Experienced Professionals Get Intense in New USC Degree Program
By Matthew Kredell
When members of the first ever Executive Master in Urban Planning degree cohort arrived at USC for an on-campus intensive, they felt like they already knew each other.
There were hugs and queries about family. The group of working professionals from across the country, and even the world, bonded so closely over the previous four months of online classes, group emails and conference calls that it was almost like seeing old friends.
“You don’t expect people who have never seen each other to come up and hug each other when they meet for the first time, but that happened when they congregated for the intensive,” said Allan Kotin, an adjunct professor in urban planning at USC Price. “It was quite a marvel to watch. The intensive was incredibly successful because the students had actually bonded online.”
Designed to bridge the gap between good planning practice and the economics of urban development for rising executives with five to seven years of experience in a related field, the Executive Master in Urban Planning (EMUP) program drew students from the planning profession, real estate development, nonprofit community corporations and architectural firms.
Students came from nine states, and one flew in all the way from Beijing to attend the intensive.
“The University did an amazing job of picking a diverse group of people that complement each other with different backgrounds and different experiences,” said George Giaquinto, who is pursuing the degree while serving as senior vice president of development for Howard Hughes Corporation.
After the warm greetings, the students had to get to work. It’s called an intensive for a reason.
Planning and development case study
Culminating the first half of the accelerated 16-month program, the four-day intensive held from April 26 to 29 was split into two courses. Over the first two days, Kotin led the students in completing a planning and development case study.
In online courses taught during the semester by Kotin and adjunct professor Donald Spivack, groups of students put together reports on six prominent real estate development projects.
During the intensive, they turned an analytical eye toward three of those projects – the Inglewood Stadium, El Monte Gateway and Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn.
“For the intensive, we shifted focus from reporting on what had happened to critiquing what happened,” said Marcia Jensen, a member of the town council, vice mayor and former mayor for Los Gatos, Calif . “We looked at it more critically – what could they have done better, what worked, what didn’t work, and how did economics affect it?”
The students provided suggestions for improving each project.
In critiquing the Inglewood Stadium project, the students noted the displacement already being noticed in the area for a project that offered no affordable housing across 2,500 units and no community benefit plan.
“The intensive really did its job in getting students to think about the broader policy issues and interactions that each project drove,” Kotin said.
They presented their work to a panel that included USC Price Professor Richard K. Green, director of the Lusk Center for Real Estate.
“I am impressed with the EMUP cohort’s preparation and professionalism,” Green said. “Those developing the projects the students discussed would benefit from their insights.”
Designing Livable Environments
USC Price associate professor Liz Falletta took over for the final two days of the intensive, focusing the students on designing a potential development for the Felix Chevrolet car dealership adjacent to campus.
The first step in the design process was a visit to the site. The students then were asked to consider future development given the site’s history and social environment, of course utilizing the iconic Felix sign.
“The goal was to give them some firsthand experience with the design process in a very short amount of time,” Falletta said. “Each group evaluated proposals from each individual member and chose one as the best strategy to develop a little further.”
The ideas explored for development on the property were:
- Transform Village: A transit-oriented, mixed-use, mixed-income development that will connect the community by offering diverse housing types built above food- and wellness-focused retail, restaurants and experiences; all anchored by a culinary incubator/shared commercial kitchen, food market and community garden.
- Learn Like a Local: Short-term housing and education resources for students enrolled in degrees of short-term study.
- Felix the Cat Entertainment/Animation Movieplex: An entertainment hub and live/work center that creates professional opportunity to film students along with a movieplex, outdoor theater, restaurants, walkable retail and open space for students.
- Sustainability Village: An inclusive multi-generational community creating a sustainable living opportunity, and providing environmentally focused entrepreneurship incubators and needed social services.
- Urban Artisan Village: Traditional housing, live/work lofts and maker space.
The design process was challenging for many in the cohort.
“The second intensive was an exercise in getting us to think spatially, identify the positive aspects and challenges of the site and then to think through iteratively on how to embrace and address those site qualities,” Giaquinto said. “As uncomfortable as it was for me to draw, it was such a valuable exercise in that it forced us to think more deeply about the planning for the space.”
Students seeing benefit of EMUP program
Even the most experienced professionals are experiencing how the urban planning degree can advance their careers.
At 55 years old, Giaquinto had long wanted to pursue an advanced degree. Even though he has had a successful 30-year career in leading the development, renovation or restoration of projects upward of $50 million, he saw an EMUP degree as potentially having value later in his career.
“I could not be more pleased with the program,” Giaquinto said. “The team involved has thought through the technology, the approach, the curriculum, and provided amazing support.”
Jensen saw pursuing the degree as a good way to round out her skill set in case she wants to go into a career outside of government.
However, she also has found the lessons useful for her role with Los Gatos. At a town council meeting discussion on an affordable housing program, she relayed what she had learned in class about ways Los Angeles is capturing dollars that a developer may have gotten based on a city decision. She recommended the town implement such strategies to fund affordable housing, and her ideas were referred to the policy committee for further discussion.
“There’s already been value added for me from the program,” Jensen said.
The longest-serving adjunct professor at the Price School, teaching since 1986, Kotin helped shape the structure of the EMUP program. He sees the program as providing an important service in linking how urban planning interacts with real estate development in the public, private and nonprofit sectors.
“I advocated very heavily for this degree program because it takes advantage of what the Price School is, which is a multidisciplinary environment,” Kotin said. “I don’t think this course could have naturally occurred at any other school because it would have crossed school boundaries.”