In the 1990s, Cincinnati was vexed by a common urban problem: what to do about its downtown core. Fountain Square, the symbolic heart of the city since the 1870s, had lost its luster as a civic space. It was unwelcoming, with a confusing plan and visual barriers that deterred potential visitors. It was underprogrammed. The fountain itself was cast in shadow half the year.
City leaders knew that Cincinnati deserved better, and that, as the headquarters of several Fortune 500 companies, the community possessed the resources for its own improvement. But how to harness disparate private funds for a common civic goal was not clear. So the city turned to HR&A Advisors, a New York–based real estate and economic-development consulting firm.
HR&A, working with architects and planners Cooper, Robertson & Partners, drew up a strategic investment plan and helped establish the Cincinnati Center City Development Corp., or 3CDC, a private, nonprofit development group devoted to the revitalization of downtown. Today, after a $48.9 million renovation by Cooper, Robertson and the landscape architects Olin, Fountain Square is a lively plaza with parklike plantings, a giant LED board, and a full calendar of events. (The fountain also now sits in a sunnier location, thanks to Olin’s landscape design.) 3CDC estimates that the renovation, completed in 2008, has generated $125 million in further investment around the square.
For 31-person HR&A, this kind of urban turnaround is all in a day’s work. Consider a few of the major redevelopment projects the firm has worked on in recent years: New York’s Brooklyn Bridge Park and South Street Seaport; the Toronto waterfront; Washington, D.C.’s Anacostia waterfront. The cherry on top is the High Line, Manhattan’s disused elevated railway-turned-critically feted park, designed by James Corner Field Operations with Diller Scofidio + Renfro.
Requiring rigorous financial analysis, world-class design, and sophistication in public policy to succeed, the High Line was a classic HR&A project. Any number of consulting firms—RCLCO or Jones Lang LaSalle, for example—could have drawn up a pro forma. But those firms wouldn’t have the same history of working with world-class designers. They wouldn’t all relish complicated projects with multiple stakeholders. And they probably wouldn’t value, to the same extent, the intangibles that make a city great.
“We measure our success by our ability to contribute to the character and quality of urban life,” explains John H. Alschuler Jr., the chairman of HR&A. Although the firm’s special skill is integrating finance with design and public approval, its ethos is what sets it apart from the number-crunchers. “It’s not a financing strategy of anything,” Alschuler clarifies. “It’s a financing strategy that creates a distinctive place.”
HR&A was founded in 1984, when Alschuler joined a business that had been set up by Edward Hamilton and Francine Rabinovitz eight years earlier (the other founding partners focus on executive search and tort liability, and operate out of Carmel, Calif.). Alschuler’s father, John H. Alschuler Sr., was a prominent architect in Chicago, as was his grandfather, Alfred Alschuler. Despite this lineage, he “can’t draw a straight line”—yet he still wanted, as early as his teenage years, to contribute to American cities. After getting a doctorate in education, Alschuler found a chance, becoming the assistant to the superintendent of schools in Hartford, Conn. He progressed to the job of assistant city manager. In 1981, he was appointed city manager of Santa Monica, Calif., where he oversaw the redevelopment of the Third Street Promenade. Today, in addition to helming HR&A, Alschuler is a director of SL Green Realty Corp. and chairs the board of directors of Friends of the High Line.
In HR&A’s New York and Los Angeles offices, there are MBAs, economists, lawyers, and finance and public policy experts. Being able to draw on this range of specialist knowledge is a plus for the firm’s clients—and for its collaborators. “As a company, they have a really unique skill set,” says Corie Sharples, AIA, a principal of SHoP Architects and SHoP Construction. On a past SHoP project, she remembers, “I was interested in historic façade credits, and I was able to go to HR&A—they have a historic preservation tax-credit person.”
Alexander Cooper, FAIA, a founding partner of Cooper, Robertson, has worked with Alschuler on at least a dozen projects. He says that Alschuler’s grasp of details is complemented by “an ability to see the whole picture,” thanks to his experience in government, and a strong visual sense—unusual for one in his line of work. “He’s extraordinarily visual. … He has a really good eye. He becomes a collaborator with the architect.” That skill set is in high demand: Cooper once went to an interview for a job and discovered that “John was on all four teams being interviewed.”
In his most productive relationships with designers, Alschuler says, “they can often help us around issues of finance, and how to make a project work” financially—for example, designing a high-quality amenity that would increase rents or sales in nearby buildings. Alschuler believes that his and his colleagues’ deep respect for good design is critical to their own effectiveness. The same level of respect should be manifested by the designer toward the user of public space, he notes. “The American citizen is a very sophisticated consumer of space. People very quickly understand the respect that’s been accorded to them by the designer. And people respond.”
Maybe the most important of HR&A’s strengths, Alschuler argues, is in framing clients’ problems and goals. Often, this is quite different from fulfilling the project brief. Consulting work that isn’t useful is work in which “the economic consultant did what they were asked to do, but what they were asked to do wasn’t the right thing. It was the wrong assignment.”
This observation is echoed by Candace Damon, the firm’s vice chairman and a former real estate lawyer. “What clients are rarely good at is framing their problem. They know they have one. Figuring out the problem is what’s hard, and I think we’re good at it.” In Charlotte, N.C., for example, Damon helped convince officials that developing a park near downtown to draw young residents wasn’t the right idea, because by and large, young employees of the big companies downtown already lived there. She redirected their focus to a small parcel of land which could be developed as a corporate attraction instead.
Today, HR&A is busy with more of the complicated projects it favors, such as legacy planning for the nearly 250 acres of parkland being developed for the 2012 Olympics in London. This work has the potential to help regenerate a swath of East London over the coming decades. It means a lot of trans-Atlantic flights for the partners, and not just during the project.
“I always go back and visit,” Alschuler says. “I like to go back three years later, five, 10 years later. I go back to Santa Monica and see the promenade.”