Last week’s unlikely viral event was our homegrown Jackie Weaver and Handforth Parish Council meeting. 

Susan Freeman

Susan Freeman

Who could have predicted that this week’s excitement would be around the ‘cattorney’, the US lawyer who had to appear at a virtual court hearing as a cat because he couldn’t work out how to remove the rogue cat filter applied by his assistant’s daughter. Fact continues to be stranger than fiction in the time of Covid-19. 

This year’s ULI Europe Conference took place virtually this year. It is difficult to believe that just a year ago we were able to attend the 2020 Conference in Amsterdam. At the time, Covid-19 was an issue confined to China and we had no idea it would be exported globally, and that this would be our last large scale real estate gathering for some considerable time.

This year’s conference, albeit virtual, didn’t disappoint. Of the many thought provoking conference sessions, I particularly enjoyed the panel on whether real estate companies are innovating fast enough. Moderated by James Scott, Lead Researcher for the MIT Real Estate Innovation Lab, the panel included Andrei Girenkov, CTO at Greystar, Gab McMillan CEO and co-founder of Equiem and Ross Bailey, Founder and CEO of Appear Here (with his companion Edie the bulldog).

Covid-19 has impacted digitalisation in all sectors, but according to Girenkov, proptech remains five years behind other sectors including fintech.

Bailey was more damning, insisting that real estate was 10 years behind. At the same time, other tech sectors have been accelerated 10 years by Covid-19. McMillan said that the ball was rolling pre Covid-19 but it is only in the last 5 years that people like Girenkov have come over to real estate from fintech. The consensus was that real estate technology, whilst it has gained ground, is still quite nascent.

Girenkov raised an interesting point on who benefits from and who actually pays for technology. Bailey responded that in other consumer industries there is a constant focus on how to make experiences better for the customer. In his view, the real estate sector is too focused on cost.


Source: Shutterstock/ SFIO CRACHO

The panel also discussed the problem of having too much data. The challenge is to take the data and tie it into actionable insights, which presents an opportunity for predictive analytics. Bailey made the point that brands often mistrust landlords and are more likely to be willing to share their data with Apple whilst wary of sharing with landlords.

A winner of this year’s Urban Land Institute (ULI) European Leader Award was Tristan Capital Partners’ Executive Chairman, Ric Lewis for his contribution to urban development and real estate, along with his civic and social endeavours as part of the Black Heart Foundation. Accepting the award Lewis, said, ‘I think it’s important for me to be a role model and a trailblazer. The real estate industry does not have enough diversity, whether that’s by gender or ethnicity or background, and it’s a priority for me to demonstrate that the industry can be inclusive.’

The need for increased diversity was recognised by the announcement of the new ULI European Trish Barrigan Award for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI), in honour of Trish Barrigan, co-founder and managing partner of Benson Elliot Capital Management, who sadly passed away last year. The award will go to an individual showing outstanding leadership and contribution in advancing and promoting DEI in European real estate.

Rising to the diversity and inclusion challenge this week, the inaugural meeting of the Property Week D&I Editorial Advisory Board included many new faces and diverse views from across the generations. I am delighted to be involved and look forward to more thoughtful feedback and ideas at our next meeting.

And continuing with the diversity theme, it has been reported that IWG Plc which, under its founder Mark Dixon pioneered flexible offices more than 30 years ago under the Regus brand, has bought a stake in female focused, New York based co working startup, The Wing.

In another deal, which may be indicative of things to come, Mike Hussey’s Almacantar has converted part of its west end Centre Point development from restaurant to offices and let the space to Japanese property company Kajima for its new European HQ.

Meanwhile in New York, in a repurposing deal first reported by New York’s The Real Deal, Brooklyn-based flexible working company The Yard is to convert to offices a shuttered Courtyard by Marriott hotel in Herald Square, New York. No doubt, we will be seeing many more instances of landlords looking for many and varied alternative uses in response to changing customer demand.

It was good to hear this week from Landsec CEO, Mark Allan, interviewed by Becky Worthington for Movers and Shakers. His comment that as a company ‘you need to be clear what you are great at’ really resonated. He said that Landsec will be focusing on three broad sectors, firstly Central London, encompassing offices and mixed use, secondly retail and thirdly urban opportunities involving regeneration.

He recognised that there will be challenging tradeoffs for companies in relation to achieving net zero targets. It will be more difficult to justify demolishing existing stock and rebuilding shiny new buildings and the industry will have to think more about repurposing.

Demolition is something that is attracting increasing discussion. As General Projects founder, Jacob Loftus commented recently on twitter, ‘The retention, reinvention and reuse of existing buildings, rather than demolishing & starting again, is one of the simplest moves our industry could make to meaningfully contribute to reducing carbon emissions.’

When I raised this with him, he commented that the government should be offering tax incentives to encourage more residential and commercial refurbishment rather than new build. He added, ‘I think this is such an important topic for the future as it’s really the single biggest thing that can reduce construction industry emissions in the short term!’ It would be interesting to know what others think.

Finally, congratulations to Fifth Wall VC Fund who this week, barely five years since it was founded, has raised $345 million in its first Special Purpose Acquisition Company (SPAC) to target proptech start ups with potential. With this sort of activity, perhaps our ‘nascent’ proptech sector will soon come of age.

Susan Freeman is a partner at Mishcon de Reya