High school students get real-life experience in development through unique program

Real estate development is not an easy concept to learn.

The Urban Land Institute is trying to make it that way — in a program it is bringing to the East Brunswick School District.

The program, UrbanPlan, offers a hands-on, simulated real estate planning program for students while they are working side-by-side with leading industry professionals. Students are exposed to the factors that affect real estate development and how responsible development can shape, transform and improve communities.

The creators say the class is designed to teach collaboration, teamwork and presentation skills for group members and individuals.

Mara Winokur, senior director of ULI Northern New Jersey & Westchester/Fairfield, said the program offers students a one-of-a-kind simulation of what it’s like to work in the real estate business.

“Real estate development is a very complex process,” she said. “(This program) exposes the students to related disciplines — architecture, engineering, marketing, design — and it brings all those different disciplines together in a real-life simulation.

“It’s a great program and one that, frankly, I wish I had taken when I was in school.”

UrbanPlan features a 15-class hour curriculum that tasks student teams with responding to a “request for proposals” for the redevelopment of a blighted neighborhood in a fictional community.

One of the participating teams makes its presentation.

Each team member assumes one of five roles: finance director, marketing director, city liaison, neighborhood liaison or site planner.

Students not only learn these concepts, but through the course curriculum, they work with professionals in the real estate industry to conceptualize their project ideas, Winokur said.

Twenty-five volunteers from a variety of backgrounds in the industry, including engineering, business and politics, served as resources for students to use during facilitations in the classroom.

Dan Johnson, a senior account executive for R&J Strategic Communications and volunteer for East Brunswick’s UrbanPlan, said that his role in facilitating classroom discussion challenged students’ thought processes.

“We go into the classrooms and we talk to the students, talk through their plans and (ask) why they chose certain building types,” he said. “We work through it with them and help them to think about it more critically.”

The questions Johnson facilitated in the classroom were mostly marketing-based, given his background in public relations, he said.

“For a student living in a state like New Jersey with so much development, the more they know about that process, (the better),” Johnson said. “It’s important for them to understand how this all gets put together.”

After several classroom facilitations and weeks of plan preparation, the students presented their final urban plan to a mock council on May 30, with each of the previous volunteer members serving as members of the mock council.

Winokur explained that the final step of the program is not just simply presenting their projects to the council. Students were asked questions relating to their individual roles and how that fits in to the final design of their urban plan project.

“After they make their presentation, they are tasked with (answering) difficult questions from the jury council,” she said. “It teaches them to think on their feet, to be well rehearsed and to explain why they did what they did.”

The groups were evaluated by members of the council based on a number of factors, including their overall strength of strategic vision, financial returns, incorporation of community feedback and responses to town council members’ questions.

After deliberation, the council said the team of Max Alexeev, Shresta Belede, Anushka Gami, Alexandra Gramuglia, Rianna Nag and Magnus Steinberg took first place.

“They were able to create a redevelopment plan for blighted section of city that would create a vibrant, dynamic neighborhood designed around attracting sustainable economic growth to the area,” Johnson said of the winning group.

“Through their presentation, they best synthesized the goals of the city, their investors and the surrounding community to create a tangible vision for their plan that stood out among the exemplary plans created by the groups of their fellow classmates.”

Urban Land Institute officials said the program has taught more than 50,000 high school and university students in the United States and Canada since 2003, but had never taken place in New Jersey.

Brian Whitmer, co-chairman of ULI Northern New Jersey, said East Brunswick was an easy pick for where to launch real estate program in the state.

“East Brunswick High School’s leadership and achievements in social studies and extensive advanced placement course offerings made it the perfect district to introduce this exceptional learning opportunity in New Jersey,” he said.

Michael Lachs, co-chairman of ULI Northern New Jersey, said as the area continues to undergo critical development and redevelopment stages, East Brunswick is the ideal institution to start the program in New Jersey.

“East Brunswick is undergoing the beginning stages of redevelopment in about 3 or 4 different large areas of the town,” he said. “From that aspect, it is very timely for the project to (be launched). This was the perfect environment to start this program.”