Ten Innovative Real Estate Developers

Real estate developments (and developers) come in all different shapes and sizes.  Despite the plethora of projects being developed (and many more stuck on the drawing board), innovation can occur on any scale and in any market.  Here is a collection of real estate developers from around the country that are currently producing compelling and innovative work.

Young Woo – Young Woo and his firm YoungWoo & Associates aren’t your typical real estate developers. Woo’s training in architecture, paired with the firm’s urban planning and financial acumen, combines to produce some of New York’s most progressive real estate and urban design projects. The firm’s work shows that design, when well executed and thoughtfully utilized, can be a key attribute in any development.

This mantra is perhaps best illustrated in the firm’s development of the Sky Garage Condominium in West Chelsea, the first en-suite sky garage high-rise in the country, elevating the owner’s car into his/her apartment building.  Completed in early 2010, the building features a stainless steel clad façade and gun-smoke terracotta stone base.  Located at 200 Eleventh Avenue at 24th Street and offering expansive views of the Hudson River, the project was nearly entirely pre-sold despite the ongoing economic crisis, thanks in part to its “papparazi-proof” en-suite elevator.

The firm was a pioneer in the 1990s developing some of the first multi-tenant data centers or ”telco hotels” around the country.  Recent NY projects include The Chelsea Arts Tower, the first vertical art gallery, and Dekalb Market, an innovative marketplace comprised of 70 refurbished shipping containers repurposed into boutiques and eateries.   Current developments include Intergate Manhattan, a class A data center located at 375 Pearl Street, and Pier 57, a redevelopment of a historic pier located at W.15th St, which will fuse a creative marketplace with interactive food and unique cultural experiences.

Pier 57

Pier 57

young woo tower

Chelsea Arts Tower

Young Woo 1

Sky Garage Condominium

Young Woo, Dekalb Market

Young Woo, Dekalb Market

Jair Lynch  Jair Lynch Development Partners, based in Washington D.C., focuses on integrating urban planning, development, and design to improve the neighborhoods it helps develop.  The firm’s work is innovative because it emphasizes social responsibility to create long-term economic growth for the neighborhoods it develops in. Through strong public-private partnerships, the company invests heavily in responsible revitalization efforts throughout Washington D.C.

jair lynch development partners

Jair Lynch, Washington D.C.

Continuum Partners  Denver has a growing downtown, strong arts community, and an appetite for transit oriented development. Mark Falcone and Continuum Partners are a big reason for that. The company is responsible for some of the city’s freshest and most compelling real estate developments both in downtown and in Denver’s surrounding communities. The firm’s redevelopment of Union Station, in a partnership with East West Partners, should only increase their impact on the city. The developer’s nationally recognized work serves as a model for smart, sustainable development.

Continuum Partners, Union Station

Continuum Partners, Union Station

Denver Union Station

Amos Harris, EMB Development – Amos Harris’ work is hyper-local to downtown St. Louis, Missouri–which is a great thing for the city. Because of this, his projects are highly calibrated to their context. The result: Influential developments that are ushering in a new wave of urban revitalization. EMB Development and Spinnaker Real Estate Partners’ recent completion of The Laurel–and it’s development of the Mercantile Exchange district–are substantial projects that were viewed as pivotal pieces for new urban revitalization before they began. Through extensive financing, planning, development, and design efforts, the projects are having a noticeable impact on the city.

Laurel Images

STLWA Rendering Wash. Ave SM

Blu Homes  Blu Homes designs and sells some of the most stylish pre-fabricated houses on the market today–they also happen to be some of the most advanced with respect to manufacturing technology. They’ve crafted their manufacturing methods around cutting-edge technology from the aerospace and automotive industries.  On top of that, their homes have won numerous awards for their design, quality, and execution. The company is partnering with developers to produce their homes on a larger scale—exciting stuff for a young and growing subset of the housing sector!

Blu homes manufacturing

Education Realty Trust  – Student housing development has surged in recent years with higher education institutions looking to private developers to produce innovative housing options for students.  Many colleges are urging developers to produce high-end student housing–with amenities that rival luxury multifamily and condo communities–in order to attract more students and increase demand.

innovative college dorm

Education Realty Trust, one of the leaders in student housing development, is at the front of the student housing boom.

Forest City Enterprises – It takes a very strong vision to hire one of the most famous architects in the world to design the tallest residential tower in the western hemisphere (One57 isn’t completed yet). New York by Gehry, a 76-story skyscraper designed by starchitect Frank Gehery, is hard to miss in the New York skyline (it’s the shiny one).


Big name designers don’t always equate to higher returns, yet when architectural critics are calling your project “one of the most beautiful towers downtown” and “the finest skyscraper to rise in New York since Eero Saarinen’s CBS building went up 46 years ago.”, you know you’ve produced something special.

The building is also commanding top of the market attention from national real estate investors. A recent Wall Street Journal article touted a pending sale with TIAA-CREF, valuing the development at a record $1-billion. Big name designers often require high fees and can produce costly products. Yet, with the case of New York by Gehry, the result could be worth the investment in the long run.

Forest City also has several projects in the works that are pushing the envelope in other ways. Check out their foray into prefabricated construction (tallest in the world) and mega-developments such as Denver’s Stapleton community and Washington D.C.’s The Yards (more about this development via a recent DCmud article too).

Hines – Advances in sustainability are rapidly improving the way we develop and operate our buildings.  Hines, through its development of the UTC Tower/La Jolla Commons II, is at the forefront of sustainable development for the office sector.  The 13-story building, set to open in mid 2014, is expected to generate more energy than it will use.


The high performance design by WSP Flack + Kurtz employs a highly efficient climate control system, advanced curtain wall materials, and smart-lighting systems. On-site fuel cells will run on bio gas from California landfills and waste water treatment plants; which will be shipped through natural gas pipelines. The fuel cells, in conjunction with other systems, will produce more energy than the building needs.

Amazon.com The online retail giant may not be directly involved in the real estate game, but they are sending shock waves through the Seattle office market with huge development plans announced earlier this year.  

In January, Amazon agreed to buy three Denny Triangle blocks from Seattle’s Clise family — then unveiled plans for a 3.3 million-square-foot high-rise office complex, downtown’s biggest development ever. Less than nine months later the company dropped another bombshell, announcing it was buying its leased, 1.8 million-square-foot South Lake Union headquarters campus from developer Vulcan Real Estate for $1.16 billion.

Is it necessarily innovative for a large company to buy and build new space? No. But the impact that Amazon has on the Seattle market does make it one to keep an eye on in the future. And it does set a precedent for such an influential tech company to take a such a large interest in its real estate holdings.

amazon hq

The City of ClevelandWait a second, cities aren’t developers. And Cleveland…really?! Didn’t the city have a river catch on fire once? Yes. Didn’t one of the best basketball players on the planet take his talents elsewhere? Yes. Didn’t the city recently lose a substantial amount of manufacturing jobs in the auto industry? Yes.

So why is Cleveland a hub of innovation in the real estate world?

Well sometimes innovative ideas, projects, and initiatives come from the places you least suspect. Travel and Leisure magazine recently named Cleveland one of the world’s most visionary cities. Really?!–yep! For example, check out this adaptive reuse of a struggling downtown retail center into an urban farm and greenhouse.

Urban Faming, Cleveland

Cleveland, through new planning efforts and a surge of private development, is investing billions of dollars in its growing downtown and burgeoning urban neighborhoods. Not convinced? Check out the text below from a recent Architectural Record piece that profiles the compelling development efforts taking place throughout the city:

Though its population has shrunk to just below 400,000 from nearly 1 million in the 1950s, Cleveland is experiencing a $6 billion burst of development that includes everything from big downtown projects to the fine-grained revival of a half-dozen neighborhoods. An influx of young professionals, drawn by jobs in tech, digital media, marketing, and biomedical companies, has led to a tight downtown rental market with a residential population of about 10,000 and growing, and an occupancy rate of nearly 96 percent.

Fresh investments in the district include a $350 million expansion of the Cleveland Museum of Art, designed by Rafael Viñoly, and the new home of the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland (MOCA), a shiny gemstone in black, reflective stainless steel by Farshid Moussavi…Such projects raise the possibility that other shrinking cities across the industrial Great Lakes could build a brighter future on similarly rich assets such as medical and cultural institutions, universities, specialized manufacturing, and handsome early-20th-century neighborhoods.


Cleveland Museum of Contemporary Art

While simply spending money on arts communities and urban renewal doesn’t necessarily signal innovation, the city’s planning efforts and methods for growing and enhancing its communities are gaining attention around the planning, design, and development fields because of the scale of their progressive efforts. Though the city isn’t completely on everyone’s radar just yet, big development initiatives are occurring that could prove to be models for urban growth and renewal in the future. So while a common saying for Cleveland sports teams is “well, maybe next year”, innovative projects are sprouting up around the city right now.

Do you have a project or firm you love? Mention ’em in the comments section below!

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