Book reading at Urban Works

How Real Estate Developers Think: Design, Profits, and Community


Peter Hendee Brown
The University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2015


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Cities are always changing: streets, infrastructure, public spaces, and buildings are constantly being built, improved, demolished, and replaced. But even when a new project is designed to improve a community, neighborhood residents often find themselves at odds with the real estate developer who proposes it. Savvy developers are willing to work with residents to allay their concerns and gain public support, but at the same time, a real estate development is a business venture financed by private investors who take significant risks. In How Real Estate Developers Think, Peter Hendee Brown explains the interests, motives, and actions of real estate developers, using case studies to show how the basic principles of development remain the same everywhere even as practices vary based on climate, local culture, and geography. An understanding of what developers do and why they do it will help community members, elected officials, and others participate more productively in the development process in their own communities.

Based on interviews with over a hundred people involved in the real estate development business in Chicago, Miami, Portland, Oregon, and the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, Minnesota, How Real Estate Developers Think considers developers from three different perspectives. Brown profiles the careers of individual developers to illustrate the character of the entrepreneur, considers the roles played by innovation, design, marketing, and sales in the production of real estate, and examines the risks and rewards that motivate developers as people. Ultimately, How Real Estate Developers Think portrays developers as creative visionaries who are able to imagine future possibilities for our cities and communities and shows that understanding them will lead to better outcomes for neighbors, communities, and cities.


Perhaps the primary Achilles heel for far too many planners is a simple lack of understanding of the real estate development business. I interact with professional planners in the public sector around Florida (and elsewhere) that operate from a “black-hat/white-hat” worldview, one in which the developer is the black-hatted villain of the Wild West and the planner is the white-hatted defender of all that is good and right in the world. This worldview is simplistic, flawed, and fatal to effective practice.

Given these experiences, I am always pleased to see books like Peter Hendee Brown’s How Real Estate Developers Think: Design, Profits, and Community come across my desk. Brown is an architect and planner in Minneapolis, with experience working with developers around the country. Given his design and development background, expertise, and connections you’d expect an attractive, well-written book that is easily consumed, and Brown delivers on all these fronts. The book is an easy read, the chapters flow nicely from broader trends in practice into case studies, and the volume includes many great pictures, tables, and diagrams of successful projects that came out of the ground successfully.

Peter Hendee Brown has written an engaging book that exposes non-developers to the world of development, illuminating the hard work, strident vision, and persistence required to be a success. Throughout the book are innumerable tips for how to understand and work with developers, often from the mouths of developers themselves. For professional planners, students, and individuals looking for a useful and readable book on real estate development, I highly recommend this one. In describing the development process in such appealing ways, Brown might just help planners see beyond the black hat when a developer walks into     their office.


— Tim Chapin, Florida State University

Senior Associate Editor and Review Editor,

Journal of the American Planning Association (JAPA)



Graduate students aiming for careers in city and regional planning need to understand that urban land developers are serious business people hard at work creating our (and their) future urban landscapes, and most of them undertake their business in highly responsible ways.

The development and redevelopment business usually engages diverse interest groups, but all of them — the wider community represented by elected officials; planners looking to shape the future; neighborhood groups focused on immediate concerns; and developers trying to run their businesses — represent legitimate goals and concerns. But when they misunderstand one another’s motives and operations all sides can lose. 

Some decades ago the master’s degree program in urban and regional planning at the University of Minnesota engaged a prominent developer’s attorney to teach what turned out to be a highly successful course on urban land development objectives and challenges from the developer’s point of view. That course helped generations of Minnesota planning graduates carry out their responsibilities with great success, whether working for governments, nonprofits or development organizations.

Peter Hendee Brown now teaches that course. Much of what he teaches formed the basis of his new book How Real Estate Developers Think: Design, Profits, and Community (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015). Based on interviews and case studies of development projects from across the U.S., the book  provides a major advance in the education of planning and public affairs students — along with community groups and local elected officials — about the world of urban land development activity as faced by development professionals. 

Brown’s book belongs on the bookshelf of local elected officials (after they’ve read it), and on reading lists of planning students and community groups interacting with developers and development/redevelopment projects in American cities and suburbs. There is much to learn about the urban land development business, and Brown’s welcome book is a major contribution to our understanding of it and what it means for our   urban future. 


— John S. Adams

Emeritus Professor of Geography, Planning & Public Affairs

University of Minnesota



Peter Brown interviewed more than 100 people involved in real estate development. He understands how the key players — developers, architects, engineers and government officials — interact to develop new or repurposed buildings and landscapes. Using real situations as examples, he clearly and expertly portrays essential personalities, and the differing motivations, risks, and rewards of the players in the process.

This book is important, well written, clear, and easy to understand. If you are an architect or engineer working with developers, a municipal official responsible for reviewing and approving building proposals, a resident in a community with sites being considered for development, a member of a neighborhood or city zoning committee, a public-spirited citizen, or simply a person interested in expanding your understanding of how projects get built, you should read this book. 


— Peter Piven, FAIA

principal consultant of Peter Piven Management Consultants and author of 

Architects Essentials of Starting, Assessing and Transitioning a Design Firm     



Peeking into the minds of real estate developers turns out to be riveting. Peter Hendee Brown has

managed to open up the life of risk, reward and values in the paradoxical world of development. From understanding how well intentioned community guidelines for development often backfire, to learning more about how real estate deals work and how design relates (or doesn't) to the market, to seeing case studies of how real estate development is ultimately an expression of values, this book is a must read for anyone in the development, design or planning world, or anyone who lives in a city or community where planning and development happen — basically anyone who is interested in knowing more about how our cities and communities are shaped.


— Mary Margaret Jones, FASLA, FAAR

President and Senior Principal, Hargreaves Associates Landscape Architecture



"Focusing on imaginative and experienced development professionals working in complex urban settings, Brown usefully problematizes the monolithic idea of the 'greedy developer.' By helping readers to see how these more sophisticated developers think, this engagingly written book can do much to help move real-world situations from hostile standoffs to informed conversations."


— Ann Forsyth

Harvard Graduate School of Design



As a principal in an architecture firm I have pondered the ways of developers for years. Our firm owns several books on real estate development, we subscribe to the magazines that our developer clients subscribe to, but still developers remain a mystery. Sometimes their motivations are crystal clear — we want more square feet of building on this piece of land — but other times their decision-making is obscure. Are they from a different planet in which every decision can be run through a risk/reward calculator?  But Peter Brown’s book helps to elucidate the method behind the madness. He explains how developers are charged with building our cities and suburbs and what constraints they operate under — more than one might imagine. 

It is important to note that this is an enjoyable book to read, although apparently the author has a background in academics, this book is a series of highly entertaining stories from the development world woven together with analysis, perspective and context. Having read several books on development and biographies of developers, this book is a breakthrough in its readability and accessibility. I recommend it highly for anyone interested in learning more about real estate development.


— Noah Bly

Managing Principal, Urban Works Architecture



"Brown's book is simultaneously an academic's guilty beach read and a balanced take on how the real estate community works. His page-turning narrative helps bridge the deep schism among urban planners, economic developers, city policymakers, and real estate developers. Brown convincingly makes the case that no player is all good or all bad but each comes to the bargaining table with different motivations, perspectives, and risks. How Real Estate Developers Think is essential reading for those interested in not only talking about how we remake and revitalize the city but who actually want to make it happen." 


— Amanda Johnson Ashley

Assistant Professor in Community and Regional Planning


“I think Peter Brown’s book is grand. The topic is fresh, and his approach to it is superb.”



"Even though I've worked in or around development for 15 years, I found this book insightful and revealing. Peter Brown takes a number of interviews and synthesizes the lessons and information in a way that clarifies how the development industry functions. This book identifies typical development patterns and creates a base of understanding that allows someone to effectively engage the development process to make better things happen in one's own community. Knowledge is power and this book explains the development world in a smart, engaging way. Instead of outlining the process in a dry, rational format this book uses interviews and case studies to show how the process works. If you want to understand why buildings get built (and what you can do about it) I recommend this book!"


— Michael Byrd

Vice President of Acquisitions

Hunt Capital Partners, LLC



"As a layperson I found this book fascinating. If you enjoy business books and business case studies, this fits neatly in that space evaluating real estate development from the perspective of multiple developers. Moreover, it delves into everything from the finance, government, and community issues that developers manage on a day-to-day basis. I came away with a far better understanding of the development business, my local real estate market, and a general understanding of how communities are built."


— David Benning

Financial Advisor



"In How Real Estate Developers Think, Peter Brown has pulled back the curtain and offers a rare glimpse into this rarified arena. Mr. Brown captures the bravado, desperation, and larger than life drama that make up these individuals. The book carefully articulates the story of the development along with the vision of the developer. His story telling provides the reader with a ringside seat on how deals get done, why some developments fail or turn into something no one ever expected. Mr. Brown has given us a book that is a must read for anyone interested in real estate development."


— Brian Gorecki

Principal, Real Estate Consultants, LLC


Book event in Miami with Jorge Pérez and Rodolphe el-Khoury

“As a real estate developer, I not only thoroughly enjoyed the book, but I also learned quite a lot about other cities, projects, and real estate developers.”



“I think Peter Brown’s book is grand. The topic is fresh, and his approach to it is superb.”



“I've been recommending this book to fellow developers, architects, and anyone who cares about the built environment. It is full of great stories, profiles, and gives insight into our world to those who aspire to develop or want to understand how we think.”



“An academic's guilty beach read!”



“Wonderful book. I have shared several copies with my co-workers and clients.



“Peter Hendee Brown has written an engaging book that exposes non-developers to the world of development, illuminating the hard work, strident vision, and persistence required to be a success.”



“Peeking into the minds of real estate developers turns out to be riveting.”



“This book is a breakthrough in its readability and accessibility.”



“It is important to note that this is an enjoyable book to read.”



“Although apparently the author has a background in academics, this book is a series of highly entertaining stories from the development world woven together with analysis, perspective and context.”



“Mr. Brown captures the bravado, desperation, and larger than life drama that make up these individuals and his story telling provides the reader with a ringside seat on how deals get done, why some developments fail, and why others turn into something no one ever expected.”



“This book is great I've read through it 3 times this last month. It covers so many areas of development. If you are experienced or new to development you will learn something from this book.”






“A fantastic book that has forced me to look at development through different eyes. Peter delivers this often polarizing topic in an open minded and even handed perspective and often with a touch of humor. I recommend this book for anyone in the construction industry and for anyone who has a strong opinion, either way, of development and developers.”



“I have sent this book to clients, and made it required reading for staff. It is a very readable and enjoyable look into real estate development projects and the people behind them.”



“Peter's book excels at explaining and personifying what the process is for successful real estate development, what a "good, high quality real estate developer" must excel at to be able to successfully create a project, and also what the public and private process it, as well as how challenging and sometimes non-analytical that process can be.”



“Wow! This book is inspiring. I was fortunate enough to read this book while putting together some of my first real estate deals. This book boosted my confidence and gave me practical examples of how others have succeeded in real estate development.”



“For what appears to be a book for an academic audience, Brown writes in a remarkably engaging style and illustrates his rigorously substantiated points with well-crafted narratives.”



“This was by far one of the most helpful resources I've come across. It's not just another dry RE textbook or huckster "practical guide" to understanding the real estate development process, this book strikes much more to the core of what I needed to know... that is, how many of the top developers really "think" about their projects, deals, finance structuring, relationships, sales and the use of art, recognizing where you are in a cycle, etc.”



“This is a true gem worth exponentially more than it's price - I feel grateful that this has escalated my personal development as serial entrepreneur and new builder... I only wish there were more like it.”