by Frank Dillow
A little more than 10 years ago, leading real estate developers in the area began asking “why don’t we have a college level program here in Northern Virginia to prepare future leaders for our industry?”
Survivors of numerous tough battles between developers and community activists that marked much of Northern Virginia’s transition from largely suburban developments to the urbanizing high growth engine of the regional economy, they had something new in mind. They wanted a program that would reflect the future needs of all Virginians into the development plans of the future.
Growing out of a real estate development curriculum created by real estate consultant Mark Hassinger, through the local NAOIP organization, the group turned to Fairfax based George Mason University (GMU) to help put together an innovative academic program to develop “the critical skills, leadership capacity and entrepreneurial spirit necessary to lead the responsible development of vibrant, livable communities.”
The result was the creation of the Master of Science in Real Estate Development (MRED) program at GMU. To ensure strong connections to the community it also created the Center for Real Estate Entrepreneurship (CREE) as an integral part the Master’s program.
Many of the real estate professionals, including Hassinger, agreed to serve on the CREE advisory board to, as Hassinger explained, “keep the program grounded in the real world.”
“We want somebody coming out of this program with a holistic view of the community,” Hassinger explained. “We’re not asking the question how do we make better carpenters, but rather how do we make a carpenter who makes a better community.”
The CREE is an integral part of the program according to C. Kat Grimsley, Ph.D, Director of the school’s MRED program, providing students with access to industry leaders, programs and events that provide professional development opportunities, in addition to the classroom.
Since its inception in the University’s graduate engineering school, the program has now migrated to the business school and its classes are held at the University’s Arlington campus in the appropriately named Van Metre building, next door to the law school located In the Til Hazel building, both named after two of Northern Virginia’s most successful real estate developers. During its first 10 years, MRED has distinguished itself by the many awards the program and its individual students have received, according to Grimsley.
As the program has evolved, its reputation is now attracting top international students, as well. “This creates a fantastic opportunity for growth by combining strong fundamentals from our local market with innovative new ideas and perspectives from around the world that benefits everyone’s learning,” Grimsley noted.
Her role is to “support not only the program as a whole, but also to encourage each student on their individual journey,” Grimsley explained. I would love to see them continue to grow as a network of engaged alumni bringing thought leadership to contemporary challenges like sustainability and housing affordability.
When the program’s creators first envisioned the kind of professionals they wanted to graduate from the program, they had in mind someone like Greg Hoffman who received his MS in Real Estate Development in 2016. He started his career as construction director at privately held Rooney Properties, and one year later assumed his current role as Vice President.
Among other projects completed on his watch is the twin tower Farady Park mixed use development recently opened near Metro's Silver Line Wiehle-Reston East station. The project added more than 400 residential units to the Reston skyline, including rooftop swimming pool, fitness center and co-working area, along with 10,000 square feet of retail space.
Since its first graduating class in 2012, alumni such as my colleague Charles Dubissette here in Long & Foster’s Commercial Division have fanned out across the regional real estate industry.
Among alumni, Dubissette’s growth in the industry is not unusual. He began investing in real estate in 2003 and earned his real estate license in 2006. Three years later he had his broker’s license shortly before beginning his graduate studies. He continued his work as a broker while going to school, receiving his degree last Spring.
With its practical approach to real estate development including practicing real estate professionals teaching some of the courses and fellow students in various states of their careers, the program exceeded his expectations.
“I thought I understood development,” Dubissette explained, “After starting the program, I realized my knowledge of the subject was completely superficial. After concluding the program, I feel that I have sufficient knowledge to identify a site and oversee its development from a conceptual phase through construction, lease-up, and stabilization.”
How about GMU’s efforts to engage the community?
Eric Maribojoc, Executive Director, CREE, has become the designated ambassador for the program and is a regularly featured speaker representing the school and the industry at community events.
In addition, Maribojoc has created a menu of outreach programs, both online and at the campus. A recent example was a program on "Repurposing Obsolete Office Buildings,” which looked at local developments using now vacant office buildings to fill local community needs for multi-family residences, schools and other uses.
CREE has also been at the heart of the regional dialogue on affordable housing, including recently announcing a class designed “for those who want to work in the affordable housing industry, those who are early in their affordable housing career, board members, housing advocates, public agency staff, project partners, stakeholders, researchers, and community members.”
In two days the course will provide comprehensive information for participants about the affordable housing industry, the process of real estate development, local and state programs, and the complexity of affordable housing financing. The class includes a case study tour of Terwilliger Place, a new and innovative 160-unit affordable housing project in Arlington County.
The future for GMU’s graduate program and its alumni looks bright. “There are so many opportunities as the program continues to grow,” Grimsley concluded.