Club Corner, On Campus, Real Estate

The Eighth Annual Harvard Real Estate Weekend

Ina Li, Contributor

Taito Ohe, Contributor

George Zhang, Contributor

Now in its eighth year, the Harvard Real Estate Weekend is the University’s flagship real estate event jointly presented by the Real Estate Clubs of Harvard Business School and the Graduate School of Design. This year, we were honored and pleased to host a sold-out conference on March 9 and 10, which was attended by over 500 alumni, professionals, and students. The two-day Weekend featured a multitude of events, competitions, and panel discussions, covering topics on investment, development, design, policy, and technology in the real estate industry.

Insights from Discussions: Keynotes

The Weekend was anchored by a series of three keynotes on real estate development, investment, design, and policies.

We were honored to welcome Alicia Glen, the former Deputy Mayor of New York for the past five years, as the opening keynote speaker in conversation with Professor Jerold Kayden. Glen shared her experience working with the city, her most proud projects, and her outlook on the city’s growth.

As a former Goldman Sachs executive, Glen is well versed in the private sector, especially the real estate industry. Apart from her most well-known deal (Amazon’s HQ2), she also talked about her work in undertaking the most comprehensive affordable housing program in the nation’s history, launching the citywide ferry service, and making strategic investments in advanced manufacturing, the life sciences, and the tech ecosystem.

Glen insisted that cities have to be more inclusive to succeed, which requires all stakeholders to commit to preserving affordability and diversity. She urged investors and developers to focus on longer-term value creation, actively engage with communities, and use good design to deliberately fit into the fabric of a neighborhood. Learning from past success, Glen believes the city has to become denser and leverage municipal tools and public assets more effectively.

As the closing keynotes at the Design School, SOM Partner Mustafa K. Abadan and Brookfield Design SVP John Durshinger focused on the power and value of design behind large-scale mixed-use developments such as the newly opened Hudson Yards and Manhattan West. The Manhattan West project is located strategically west of Penn Station and east of the Hudson Yards and built over the active mainline train tracks connecting New York with the rest of the East Coast, overcoming a very complex logistical situation. Citing a number of internationally acclaimed projects, they concluded that the key to enhance living quality and minimize financial risks in an increasingly dense urban environment is to leverage the density through mixed-use architecture that is highly integrated into the infrastructure.

The second day of the conference at Klarman Hall featured four more panels and the keynote delivered by JDS Development’s leadership (Michael Stern, CEO; Marci Clark, Director; and Simon Koster, Principal). The team shared their stories, challenges, and insights behind the creation of numerous innovative adaptive reuse and large-scale new construction projects in New York City and Miami, including the Walker Tower, 111 West 57th Street, the American Copper Buildings, and Monad Terrace. The JDS team shared its philosophy of pushing the boundaries of design and construction to deliver the most dynamic projects to the market. They also discussed the importance of team-building and collaboration, as well as leveraging multi-disciplinary talent to realize seemingly impossible tasks.

Insights from Discussions: Panels

In between keynotes, the Weekend hosted seven panels joined by over 35 speakers to discuss the hottest topics in the industry today.

Day one focused on the increasingly active disruptive forces and entrepreneurs that are shaping the industry of tomorrow.

The speakers on the tech panel discussed how the applications of evolving technology such as AI and big data have changed how the industry has traditionally approached and solved problems.

First, access to huge transactional data has enabled companies to better analyze the market, more effectively matching demand with supply and disrupting the traditional home-selling models.

In addition, the discussion addressed the undersupply of affordable homes and how Fintech is making credit and illiquid capital more accessible for those who had little to no prior access. The influx of startups and innovative approaches in prop tech presents new solutions to challenges that the industry has been facing for decades.

The sharing economy panel discussion demonstrated the enormous potential of how innovative co-living projects are transforming and improving the urban living experience for users of all ages, as the co-everything model continues to redefine traditional ownership models. As cities face increasingly dense populations, the sharing model enables property owners to make more efficient use of underutilized fixed assets and provides users with more flexibility and accessibility to high-quality amenities than would otherwise be available to them.

Day two focused on emerging trends in real estate investment and development in response to larger political and social shifts in metropolitan areas around the world.

The Megaproject Panel featured a number of global projects that strategically integrate mixed uses through leveraging their extraordinary scale. The panelists shared their insights on the challenges and opportunities from creating synergy and building new communities in the long term.

The Hospitality panelists discussed the industry’s increasing interactions with millennial tourists and new marketing strategies on experiential hospitality. The panel featured new types of accommodation that focus more on curating personalized and local experience through integrating cities’ tourism sectors.

Responding to the latest buzzword in the industry, the Opportunity Zones panelists offered insights on recently implemented tax benefits from both policymaker and investor perspectives, advising developers on best practices that help tap into the potential.

Development Workshop

This year, the Development Workshop partnered with HYM Investments to come up with creative development proposals for their Suffolk Downs project, a 161-acre development site adjacent to Logan Airport which was seen as the ideal candidate in Boston for Amazon’s HQ2. Eleven interdisciplinary teams led by professional coaches and made up of students and young professionals from backgrounds such as design, development, and finance worked together throughout Saturday to come up with project proposals that were presented to a jury panel comprising industry executives and senior faculty members. Through an intensive day including a site visit and workshop sessions, as well as final presentations, the participants learned to address the complex site through financial, design, and policy perspectives and eventually synthesizing these into a cohesive vision and plan.

Real Estate Venture Competition

Now in its fifth year, the Harvard Real Estate Venture Competition is a showcase for entrepreneurial students and recent graduates with the potential to impact the real estate industry through innovative business strategy and creative execution. The competition welcomed 10 finalists to Harvard for a pitch competition on Saturday, March 9. The start-ups were focused on various aspects of the PropTech ecosystem, including data analytics, co-working, wellness, property management, and finance.

This year’s winner was Victor Hunt, CEO of Astorian, a provider of solutions for property managers to automate procurement for building repairs and improvements. Astorian took home a $33,000 cash prize, which was generously sponsored by The Baupost Group and Lisciotti Development Corp.

NYC Satellite Panel

Prior to the events on the Harvard campus, the Weekend also organized a New York satellite panel on PropTech to kick off the conference, together with our co-hosts Harvard in Tech, MetaProp, Harvard Alumni Real Estate Board, and Amazon AWS. Together with over 200 attendees, founders and experts from Nestio, REX Real Estate, MetaProp, Compound Asset Management, and Corigin Ventures met at the AWS Loft in NYC and discussed how the application of AI, automation, big data, and other emerging technologies can offer boundless opportunities and benefits for entrepreneurs looking to tap into the market. The panel also discussed predictive analytics, real estate cryptocurrencies, and other nuances in funding for PropTech startups.

What’s next? Integrating diversity on all fronts

This year, we were extremely excited to feature such a diverse range of the most relevant topics in the industry today, bringing in new voices from the tech, design, and public sectors. We will continue these cross-sector conversations and build bridges amongst stakeholders, exploring new ways of problem-solving and value creation through collaboration and partnerships. We were also proud to address the diversity issue that is often hotly debated in the real estate industry by bringing in speakers representing all genders and demographics. We are committed to building the real estate community at Harvard into an ever more inclusive community, as we believe in the power of diversity and learning from different perspectives.


Ina Li (HKS/GSD ’20) is currently pursuing a public policy and urban planning joint degree with a concentration in real estate, infrastructure, and urban development. Originally from Beijing, China, she studied and worked in New York City for six years before Harvard. Her past work experience includes real estate development, urban planning and design, and land use. She is particularly interested in large scale public-private-partnership urban development projects.

Taito Ohe (MBA ’20) is an architect and hotel developer with experience in Japan, the United States, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, and China. His completed projects range from condominiums to offices to retail stores, integrating luxury design with functional needs. He managed a premier boutique hotel development in New York City, bringing his expertise to repurpose underutilized assets. By weaving together expertise in disparate fields, he aims to strengthen the rejuvenating impact he brings to the urban built environment.

George Zhang (GSD ’21) is currently a Master of Architecture candidate at the Graduate School of Design (GSD) with a strong focus on real estate development, finance, and economics. Professionally trained as an architect and designer, George is interested in and inspired by the intersection between design, business, and the urban environment. He has professional experience across various design and investment firms, covering a wide range of projects and contexts across the United States, Europe, and Asia.

May 22, 2019
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