Building the Future

Urban Land Institute of Iowa bridges a gap in sustainable urban planning.

Terms like “organic,” “natural,” and “sustainable” are tossed about and applied to anything from lipstick to home furnishings. They might be buzz words in many marketing campaigns, but when it comes to real estate development, those terms are more than popular adjectives. They also represent the way forward-thinking professionals approach land development and community planning issues.

The Iowa District Council of the Urban Land Institute (ULI) is founded on principles rooted in the past but with a clear vision of the future. Its goal is to help Iowa communities grow intentionally with that vision of an organic, naturally evolving neighborhood in mind.

Larry James, an attorney with Faegre Baker Daniels in Des Moines, chair of ULI Iowa, explains, “Sustainability is a way of thinking. And one of the unique things about ULI is that its members recognize that. But they’re also business people. You can’t expect to build sustainably if it doesn’t pencil out, so their sustainability has to be profit-driven or they’re out of business.”

This, he says, is what makes ULI unique, compared to other organizations focused on the environment. ULI offers a realistic, practical approach to green ideas such as walkability, accessible transit, and retail centers that also provide housing. These are concepts that have become more than ideals, and ULI’s diverse membership, which represents professions across the real estate spectrum, can approach these issues from multiple perspectives.

“The market is demanding this now,” James says. “And ULI is really the only organization that bridges that gap” between the ideal and reality.

“All these concepts are market-driven, and things like Capital Crossroads and the Healthy State Initiative are a natural outgrowth of that. ULI is the organization that can show us what’s coming down the pipeline so we can help all these initiatives work together,” adds member Meg Schneider of the Greater Des Moines Partnership.

With members representing real estate development, urban planning, architecture and engineering, real estate law, and more, ULI Iowa brings those diverse perspectives together to evaluate community needs, provide development recommendations, and offer advice on working together to accomplish mutual goals.

ULI is an international organization with more than 36,000 members around the world. Because of that international backing, it offers the ULI Iowa District Council a wealth of resources that a strictly local group could not possibly provide on its own.

Member Aimee Staudt of Knapp Properties explains, “A lot of what we do at ULI is to provide programming around many existing initiatives, like Capital Crossroads and the Tomorrow Plan, to help more communities and development professionals understand what’s going on and how we can each play a role in our various, changing communities.”

Just as ULI bridges the gap between ideals and reality, the ULI Iowa District Council provides the bridge between local initiatives and the international database that ULI offers, including

  • Resources from multidisciplinary membership
  • Research on national trends and best practices
  • Information on all product types, including residential to commercial and multiuse, and how other markets are implementing these trends
  • Research on the much larger issues affecting development, such as adequate affordable housing, development planning for a growing gentrified market, and designing appropriate infrastructure for future development

The Iowa District Council, which began just over a year ago, has already hosted several events around the state to highlight projects that exemplify the ULI philosophy. One of those, held in Ankeny this past July, offered a look back at the Prairie Trail Development and its evolving plan.

“That was a perfect example of what we’re trying to do at ULI,” Schneider says. “Prairie Trail has been many years in the making, and what they’ve had to do to adapt their ideal plan to a changing market, to a quickly growing community, in the midst of an economic downturn is a great demonstration of how these sustainable, walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods can work.”

Upcoming events include a tour of the ISU Foundry project in Ames and a walking tour of several key redevelopment projects in Dubuque.

Although some ULI activities are member-only events, most are open to anyone interested in understanding the role sustainable urban planning has in viable community growth.

James, who specializes in real estate law, first got involved with the national ULI as a law student at Drake.

“I was interested in all those issues around urban planning—sustainability, transportation planning. If I weren’t a lawyer, I’d probably be in urban planning,” he says. “So ULI allows me to see both sides of the issues, and my firm has been very supportive of that.”

As a new organization, the Iowa District Council of ULI is in a rapid-growth phase; new members join as each event takes place.

“We have a variety of committees, membership levels, and initiatives, so there’s something for everyone. And we truly value those varied perspectives. We even have a Young Leaders Council for students and professionals 35 and younger who are interested in urban planning,” Staudt adds.

James says, “Anyone in the industry who wants to be kept abreast of what’s going on should really get involved in ULI. There’s definitely a networking aspect to it, but the best part is getting to know people across industries in a nonadversarial way. We’re trying to take all our goals and see how they can work together to not just make a profit, but to do it right, to do good.”

As its website states, “ULI Iowa is where thought leaders gather to facilitate the exploration, education, and adoption of responsible land use, smart growth, and sustainability in urban development.”

That’s where ideals meet reality and the future is built.

Tour ISU’s Campustown Project: The Foundry

The Foundry project, a redevelopment of the former campus bookstore property in Ames, is just under 19,000 square feet and includes underground parking, first-floor retail, and five levels of student apartments. Opus Development Company implemented creative project management to demolish the existing structure, excavate the site, and manage logistics within the neighborhood.
The tour will take place on Thursday, November 12, departing Des Moines at 11 a.m. and returning to Des Moines around 2 p.m. To register and learn more, visit the ULI Iowa website.

You can also check out upcoming ULI Iowa events on the website’s calendar:

Interested in learning more?

Visit the ULI Iowa website at