How We Learn by Doing

Computer rendering from student proposal
Written by September 13, 2021

A sensitive development site. A short ideation period. A complicated case study. How a multidisciplinary team of Cal Poly business and architecture students embraced these factors to win a highly competitive real estate competition — and received a glimpse into their future careers in the process.

– As told to Alex Wilson

This spring, business students Audrey Souders, Dane O’Neil and Marissa Hall teamed up with architecture student Zach Strassberg-Phillips to compete in the Mulroy Real Estate Challenge, a national real estate development case competition for students from the top undergraduate real estate programs, hosted by the Villanova School of Business. During a frantic, collaborative and creative 6-day period, the team worked on a case that incorporated all aspects of development, from financing to design.

With a site location that included both a historic building and a prized piece of street art in Philadelphia, they proposed to build a development at one of the most sensitive yet iconic parcels of land in the city. Ultimately, they came through with a thoughtful, community-oriented and stunning proposal, which was judged by senior executives representing top firms from all areas of the commercial real estate industry.

They also became the second Cal Poly team to win the contest, competing against students from some of the best universities and real estate programs in the country. In conversation below, they discuss teamwork, deadlines, brutally honest feedback and explain how they did it.

The Owner Forever Team

Marissa Hall
Business Administration major, concentrating in Real Estate Finance.

Dane O’Neill
Business Administration major, concentrating in Finance and Accounting.

Zach Strassberg-Phillips
Architecture major with dual minors in Real Estate Property Development and Spanish.

Audrey Souders
Business Administration major, concentrating in Real Estate Finance.

Background Notes and Deliverables

Dane: Going into this, we knew we wanted to tell a story, so we analyzed the property, the location and the history of the neighborhood. Then, among ourselves, we came up with something we thought was the best property development for that specific location. In this case, we were provided with a plot in north Philadelphia in an underprivileged neighborhood. That caused us to focus on low-income housing and a plan that would provide something to the community, while also creating value for the development and real estate development companies and for residents of the area.

Audrey: Pretty quickly we realized that in addition to our site, we had another element to account for next door — a 14-story art deco skyscraper on the National Register of Historical Places, called the Beury Building. It was built in 1933 and has been vacant for the past 40 years. Since about 2008, it’s been undergoing a series of failed renovation plans. In response to these plans, there was a bunch of public outcry over the potential removal of a piece of graffiti on the side of the building, which was created as a collaboration between two famous Philadelphia artists named Boner and Forever. In order to preserve the history and culture of the neighborhood and include the voice of the community, we learned that developers have been promising to somehow incorporate the existing artwork into their renovations.

Marissa: We knew we had three deliverables — a 20-slide presentation, a presentation of unlimited slides and then an executive summary, which is just an overview of everything. All of that was judged on aesthetics, as well as content. We put a lot of emphasis on our 20 slides and then added an appendix with renderings and just sensitivity analysis so we’d be prepared and have the ability to reference any questions in the review process.

We weren’t just focusing on producing financial returns. We were also focused on outlining the social impact we were making, which I’d never done before for an audit development case. It was definitely more challenging. It was also a lot more rewarding and fulfilling.

Dane: It’s a lot harder to tell a story when you just have 20 slides in a PowerPoint, so that was definitely one of the more challenging portions of the project and some of my focus — trying to distill and refine our entire idea into a simple presentation.

Zach: We also only had 6 ½ days from getting the prompts to completing everything and submitting our proposal. Basically, we worked around the clock every single one of those days, which was a grind, but at the same time really fun and exciting.

Research and Execution

Audrey: We decided our approach would be to preserve the artwork, as well, and to amend it to read Owner Forever instead of Boner Forever, like it does currently. With that as a starting point, we wanted to join our idea with a plan to sell the building back to the community through a trust after a 15year holding period. In that sense, this case was unique compared to other development case studies in our classes. We weren’t just focusing on producing financial returns. We were also focusing on outlining the social impact we were making, which I’d never done before for an audit development case. It was definitely more challenging. It was also a lot more rewarding and fulfilling.

Zach: We were all trying to bring our interdisciplinary backgrounds to the table. I know for me that was just everything I’ve learned in my architectural education, plus some stuff I know about city planning. So from six in the morning — the moment we received our case outline — until whatever time at night, I was researching zoning laws, thinking about adaptive reuse projects and working on architectural renders in design software. It’s sometimes hard to step back from that kind of work, like focusing on detailing a building. Knowing that I had teammates working on their own tasks made it so I could take breaks and reset and get some feedback.

Dane: A large portion of our time also went into doing an Excel proforma of our finances. Doing that for  seven days just to output one number in the end was another challenge. It also provided the foundation that made our plan realistic and viable.

Marissa: While Dane and Audrey were working on the pro forma, and Zach was working on the architectural side, I was doing research on our site and how we could maximize our finances. During that process, I got a really strong grasp of opportunity zones and the tax incentives around them, how to structure them and how the money works behind them — just really diving into all of the different types of grants that our site might qualify for given our location or what we were offering. Stemming from that, a big thing we focused on was how to avoid gentrification and displacement. We wanted a plan to make this area better but we wanted it to be better for the existing community members who have lived there for their entire lives. We focused a lot on how to do that from a design and planning and financial standpoint. I was also trying to understand the surrounding area in the community and trying to get that information into the presentation.

Teamwork, Preparation, and Outcomes

Zach: I think something that helped us manage all of these huge tasks in such a short time is that our instructor gave us a preparatory project about two weeks before the competition, and we definitely had some issues that we were able to fix by the time we got to the real thing. It helped us establish, day by day, what we’re getting done together and to stick to a schedule.

Dane: There was also a really important team building aspect for that trial run because I remember on the last day, when we were looking over our practice presentation and not satisfied with it, we were all just like, “Guys, if I did something wrong, just tell me. You need to tell me and be transparent.” And the second we started on the actual presentation, if there was an issue, none of us were afraid to discuss it and it became such a collaborative environment and helped us so much in the final product.

There was a really important team building aspect to the project. I remember when we were looking over our presentation and not satisfied with it, we were all just like, ‘Guys, if I did something wrong, just tell me. You need to tell me and be transparent.’ After that, if there was an issue, none of us were afraid to discuss it, and it became such a collaborative environment.

Marissa: Especially as a business major, it feels like we’re always in group projects at Cal Poly, and I think that also helps because it’s really setting you up for the work world. Business at its finest is about communicating — it’s networking, it’s being able to collaborate with other people. I think each person has had such an individual experience. They offer something unique. And having worked in group scenarios very often, it just gets easier to really figure out what everyone’s good at and allow them to use that to the best of their ability. In this case, we were able to apply this kind of team approach in a very timely manner. And since we’ve done projects like this throughout our education, we were able to navigate it even quicker.

Audrey: It definitely got me excited to start my career in real estate. I enjoyed what I was doing so much the time would fly by, which is really reassuring. Getting this experience and insight just made me feel more confident about what I’m going to do after I graduate.

Marissa: As Dr. Patel has pointed out to us, this kind of competition is in a lot of ways the closest thing that you’re going to get to a real world experience. It’s so similar to what a real job would be like. We’ve had so many people come into our classes to present on their jobs, and this is what they do — except it takes them months to do what we did in a week, which I think is pretty awesome.

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