In this episode of The Distribution by Juniper Square, Managing Director Brandon Sedloff sat down with Michael Phillips, President and Principal of Jamestown, a global, design-focused real estate investment and management firm with a 40-year track record. Michael is the driving force behind the company’s adaptive reuse projects, including Chelsea Market in New York City, Ponce City Market in Atlanta, Industry City in Brooklyn, and Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco.
Here is a portion of that interview, edited for clarity. Watch a recording of the entire back-and-forth here.
Brandon Sedloff: Jamestown is one of the most innovative companies when it comes to ESG. Can you explain your timber project—what that is and how it came to be?
Michael Phillips: ESG is emerging as one of the biggest priorities in the U.S. Whether that's tracking energy consumption, smart locks, the materiality of the space with cross-laminated timber, or solutions regarding being carbon neutral, all of those things are important.
We wanted to design a cross-laminated timber office building, which is much more carbon efficient for many reasons. But we found that in a market like Atlanta, even with Georgia Pacific headquartered there, it was still cheaper to buy the cross-laminated timber from Eastern Europe or the Pacific Northwest rather than a locally sourced solution.
So we created an end-to-end solution. Our timberland is FSC-certified, which is the best certification for cross-laminated timber. It’s Southern Yellow Pine, a very renewable resource. And we worked with Georgia Pacific to pilot this program—we have no pride of authorship here. We want as many people to engage in that solution as possible because it just makes the world a better place. The timber we grow goes to a cross-laminated timber plant within 100 miles of the trees and then comes to the building site. All within 200 miles, we've sourced and erected a building from the raw material.
We also have timber funds, which we started really in 2010 as an alternative investment strategy in a renewable resource that was adjacent to real estate.
Brandon Sedloff: What makes a great reuse or redevelopment project?
Michael Phillips: It’s subjective; it's in the eye of the beholder. Obviously, there are the physical characteristics—we need good bones to start with and either a great location or a very unexpected location. I don't think it always needs to be in the most central area of the city. We do tend to like buildings that are a million square feet or more—they're hard to find—but creating an ecosystem that services a variety of sectors generally requires that much space.
Buildings reveal themselves as you uncover what they're about, particularly old buildings. In a ground-up project where you design from scratch, you can be very intentional. But one of the great things about old buildings is they give you gifts that you don't expect. More often than not, they create a cultural or architectural reference point that guides you in a direction.
At Ponce City Market in Atlanta, for instance, we uncovered a piece of the building that had an original rail spur that came through it. Embedded in there was an incredible riveted structure that was 100 years old and became a really interesting engagement point.
Brandon Sedloff: What advice would you give to people who want to think about innovation like you do?
Michael Phillips: We need more real estate executives to look honestly at how they live their lives, not aspirationally at the life they wish they had. The reality is it's a much more casual world. It's a much more engaged world. It's a much more interdependent world. I think we need to create spaces that reflect that.
Say I get off a plane, I go to a building in midtown Manhattan, and I get scowled at in the lobby. I am uncomfortable. I don’t want to be there. 90% of the workforce feels the same way. So how do we remove that? How does our industry lean into the tools that our kids are using and the trends that are happening, as opposed to turning our backs on them and creating places that aren't for real people?
I would just start there: be more reflective about your choices when you're not at work and I think you'll find that the space you create when you're back at work will look a lot different.
Brandon Sedloff: What does the built environment represent to you?
Michael Phillips: I would start by saying it's all subjective but for me, the built environment is there to house humans and all the human interactions and work processes and leisure processes that we engage in. We need to create desirable places. Looking at how people designed cities over the last 100 years, it was about framing the human's relationship to something bigger than themselves. It's almost, in a way, like old religious architecture. The biggest building in the city in medieval times was the church spire.
As we evolve, we need real estate and physical buildings that allow us to feel more at one and engage with them as peers, as opposed to things bigger than us. We spend a lot of time in our business figuring out how to make real estate more accessible, comfortable, and inclusive. It could be something as simple as wayfinding and signage. Or it can be much more complex with multi-layers of living and hospitality, food and beverage, and health and wellness, all layered into one space. Great cities and neighborhoods have that embedded in their urban planning and master planning mechanisms. Oftentimes, when you design a single-purpose or single-sector product, you're missing some piece of that.
I think we have to reinforce the human connection to the physical place. We've got an office environment of intimidation, which has been the intent of landlords and companies that co-locate there. It's all designed to make the human feel a little like an interloper, not like they belong. But if you come to a meeting in my office and you walk through with biometrics or facial recognition, and it's just frictionless—you're going to feel good. Like you belong. Like you were truly invited to be in that building. That sense of belonging and inclusion is what we need to spend a lot more time on.
Want to get the full conversation? Watch it now.