'Buildings don't have human qualities, but they are the way we create connections with one another.'
Name: Catherine Guentert
Company: CG Design + Development
City: Los Angeles, California
Product Types: mixed use and creative office
What did you do before you were a developer?
I was the development-wide project manager for a 460-acre, mixed-use project called Playa Vista, also known as Silicon Beach, in West Los Angeles. It was a unique project to work on because it’s one of the largest projects of its kind in the country: it serves as a tech hub for Los Angeles with for-rent multifamily housing, for-sale single-family housing, creative office for tenants like Google and Yahoo, retail, publicly accessible parks, and a man-made wetland. I learned how 30 years of entitlements and a unique vision for building a multidimensional community has positively affected a sprawling city like Los Angeles.
Before that, I started out doing redevelopment projects. With my background in architecture and civil engineering, I took a unique approach to repositioning deteriorating single-family homes in prominent areas of Los Angeles, and a historic building in Alabama. In my early 20s, I did drafting for architecture firms and then got hired into engineering and construction management roles on bigger projects. After graduate school, I worked in private equity for a multifamily real estate firm.
What motivated you to make the leap into development?
I love buildings: they’re how we frame our lives. Los Angeles is a megacity: it has a massive infrastructure coupled with diverse urban neighborhoods that somehow create this wonderful connection. As a designer, you’re always creating space so that you give individuals an opportunity to interact and a platform to communicate in certain ways. Buildings don’t have human qualities, but they are the way we create connections with one another.
In dealing with the day-to-day operation of your enterprise, what do you find to be most difficult to accomplish?
The toughest thing as a small business owner is that you’re pulled in a million directions at once. The trick is to understand the most important items to be addressed on any given day and to be able to juggle those. I think about the idea that you need to be “in the weeds” and pay attention to detail to get things done while being able to see everything from the ”mile-out view” and assess where the next big move should be made.
Where do you turn to get a fresh perspective or experienced insight on a prospective or existing deal?
I engage with a lot of people on a weekly basis. It could be city officials, asking them questions about the project or their vision for the future of Inglewood. Speaking with individuals who are in other industries, law or investment banking or e-commerce, is key for me. I like to understand markets outside of real estate and how those intertwine with what we’re doing. That gives me insight on what our goals should be.
Goals, to me, are a constant evolution of new thought by re-creating. That’s something that I learned in architecture school—everything should be iterative. You come up with this initial idea or concept, and you continue to iterate it until it becomes what it’s best suited to be.
Was there a time recently when there was a snag that you had to iterate through?
One of the sites we have in Inglewood required quite a bit of evolution to get it to the initial permit stages. It’s a smaller, narrower site with existing multifamily. When we got the site, the goal was to increase the number of units and keep it as a multifamily use. The structures were so dated that there was no way to renovate. Going to the city and assuming that the use would be grandfathered in was a poor assumption. Learning that that site had a different land use plan, not allowing for all multifamily, was definitely tough and deeply affected the pro forma. Ultimately, we could put only a fraction of the multifamily and office, or very limited types of retail on the site. The scale of the project, and the design features of it had to be reduced drastically to accommodate the changes.
What gets you out of bed every day to do what you do?
We have a serious homelessness issue in Los Angeles. HomeAid Los Angeles/Ventura, an organization we provide volunteer services to, discusses the high percentage of the homeless population in Los Angeles as being under the age of six. Los Angeles has some serious issues with respect to affordability for families and housing, so I’m seeking to do development in Inglewood that contributes to the existing neighborhood context and amplifies connection with the existing community.
What does being a successful real estate developer mean to you?
I think it’s hard to remember that success can be defined as many different things. There’s all levels of success in Los Angeles. Projects that make incredible impacts on the community and that make incredible amounts of money. Success for our team means coming up with better ways of delivering small development to impact the local neighborhood, and have the company evolve into the most effective vehicle for that.
In looking at the next one to two years, what do you see as the biggest challenges to your business and projects?
We’ll have to be very strategic about when our two sites in Inglewood are delivered so that it’s timed with the completion of the new football stadium. There’s so much opportunity coming into Los Angeles—not just in Inglewood, but in other areas east of the 405; the issue will be finding the balance between projects that can sustain our company and those that will allow us to grow and define our niche.
What skills or traits do you think are most important to make the leap into real estate development?
To me, real estate development is a giant gambling game where sometimes many are winning small (at the peak of the market) and other times few are winning big (bottom of the market cycle). Having the innate ability to stay positive and make prudent decisions is key. Being very persistent is also a must: remembering that everything is negotiable.
What skill or trait did you lack at one point, and how did you overcome it?
There are so many moving parts with development: finance, entitlements, understanding of the local market, construction, design… I moved to Los Angeles in 2013 not knowing anything about the local market, and having just recently acquired a little knowledge about the finance side of real estate deals. However, I was eager to learn.
I guess the trait of feeling like you have to know everything was something I had to overcome. I wasn’t sure how people would react if I asked them for input. You kind of have to swallow your pride [chuckles] and ask people who have been in the industry to review your work and get consultants to regularly review what you’re working on.
Whom do you most admire?
One of them would be my professor of real estate at Wharton, Asuka Nakahara. He’s someone who instilled a love of real estate in me. He’s a wildly successful professor and real estate developer. He’s been a mentor to me since I got started in real estate and has always been a person who’s willing to give good advice when I wasn’t sure what the next step should be.
What’s your favorite city to visit and why?
I’ve been really lucky to travel extensively, but my favorite city is Detroit. I like the underdog, and what I think is going to be a comeback kid. To me, it represents the North American automobile industry, which is near and dear to my heart. I grew up in South Bend, Indiana, which is where Studebaker Automobile had their hub. The first project I worked on in my career was a redevelopment project on a former Studebaker factory building. Learning about the history and the impact of putting a car in every household in America, and that being part of the American Dream, still feels like it’s captured in Detroit.
About Entrepreneur Profiles
Entrepreneur Profiles are conversations with real estate development professionals who, in most cases, have recently made the leap into the industry whether as young individuals fresh out of school or as mid-career transitions.
With a focus on small-scale developers often doing incremental and transformative work, these are quick and easy to read profiles to raise awareness of these professionals. By telling their stories, the Urban Land Institute hopes to inspire the next generation of small scale entrepreneurs to transform their own communities. See the most recent Entrepreneur Profiles.