By: John Montesi
Conscious Place - a Son's Reflections on his Father's Legacy of Bringing Conscious Capitalism to Real Estate Development
It is easy to assume that real estate development and conscious business practices cannot go hand in hand. Somehow, an entire generation got it in their heads that anyone building new things on undeveloped land must not be conscious of the negative impact that new construction can have on the environment and the socioeconomic sphere surrounding it. This line of thinking hinges on the idea that all developers are transaction-hungry land-grabbers who don’t care about the planet or the people who live on it. It even spawned a notorious acronym, NIMBY, for the phrase “Not in My Backyard,” which describes the anti- development sentiment of post-hippies everywhere.
The realities of growth and progress mean that urban land will inevitably be developed or redeveloped to best suit the community’s needs. Not everyone who is in a position to develop that land is interested in stewardship and creating a positive impact for all stakeholders. But, like any industry, real estate development has plenty of people who are interested in finding the intersection of passion and profit, of positive impact and financial viability. Trademark Property Company is one such company.
Founder Terry Montesi and his partners have long sought to create a company culture that embodies their personal principles. From people- first purpose statements to multiple charitable initiatives, Trademark has long been a company that seeks to do more than make a profit. That purpose statement, by the way — “To be extraordinary stewards, enhance communities, and enrich lives” — will be important later in this article.
Montesi realized long ago that it was possible to make a difference in ways other than writing checks to charities. In Trademark’s case, making a difference means using the might of capitalism to expediently enact real change in the communities it partners with. Not only are the amenities offered at its properties of higher quality than those in the majority of nearby public spaces, the private sector operates at a swift pace, free of bureaucracy and funding constraints. Public art, immaculately maintained lawns and gardens, and carefully selected businesses that foster a sense of inclusive community are but a few of the many parts that contribute to a truly exceptional whole.
Between their first developments that had a few people-first amenities and the upcoming ultimate expression of those conscious principals in the built environment — Conscious Place — is a story filled with learning experiences and collaboration between some of the greatest minds in conscious business practices.
The Birth of Conscious Place
The pivotal moment in the story of Trademark and Conscious Place was joining the then-fledgling collective of socially entrepreneurial thinkers and disruptors known as Conscious Capitalism. According to Montesi, “Before we learned about Conscious Capitalism seven years ago, we already had a purpose statement, our guiding principles, and an idea that we wanted to do more, but once we met Conscious Capitalism, we started putting words around it and getting enmeshed in the culture and refined the idea of doing unique things at our places and as a company.”
The Conscious Capitalism summit events helped Trademark refine its understanding and vision for how to enact the social change it believes in through its primary business activity. Montesi recounts, “The more conscious principles we built into our projects, the more we realized we really were enhancing communities and enriching lives. All these amazing brands spoke at the Conscious Capitalism Summit, and they talked about the magic happening either inside of their offices or inside the four walls of their specific retail places, but nobody was talking about physical, large-scale expressions of consciousness. So at one of the summits, I went up to [Whole Foods Market Co-CEO] Walter Robb and told him I had some ideas about conscious places. A few months later, we had a meeting. I had four pieces of paper and the first one was nothing but our purpose statement, and Walter just stared at it. I thought, ‘Oh no, he’s going to bust my chops,’ but he said, ‘That is a great purpose statement. We talk about supporting communities; you’re enriching them. We need to do better.’"
That meeting would fundamentally alter and dramatically accelerate Trademark’s trajectory toward building places that embody all of the values that conscious businesses expound. A partnership with Whole Foods and the idea for Conscious Place were born.
Of that meeting, Walter Robb said, “To give Terry credit, he came to the Conscious Capitalism conferences and listened to all this talk and said, ‘OK, I’ve got to think about how that might apply to our business.’ And so he came up with this whole idea for creating the first-ever shopping center that’s based on these broader, stakeholder- inclusive principles.”
Just as building a shopping center from the ground up doesn’t happen overnight, creating a set of essential principals that influence the way a brand conducts business and builds large-scale structures takes time and collaboration. Often, projects with great intentions forget to ask their intended users for input. This is true of public and private endeavors alike, and the results can often miss the mark. Trademark strove to ensure that its Conscious Place project did just the opposite. The company made collaborating with community members a key tenet of its project. When asked what brings consciousness to a place from day one, Montesi explained, “An inclusive listening process. Most developers hire an architect, go to a community, look at a piece of land, and arrive as knowers. We don’t want to be knowers; we want to be learners. How can you meet your stakeholders’ needs if you think you already know the answers instead of asking the stakeholders and being good listeners?”
The First Conscious Place Breaks Ground
Development of the first ground-up Conscious Place, known as Waterside, is currently underway in Trademark’s hometown of Fort Worth, Texas. There are dozens of unique initiatives and amenities being pioneered at Waterside that will also find their way into future Trademark projects. Each project will be unique, but the blank slate and stunning property situated along the Trinity River and shaded by a grove of heritage oak trees is poised to set the bar high.
Trademark’s commitment to the local and the artisan means that plenty of opportunities will be available for local florists and chefs to peddle their wares alongside Girl Scouts and national retail mainstays like Whole Foods and REI. Micro- restaurant sites allow new chefs to quickly begin serving local fare, while a community pavilion can be reserved for free by any group in order to provide a safe, high-quality meeting place for clubs, birthday parties, and scout troops who want to sell cookies. From interactive art that can be used as playground toys for children to bocce courts for parents, the first ground-up Conscious Place overtly focuses on human interaction, recreation, and leisure while providing a wealth of inspiration and amenities that benefit all members of the surrounding community.
Waterside is unique in the way it has integrally involved individual retailers whose beliefs align with Trademark’s. Whole Foods is building a rainwater collection system on its roof and has incorporated the collection cistern prominently in its design. REI is rolling out a canoe and kayak rental program tailored to the section of the Trinity River adjacent to the property. Features like an additional mile of trail connecting to existing infrastructure, outdoor exercise circuits, shade structures, and bicycle work stations further the sense that Waterside is a paradigm-shifting combination of privately funded community amenities and world-class shopping and dining.
From solar charging stations for cellphones and electric cars to inspirational quotes and digital video boards that alternate between inspiring content and community information centers, to free Wi-Fi and filtered drinking water, Conscious Place is all about allowing people to recharge in tranquil spaces without denying them the modern amenities that paying customers expect at high-quality establishments. The key difference is that all non-retail amenities are completely free to users, which makes it possible to reap the benefits of the development without purchasing a thing. With sustainable features like rainwater reclamation and solar panels featured prominently throughout the project, Waterside will offset its ecological impact while educating visitors about the conservation that’s possible with today’s technology.
Trademark also hired innovation and design specialist Cassie King to work full-time helping the company constantly push the envelope of conscious, innovative thinking in a very innovation-averse industry. King helps ensure that there is a high level of artful cohesion between the built and natural environments; for example, that planters and signage harmonize with native trees and grasses to create an environment that is far greater than the sum of its parts. She explains, “The way that I describe it to people is that I’m creating spaces and experiences that make people want to come back and want to shop, but really, it’s to come back and visit spaces again.”
When asked about her role within an industry historically known for prioritizing efficient transactions, King explained, “It’s the chicken or the egg: do you get the lease first, or do you have the amenities before the lease? It’s different with a lot of different companies and their respective processes. A brand like Warby Parker, for example, is all about having the right vibe, the cool factor surrounding its store — the trees, the benches, the public art — that’s the only way it will come.” More retailers are following suit, limiting their brick-and-mortar expansions to locations that bring their aesthetic and values beyond the store’s four walls or Instagram accounts.
In addition to the art of the structural details, Trademark commissioned legendary Texas artist Bob “Daddy-O” Wade to design public art installations based on found objects from the former structures situated on the site. It was important to Trademark that the property’s past life as the General Dynamics/Lockheed Martin Recreation Association site would not simply be swept under the rug as it transformed into Waterside. That commitment to public art adds another dimension to the Conscious Place, which aims to educate and inspire visitors.
The Business Case
Conscious Capitalism is about more than spreading positive feelings at the workplace and building beautiful projects that look good in brochures. Trademark believes that Conscious Place can bring the good vibes and pervasive optimism felt at Conscious Capitalism summits to a wider audience by demonstrating what it means to have a level playing field for all stakeholders. Community members, investors, and Trademark all see increased benefits from conscious business practices. This goes beyond the whimsical, tranquil experience for the visitor; bringing innovative design and thinking to the retail shopping experience can also increase competitive advantage and staying power in the age of fleeting moments and endlessly refreshable newsfeeds. In an era characterized by instant delivery of virtually anything with the push of a button, retail shopping is experiencing heavy pressure to innovate and differentiate itself from its online counterparts. Walter Robb noted, “We’re looking to try new things with the built environment. Today it’s all about the customer’s experience; the customer is in charge. Through technology, the customer picks what they want, when they want it, and our job is to build something that serves that in different ways. So it’s going to require a lot more creativity to create built environments that are going to meet that sort of test.”
Trademark has been acutely aware of the impact that the Internet has had on retail centers. Montesi explains, “With the onslaught of e-commerce in the last 10 years, people are becoming more picky about where they spend their time — both their leisure time and their shopping time. And if you don’t give them something that really enriches their life, is interesting, and connects with them emotionally, then they’ll just sit at home on the computer and buy. Brand-building and long-term connection with your customer are all about building places that invest much more in the customer experience and amenities and ultimately will make our places much more successful.”
That success is essential to the conscious company seeking to generate a true paradigm shift. Proving that putting people first is a profitable business model will generate change that reaches well beyond one company. Success is critical in every business endeavor, but it can be measured differently. Fiscal success is proven on spreadsheets, but the intangible success of building a place that truly enriches the lives it touches can only be experienced by visiting it. Shopping and leisure are inexorably linked, and the purpose-built Conscious Place takes that several steps further. Whole Foods, Trademark, and several other industry insiders have collaborated to build a place that they sincerely believe can be a successful public space and a profitable project.
The mission of the Conscious Place is to inspire, educate, and engage with all stakeholders in each project, and as more are built, the potential impact extends far beyond the realm of real estate. Trademark has proven that conscious business practices are feasible and repeatable on a large scale, and by creating built embodiments of on-paper ideals, it inspires others to act on their ideals, too.
Photos: Trademark Property Company
John is a writer based in Austin, Texas. He enjoys covering the intersection between passionate pursuits and profit in a broad range of fields. When he isn’t writing, he’s riding bikes, which leads to lots of confusion thanks to his Texas accent.