BCC's Fiddlin' Project Manager!
Updated: Nov 9, 2020
On Project Management
Could you describe what you do as a project manager? A project manager, as I describe it, is a general manager for developing real estate projects. I have a broad knowledge base in real estate but I don't pretend to be an expert in construction or engineering or design or finance. What I do have is years of experience working with all those professionals and managing the process to bring a lot of different elements together that need to happen to make the project. There are many moving targets in real estate development. And it's fun because it's a big challenge. It's like a Jenga puzzle, something that has two dimensions and then three dimensions and you get to work out how to problem-solve something that has complex facets to it. What does a typical workday, week, or month look like for you? I try to stick with no more than two projects at a time. So, typically, I check the schedule every morning and prioritize items, texts, voicemails, and emails for my two projects. I make a priority list for what needs to happen that day because everything is time sensitive, so it's deciding what needs to happen first and what needs to happen later. There's a lot of reminding and nudging; sometimes I say I'm a professional nudger. And then, occasionally in that week or month, I get to do some creative problem solving. So, right now, my second project is a piece of property that I'm acquiring with my LLC, which is Affordable Durham LLC, and it's going to be for mixed-income rental housing. There's a lot of creative problem solving about how to make the numbers work given the high construction costs and what kind of design and product works for that project. And that's really the fun part.
Careering Path How did you wind up in this line of work? In college, I had no idea that this would be my career. I went to Northwestern as a history major and so I ended up in Evanston, Illinois. After college, I worked eight years in natural food stores. I transitioned from that store to Whole Foods to eventually managing the Durham Food Co-op. Along the way, I became really interested in the concept of the communities movement through working with the food co-ops. And through the co-op community I also met Sherri Rosenthal, who was developing Eno Commons Cohousing; this was when I was in my 20s. I loved the idea and it really intrigued me -- I had loved living in my dorm in college and sharing an apartment with friends afterward -- but I couldn't afford to join at that time because I was a baker in a grocery store!
Ellen Weinstein (left), of Weinstein Friedlein Architects, takes members of BCC's Development Oversight Circle, on a tour of The Bartlett to look at finishings and appliances. From left: Ellen, Jen Liner, Christine Westfall, Jim McCrae.
That kind of set the stage. I really became interested and intrigued by housing development watching [Eno Commons Cohousing]. And I also really came to terms with affordability issues. That was in the 90s, you know; I loved working in a grocery but there was no way you could afford a home on a grocery salary. I also did some work with the Durham Community Land Trustees during that phase, helping lower income kids in a summer youth program. Then a job came up at a new community land trust in Chapel Hill that was being set up at the town's behalf, and they needed someone to help get that up and running. So I got that job. And that was my entree into affordable housing. For me, the interest in community came first, before housing development. I ended up being the Land Trust’s project manager. I worked in Chapel Hill for 10 years while living in Durham and it was a great experience. I learned all my real estate stuff there. And after then I transitioned in 2010 to being an independent contractor.
And Then ... Durham Central Park Cohousing When did cohousing projects enter the picture? I worked as a consultant on various projects but I really wanted to focus on real estate development. I talked with some of my colleagues, one of whom worked with Self Help Credit Union, and she was a good friend of Doug Henderson-James. Doug had asked her for a lead on project managers who could work with his group on developing what would be Durham Central Park Cohousing Community (DCPCC). They already had a terrific set of professional skills in-house. So I was hired to assist Doug with managing that process; I was able to tell them how to set up an HOA, connect them with a lawyer who could do that work, set up capital expense projections, vet the contractors, and so on. Doug and his team brought so many skills to the project to begin with that it was very collaborative. That project took them seven years total from starting to look for land to finishing up. I was with them for almost two years. I had been through managing regular developments in affordable housing, but I'd never been through something like [the Durham Central Park project] -- it was intimidating at first. What made it intimidating? When managing a regular project there are a lot of decisions to be made that are contingent on other decisions. Decisions here and decisions there lead to a lot of possible paths. And those permutations can be overwhelming to think about, and sometimes even the strongest detail managers can get sort of, "how the heck do we take the right path?" In affordable housing, the decisions are somewhat contained. There would only be one owner -- which would be the nonprofit -- and the scope of the design options is quite limited. But with Durham Central Park, we got into a project with people who had more money, who wanted more customizations, and who had a 24-household LLC. I did not deal with all those people but there were a lot of pieces and parts to that process that got added on that I didn't expect. And even being in it now, again, as a member of BCC, I should have known how complex it was -- but it still surprises me how complicated it is! Going through the Durham Central Park project gave me a lot more confidence to think about doing this myself. When people in [BCC] have anxiety I totally understand it because if you haven't been through the whole schmear it can be hard to see how it will resolve itself. What shifted for you to make you think, well, cohousing development is not just a project you could manage but something you wanted to be a part of. Well, I'd already had that long-term interest in cohousing. And one day, I was helping the DCPCC owners punch out their units and then move in, and I remember Carl Rose coming down the hall and he was all excited and he said "It's like living in a dorm again!" And that really rang a bell for me because living in a dorm was really a terrific experience in my life. Seeing them be successful just made me realize that, you know, I had enjoyed that type of living for a long time and you don't need to necessarily wait until you retire to go back to it. I was 42 and so -- why not start earlier?
From DCPCC to BCC What led you to BCC? You are one of the six original members of the LLC that bought the land where BCC will build. After the DCPCC project finished, I consulted for a couple of other groups that were interested in developing cohousing communities. One group I worked with was Intown Neighborhood Place, where I met Jim McCrae and his wife, Maria, and several other great people. They put together an LLC and looked for a site for a few years, but had a hard time finding an affordable, suitable property near downtown. When I discovered the site on Trent Drive in 2017, I reached out to them because I felt they had the same vision of community and shared spaces and values that I had. And they also shared my vision for including some affordable housing. Teri and Jo were the first people to commit to buying the property with us, and Jim and Maria, who joined soon after that, brought with them Intown Neighborhood Place’s already established LLC (INP LLC). In the end, it came down to the six of us pooling our money to make an offer on and buy the property on Trent Street. We felt like a good fit together from the start—we really enjoyed each other. And we bought the property at a very good price, which has been a great risk buffer for the project. With plenty of generous advice from DCPCC, we were able to get the process started fairly quickly and we started recruiting for members in Spring of 2018.
Was that an easy or hard decision for you and Judie to make as a couple? Judie remembers that one of our early dates many years ago I started talking about cohousing. She didn’t run away from me then, and by the time we decided to take the plunge on Bull City Commons, she really liked the idea. Community is a value we share.
Cohousing From the Inside You viewed the cohousing development before from the outside, now you're on the inside. What are you seeing differently? I'm surprised at how well this community plays in the sandbox. I'm surprised at how well sociocracy works. I think -- and Doug has kind of confirmed this for me -- I think our flight on [governance] has been a little bit smoother than theirs, probably because they've helped guide us. So, I am delighted with the personalities of people that have joined. I think there's so much creativity, fun, intelligence, and good heartedness. The important thing, to me, is that we have a group of people that have different personalities, but we're all pretty patient and kind and nobody scratches, which bodes well for the community.
Christine with her wife, Judie, at the Beaver Queen Pageant
Lessons Learned From the DCPCC Experience What were some lessons learned from the DCPCC project? Doug Henderson-James has been a great mentor for me. One thing he repeated often when they were developing Durham Central Park, and I heard him say this at the meetings, that the people are more important than the building, the relationships are more important than the building. We're lucky that we're getting to build this custom thing, which is going to be beautiful. But you can have an incredible community experience whether you know you have a common room or not. Just remember in the long run to put the relationships first. And then the second thing... When we started this project, I asked him, "So how is it living together?" He said, "It's been great, and one of the biggest things that we've learned is that you can't walk away from conflict in cohousing." In a neighborhood, if someone irritates you, you just walk your dog down a different block to avoid their house. Cohousing requires a deeper level of relationships, it requires learning to be honest with each other and to work through things.
Affordable Housing and Community Building Talk a bit about about affordable housing as a component of community building. Because one observation about cohousing is that it is not affordable housing. Oh yeah, that's a huge part of my journey. Even back to the little story about wanting to join Eno Commons when I was working at Whole Foods, and realizing that here was something really awesome but if you're a grocery worker you can't afford it. One of the things that keeps coming back to me is that people who provide the most basic services that we need to survive every day, like food, can't afford to buy homes in towns like Chapel Hill or Durham, in places where you know there are good schools and desirable communities. That seemed unfair to me and it still does. And I don't think it's anybody's fault; I think it's the way our economic system works. But it it still feels unfair. And so I see affordable housing as my life work, really, and doing it in a way that encourages community. From the start, when we founded Bull City Commons, I had brought to the table that I'd like it to have 15% affordable units, which is what they do in Chapel Hill. It's not a lot, but that was the four studios. Back at that time, the numbers looked good for doing that. Then construction costs increased 40% in three years. [The affordable unit prices were later adjusted to be in line with the other units' prices.] It's really hard for me and, frankly, I don't know that I'll be able to continue the model that I had wanted to work with, which was a private sector model to do this without public subsidy. We'll see if we can make that work with our new projects, but construction costs are what they are. I love cohousing and it's disappointing to me that it costs so much to produce it. Several of my friends who wanted to be in this community can't afford it, you know, and that's hard.
Here Comes the Fiddlin' Part You're a musician also. Tell us a bit about your music side. Music is a huge part of my life because I'm not a workaholic; I don't even want to pretend that I want to be. I started out playing old-time fiddle in my 20s and I had an old time band for a while. For the past eight years, I've played fiddle in a Cajun band called Cajammers. It's a dance band so people who like to two-step and waltz can come out and enjoy themselves, And I'm also in a -- for lack of a better word -- more of a rock band with a trio. My first instrument was guitar so I'm kind of circling back to rhythm guitar and also playing my fiddle. What's the band called? "Because, Duh!" [Smiles.] Yeah, it's saucy.