By Eric Ruble
Determined to make cities more livable for everyone, two architects are turning to the USC Price School of Public Policy’s Dollinger Master of Real Estate Development (MRED) program. While Justin Cua and Cara O’Brien are ultimately pursuing different careers, both students share an ethos that the best urban environments are those designed for all.
O’Brien began working as an urban designer at Urban Design Associates (UDA) upon graduating from the University of Notre Dame with a degree in architecture. The Pittsburgh-based firm is one of the oldest American agencies of its kind, and was founded in 1964 with a mission to improve equity in cities.
At UDA, O’Brien worked with developers and cities to design mixed-use projects and low-income housing around the U.S. and abroad. However, she says her role as a designer sometimes limited her influence on a project.
“As people move back into cities and land becomes more scarce, it’s going to become more important that housing doesn’t just serve the rich,” she said. “The developer is really the one that holds more control of the situation.”
By receiving her master’s in real estate development at USC Price, she hopes to have a greater impact on the final product. “It’s really about stepping into a role where I can have more control of the situation, understand it better, and hopefully make a better result.”
Equity at the center of housing policy
O’Brien was specifically drawn to USC’s MRED program because it is housed in a public policy school.
“It’s unique for a real estate development master’s. A lot of them are housed within the school of architecture, which is a background I already had, or within the business school,” she said.
With her sights set on one day launching her own firm, she also spoke with MRED alumni who have started their own companies.
“Talking to a lot of the entrepreneurs that came out of the program, it’s exciting stuff,” O’Brien said.
The MRED curriculum covers a wide spectrum of topics, and not all of them came naturally to O’Brien. She was particularly challenged by Associate Professor Christian Redfearn’s class, Finance of Real Estate Development (RED 542).
“He teaches the nuts and bolts of real estate finance, but he does it very qualitatively. You’ve got to learn the finance, you’ve got to learn the math, but he’s constantly asking, ‘How do you apply this?’” O’Brien said.
She said because most people in the MRED program have at least three years of experience in a real estate-related field, she hears a wide variety of opinions in her classes.
“I found that very refreshing – and sometimes frustrating – coming from design school and a professional career surrounded by designers who have thought processes more similar to mine,” O’Brien said.
Drawn to the city’s biggest developments
Cua shares O’Brien’s egalitarian view that cities should provide walkable, accessible places everyone can use. He is especially passionate about revitalizing urban cores and reducing dependency on cars.
“I’m really focused on projects that have a big impact on the community — something that really changes what a city is,” he said. “I really believe in projects that densify the urban cores.”
Since graduating with his architecture degree from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, Cua has worked in Los Angeles design firms such as RIOS and West of West, which have an emphasis on commercial, residential, and civic projects.
When working on a 2 million square-foot mixed-use development in San Francisco, Cua was drawn to the prospect of creating a large, shared public space. He applied to Price’s MRED program with a goal to play a larger role in similar projects in the future.
“I wanted to figure out how I could make a bigger impact in the city through the built environment,” he said.
Like O’Brien, the MRED appealed to Cua because of its location within the School of Public Policy. He also spoke with alumni, who highly encouraged him to apply.
“A lot of people in the area that I’ve worked with went to USC and spoke very highly of it. It was a no-brainer,” he said.
Cua loves the challenge of developing a project that others have abandoned or deemed too difficult to build. He pointed to “The Beehive” in South Los Angeles as an example. The 100,000 square-foot project converted run-down warehouses in an under-resourced community into offices for local businesses.
“It was a great example for me of how a project could make a positive impact in the community,” Cua said.
At USC, he has taken classes taught by people who are major players in the development world. Cua said he was especially captivated by Real Estate Product Development (RED 598), which was taught by Related Companies’ Rick Vogel, who is developing the $1 billion The Grand LA mixed-use project in downtown Los Angeles.
“He goes through the process of doing mixed-use development – the pitfalls and what’s great about it,” Cua said, adding that the course also included a site visit to the under-construction project.
After leaving Price, Cua sees himself working for a medium or large development firm that has the potential to transform urban centers.
A lasting impact on urban life
While some might associate the real estate development industry with growth for growth’s sake, for O’Brien and Cua, it presents an opportunity to improve people’s lives, regardless of their income.
“Developing in a way that’s equitable and mixed-income [is] really integral to keeping the feeling of the city,” O’Brien said. “Nobody wants to live in a city of just rich people.”
Cua echoed O’Brien’s sentiment, saying the best urban developments are those that trigger positive transformation beyond the project’s boundaries.
“For me, great projects take something that is maybe undesirable or difficult to change and does something great and spurs additional change,” Cua said. Both students have already contributed to cities becoming better places to live, and will continue doing so after graduation. Cua and O’Brien are living proof that today’s real estate world is far more nuanced than some realize, and that development can create communities where everyone thrives.