CNUdc Interview Series: Matt Hurson

In 2012 Catherine Vanderwaart interned with CNUdc, and she interviewed several of our active members. Read about the great work they do and their thoughts about DC.

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How did you get involved in new urbanism?

I went to Georgia Tech, graduated in 1980 and moved to Houston to look for work because that’s where the jobs were at that time. I got a job with Hines, which was the biggest landlord in Houston and just beginning to expand nationally. With Hines I worked in Minneapolis, then Hartford, then New York City where I worked on an elegant office building in midtown commonly known as the “Lipstick Building.” The company’s model was to work with globally recognized architects for office buildings. While in architecture school I had followed Andrés Duany, who co-founded Architectonica in Miami in the late 70s.

I left Hines in 1988 and moved back to the DC area to work with my family. A few years later I saw a report in the Washington Post titled “A Report Card on the Kentlands,” an innovative project planned by Duany in a community near where I grew up. We put the kids in the van to go see it, and I was fascinated. I had promised myself I’d never live in the suburbs, and we’d loved living on the Upper West Side when we were in New York. We were then living in St. Michael’s, Maryland and thought we’d died and gone to heaven. But when I saw the Kentlands, I thought I could live there with my dignity intact. My wife and I bought a lot in 1995 and built our own home. I drank the CNU Kool-Aid, and have been following the movement ever since.

How did your career evolve from there?

After a second stint with Hines leading a data center platform that was scuttled in the late-2000 tech bust, I went to work with the JBG Companies, where I worked on a couple of sites in Montgomery County that turned into great transit-oriented development. I came back to Hines in early 2006, when they were starting to see a future in residential and mixed use. We closed on a transit-oriented development site last May, a 5.5-acre retail site next to the Twinbrook Metro Station where we are planning to build 660 apartments. We recently submitted a response to an RFQ for a county-owned site near Shady Grove Hospital, master planned for about 2,000 units of housing with a planned bus rapid transit station in the middle of the development. The planning team is led by Stefanos Polyzoides, a brilliant planner I’ve been trying to work with for some time. Mike Watkins, a local architect and Kentlands neighbor who ran DPZ’s DC office, is also on our team. My hope is that if the metro area can grow like this, in 50 years we will have a better community than we have today and my three kids can find a place to live in the county they grew up in.

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How has your work at Hines changed over the years?

I’m a managing director at Hines, which has traditionally specialized in trophy-quality central business district office space. They’re deeply into sustainability, all about LEED Silver, Gold, Platinum. I made the point that the demand for newly constructed office space is in decline. Demographics are shifting. Population is rising, but the office-using population isn’t.

What I do is more oriented to suburban mixed-use development. A key component of sustainability is managing growth. People visiting our office from Cleveland or Detroit look at us struggling with traffic, and they think we’re really lucky to have that problem, that the region has to manage its success. We have to find ways that the community can grow but every year consume less land. In an average year there are 35,000 new units of housing built in the DC area. Stopping that is in no one’s interest, so we have to manage it and create good places to live instead of the kind of desolate places I saw growing up in the DC suburbs as a kid.

My job is to do the grunt work to secure sites so people like Andrés and Stefanos can do their creative work. Maybe my desire to work with really creative designers is a continuing attachment to the profession I left behind when I went to work in development. I have found that most successful architecture firms are a partnership between the creative guy and the administrative guy. If I’d stayed in architecture, I would have definitely been the admin guy.

At Hines, when I want to work with a guy like Stefanos who is three thousand miles away, our execs “get it” and it’s accepted. At a lot of other firms, it wouldn’t be, but that’s what Hines does. They work on signature architecture, quality design, and long-term ownership.

How did you get interested in demographics, and how has it influenced your work?

If I could go back to grad school, I’d go back for sociology, which I would have laughed at when I was younger. In the mid-2000s, one of the senior executives at Hines, Ken Hubbard, was aware of the decline in the demand for new office space. He said we should start looking at product types other than office, which the firm had perfected since it was founded in the late 1950s. I was assigned the responsibility to manage forecasting analysis focused on residential development. I did a lot of reading, attended conferences, and brought in some consultants for detailed studies. We learned that with the retirement of the baby boomers, and the dip in population between the boomers and the echo boom, there will be a dip in the need for office space. This demographic premise is linked to the housing bubble, credit crunch, and other economic events we are living through.

Early in my studies, I was handed a paper by the economist Harry Dent on real estate and demographics, and I was fascinated. I attended a demographics course he offered and read a couple of books by Neil Howe and William Strauss, Generations and The Fourth Turning. I could safely say those books changed my life. They’re about identifying recurring changes and trends, patterns in how parents raise their kids and expanding that to patterns beyond childrearing. When you read Generations, you say “what’s next?” The book describes 85-year cycles of prosperity, anxiety, crisis, and war, and we’re in entering of one of those crisis cycles right now.

My career has been characterized by identifying an exciting new thing and then just as I have it pulled together, the market crumbles. I was born in ’57 at the absolute peak of the boomer birth curve. These books and the study of demographics helped me understand that my lousy timing is not an accident. I incorporate this new knowledge into everything I do -– to the extent my wife and kids will volunteer to do the dishes if a guest accidentally brings it up at dinner. I am presently focused on the needs of the echo-boom generation, generally with the development of apartments. There will be an economic recovery, and it will be led by my kids’ generation. Unfortunately, the good times will really get underway when my 25-year-old son enters his big earning and spending years when he’s about 40.

What do you think of the work being done in DC right now?

There are a lot of planning departments in the area that really get it. Montgomery County, Fairfax County, Prince George’s County, and DC are all guiding new growth towards transit and towards existing areas. They’re downzoning rural areas. A textbook case is the White Flint Metro area in Montgomery County, which is a model collaboration between the municipality and the development community.

There’s a lot of good work going on, but some things are left out. No one is analyzing affordability. There’s an emphasis on density, which often means high-rise buildings with underground parking. Inclusionary zoning is a political fig leaf, with long waiting lists. It’s turned the market upside down. Traditionally you have much more housing for middle-income than for high-income, but what we’re seeing is 80 or 90 percent of new housing for higher incomes, and 10 or 15 percent left over for affordable- to moderate-income working families. The regulations are causing the decline of middle-income housing because you need higher rents in the rest of the units to make up the income on the regulated units. Newly created housing outprices the average worker, which forces a “drive ‘til you qualify” situation.

People think new urbanism is elite, and I wish we could change that. The industry and planning bureaucracy need to address that, because there’s some important work going on. The planning innovation I see at CNU Congresses now, my colleagues will see in ten years at development conferences like the Urban Land Institute's.

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