2 min read March 2022 — Creative Village in Downtown Orlando is emblematic of the innovative growth the city has embraced. Craig Ustler, president of Ustler Development, spoke with Invest: and discussed how his team has led this impactful project. “Our work is unique in the sense that we are a downtown-focused developer with a hometown commitment to Orlando,” he said.
To what do you attribute your success over this turbulent period of supply chain constraints and inflation?
Everything you hear about supply chain challenges is real, so you need breadth and depth to get things done. We have a tight architect and general contracting team that has proven itself over the years. The city is also an important partner, being flexible and doing a good job with us on the permitting side. For instance, the Electronic Arts Orlando Studio had a very strong team that completed the building on-time and on-budget. It was a 176,000 square foot build-to-suit project and we worked extensively with the Electronic Arts construction representative (JLL).To get the job done effectively, you need a proven team and for the city to understand how we can still do inspections and have permit comments turned around quickly.
How does Creative Village act as a model for smart and sustainable development?
Most cities own a lot of real estate, including large tracts like fairgrounds or sports stadiums, and they don’t know what to do with it. The key to public-private partnerships is helping the city recognize its assets, while then allowing a private development partner to execute the actual real estate development. You can do a master plan and let a private developer come in to guide the development. At Creative Village, the city put in the land and helped with entitlements and grants, along with political support. Partnerships with public education institutions (UCF and Valencia) were critical. It is important to have defined roles for how the city can support a project and let us do the planning, execution and vertical development. The master development agreement is not prescriptive but has general parameters. Our work is unique in the sense that we are a downtown-focused developer with a hometown commitment to Orlando. Continuity and consistency are underrated aspects of this work and you have to be able to take a long view while creating value in a public-private partnership.
What are the long-term challenges that you feel may create obstacles for sustainable growth in Orlando?
There are three major issues in Orlando. There is a real need for improved mobility and a more robust multimodal transit system. We are in the infancy of developing transportation and connectivity in a way the city needs. You can’t be a world-class city without it.
The second issue is in the office sector, which is different now. The idea of a central business district with people commuting and working Monday to Friday, 9 to 5, has changed. The pandemic accelerated the reality for flexibility and remote work options. While I am a firm believer that people will still need to collaborate and be together, we need to be more flexible. Spaces need studio and production space to enhance collaboration and maximize the time a staff has together. As real estate developers, we have to understand these factors and craft physical space that will work for companies and their team members. There is more demand for hospitality-like amenities, such as outdoor space and entertainment, to provide a creative and productive environment.
The third piece is quality of life challenges. Whether that is homelessness, public safety or parks and open space. We have enjoyed a great run of urban growth over the past 10-15 years, but challenges remain. If buildings and infrastructure are the hardware of a city, we ultimately have to manage its software, which is the experience people have day to day. We need to do a better job of public-space management and creating a meaningful sense of place. Most people don’t care about the buildings that are being constructed; they are concerned with use and how they live their life. I am trying to help the city and other stakeholders understand the interconnection between project building (“hardware”) and public space management (“software”).
How will the definition of curating neighborhoods that promote “live, work play” continue to change over the next five to 10 years?
Curating neighborhoods will become more prevalent, mostly influenced by large-scale apartment developers. They will start to pay more attention to curation and lifestyle elements. Food and beverage will be big factors in this, along with health and wellness. Hotels have done this for a long time, using license agreements to bring in multiple restaurants. That sort of arrangement will apply to apartments and be viewed as part of the amenity package. Developers want more control over the experience and the brand of these communities, so they are offering more options and choices.
We are constantly looking to refine our model to make sure that when we open an apartment building, the residents have a more complete and authentic experience. For example, a cool coffee shop may only take up 1% of square footage but the attention it can bring in is a huge value boost. In Creative Village, over 5,000 people go to The Monroe restaurant per month. Suffice to say, we don’t get that number in the leasing office. Restaurants and other lifestyle amenities become a marketing advantage and will become more common in the future
What is your general outlook for the Downtown Orlando area?
I feel good about Orlando. We have good leadership and the real estate market is driven by a few simple factors. There is population and job growth across the board. We have a pro-business environment and the weather is great. But I do have macroeconomic concerns related to interest rates, inflation, labor shortages, COVID-19 and the supply chain. However, Orlando’s underlying advantages aren’t affected by the pandemic. It didn’t change the fact that we are a great place to live. What is important for us is to not only be smart with growth but we also have to be patient because it takes time and the timing of things can be crucial.
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