Akhil Singh, a development manager at Beauxwright, taps into his extensive international travel to compare and contrast development trends around the world and around the corner.
The author with his family in Haryana, India.
You mention in your profile on the Beauxwright website that you speak four languages and have traveled globally extensively — and we know that you continue to do that now. How has your time visiting non-U.S. countries influenced your thinking, specifically in terms of real estate development?
International travel has helped me realize the importance of approaching development with a local mindset, and tailoring projects to the specific set of constraints and demands of each region. Developers who have an intimate knowledge of the local framework tend to be more successful than developers who are less willing to understand and adapt to local nuances. These nuances range from negotiation practices, legal constraints, and design expectations, to understanding challenges faced by end consumers, to knowing how to create effective solutions.
I’ve noticed one aspect of real estate that is universal across different regions: the value of relationships. Developers with grassroots understanding of where they operate tend to have strong local relationships, which take time to cultivate but provide long-term dividends. Similar to development work in the U.S., having a local presence instills confidence and trust among landowners, capital providers and other partners, which in turn leads to success for developers.
In your travels and observations — specific to real estate development — what best practices have you seen in other countries that you feel we should notice here in this region?
As the population increases across the southeast and especially within the Carolinas, I think developers and city planners would benefit from observing how some countries, specifically in Europe and Asia, have integrated real estate development with public transportation. This alignment of public and private investment encourages more people to regularly use public transportation, and improves the marketability of real estate projects by increasing their accessibility and functionality.
When real estate projects are easily accessible by public transportation, developers can focus on creating spaces that are engaging and functional rather than being constrained by parking and cost requirements. Carnaby Street in London is one of my favorite examples of a well-designed and broadly used public transportation system where developers have created a large pedestrianized area with restaurants, shopping, plazas and other public spaces for people to engage.
London's Carnaby Street is a prime example of a pedestrian-only retail center in the heart of a major city.
Conversely, what can the other places you’ve visited learn from current U.S. development trends?
America’s ability to uphold laws and enforce standard procedures across most aspects of public life is one of the most significant ways we set ourselves apart from other countries. This is true in the realm of real estate as well.
Relatively speaking, most developers are held to the same set of regulations and procedures as other developers, which not only allows for projects to work more efficiently with one another but also allows for better competition. Too often in other parts of the world, corruption and/or lack of resources enable certain developers to gain unfair advantages by not adhering to laws. This not only creates infrastructural and other functional challenges, but also keeps the end users from benefiting from free competition.
In real estate development, we often hear and use the phrase “highest and best use,” in terms of land and existing structures, especially in urban areas. Can you name and elaborate on specific examples you’ve encountered in your travels of where development has become very innovative in terms of highest and best use?
The example that stands out the most to me is Cyber City, a 125-acre master-planned mixed-use district located on the outskirts of New Delhi, and developed by DLF. I had a summer internship in Cyber City during college, and the development has only continued to grow in size. New Delhi is one of the most populous cities in the world, and therefore has a limited supply of land for new development. As a result, new construction projects within the city are forced to be spread out and disconnected from each other due to poor infrastructure and traffic congestion, which has prevented New Delhi from having a marketable centralized business district (CBD).
New Delhi's Cyber City central business district.
New Delhi-based developer DLF noticed the lack of a CBD in the nation’s capital, and developed Cyber City as a solution. CBDs are typically located within the core of the city. DLF recognized this was not possible in New Delhi due to the land and infrastructure problems mentioned above. Instead, the company acquired several large tracts of agricultural land on the outskirts of the city next to a major freeway. The surplus of acquired land allowed the development team to not only deliver over 20 million square feet of new commercial space and high-density housing, but to create an efficient infrastructural system that includes a sixteen-lane signal-free road network and even a metro system designed to cater specifically to the project. Developing a CBD along the edge of the city limits was an unprecedented strategy. However, the project is now one of the most successful of its kind in India.
What trends do you see in the U.S, going forward for urban development? How does Charlotte, your hometown, stack up in meeting those positive trends?
One of the biggest emerging trends I see in urban development is the transition toward mixed-use urban districts that engage people 24/7, as opposed to single-use downtowns and neighborhoods. This trend can be seen in Charlotte’s South End neighborhood. Residential inventory has grown drastically over the last decade, and more recently, the area has started to attract large-scale urban office projects and retail.
Charlotte’s South End, a growing mixed-use urban district. Photo courtesy of Foundry Commercial.
As a result, Charlotte’s “center of gravity” has shifted southward from Uptown. Based on the success of South End, other neighborhoods around Charlotte have transitioned to a similar strategy, including NoDa and Plaza Midwood, where residential and commercial development is being delivered and absorbed in conjunction with each other.