "well, you're putting an arena up. It's like Madison Square Garden on top of one of the best served transit hubs in the city." It's probably unprecedented to have an arena so well-served by transit. Would you rather have it here, over in some less dense location, where you're going have to create all this economic activity? We can guarantee a lot of people who come are not going to come by car.
Where does community come into that?
Well, that's the thing about planners, and this is where we can get more on the fuzzy side because so much of the work we do has to do with community engagement. In some cases, it's not just about notifying people that some project is happening. I would say 80% of the projects I do, there is some form of robust community engagement where you're getting people's feedback. I think the multidisciplinary folks I work with, generally are very attuned to recognizing the history of the community and recognizing the different tensions and dynamics of a place. What you're getting at is how do you deal when a neighborhood changes? When a neighborhood increases in value? Are you displacing people? What happens to the folks who can no longer afford to live there?
We've been spending more time in recent years, really thinking about how you do inclusive development and inclusive planning. How do you create more opportunities for affordable housing? How do you mitigate the impacts of just creating a place and only thinking about space? You have to think about the people. That is part and parcel of all of the projects we work on. How do you make sure that the economic and social benefits of a new investment, of a new project, of a new building, don't just serve one group? Especially in many communities, you have these historical neighborhoods that have always been underserved. How do you make sure those benefits occur to those folks?
It's not just affordable housing. It's workforce development, it's public education, access to parks and schools. It's everything.
What's one piece of technology you're really excited about that you think it going have a big impact on city planning?
I've learned a lot about autonomous vehicles recently. I think transportation has informed the way our cities look, has informed the way our communities look. I think we take so much transportation related stuff for granted.
If you think about places like Houston, 65% of Houston is comprised of street parking. That's a tremendous amount of real estate that is dedicated to the car.
The way we move is so important. New York is such an exciting place because it's easy to get from point A to B, barring New York City traffic issues. With new transportation coming online, it's going to change the way our places look. It's going to change behaviors. It's going to change economy. There's a lot of talk about what happens when trucks become autonomous? What happens to all those truck drivers? It has this ripple effect, and I don't think we really figured that out.
How did you come to this profession? What's your background?
Some people are fascinated with their cities as children, that's what they do. I always liked to draw. I went to school, and I got a BFA in Painting. I painted landscapes. I loved that. And then I got an American Studies degree at the same time, and I did a lot of research on immigration and cities. And then, when I was an undergrad, I got tired of naval gazing. That's what I called it. I got tired of being an artist. I became really active doing community organizing work, mostly in New York's Chinatown, doing tenant organizing, vendor organizing, youth development.
As I was working on a volunteer basis and having other jobs, I thought I should go to planning school because that's going make me be a better organizer. I felt like there were certain things we wanted from the city, but I didn't understand how you get to the actual implementation. When I went to planning school, I was set in my ways. I'm going to be in the nonprofit grassroots sector forever, and I graduated and I needed a job. And there was a small company called Sam Schwartz Engineering, and I thought I would stay there for a year because I needed work.
They had a marketing position. I didn't know anything about the business of consulting. I didn't know what marking did. I didn't know what engineers did. I just took the job. And then about 14 years later, I decided to leave.
I did all sorts of work from doing land use approvals in the city, environmental review, transportation planning projects, to building up a great network of people around me. And then I came to HR&A. A firm I worked with a lot in the past. I was always fascinated by economic development and real estate, and more recently on issues of resilience and dealing with the impact of climate change. So, I ended up here. It's just an interesting career, because you really do get to do so many different things, meet so many different people, and go to so many different communities.
As a consultant, I would say consulting is not for everyone. It can be a little crazy, and also, it's really a business, right? There are some down cycles that you have to muddle through, but then there's also intense moments where you get 10 jobs at once. I find it exciting because I don't think I could work on the same project for four years. A lot of learning, and I really like that.