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You Can Make Money in Underserved Communities, Says Robin Zeigler

August 16, 2022

Robin Zeigler knows a few things about development. As Cedar Trust Realty COO, she oversaw operations for 9 million square feet of grocery-anchored shopping centers.  And as COO of the Mid-Atlantic for Federal, she did the same for 40 shopping centers and five mixed-use projects representing 7.3 million square feet. Now, Zeigler is parlaying those decades of development knowledge into underserved neighborhoods. In May, she launched MURAL Real Estate Partners; the “MURAL” stands for Mixed Use Revitalization Approached Locally. Zeigler’s vision is to spur economic development through the development and management of mixed-use assets in underserved communities. She spoke with Commerce + Communities Today contributing editor Rebecca Meiser about the impetus for the firm and why she thinks developers need to look at amenities like healthcare and childcare facilities when investing in mixed-use communities.

You’ve had decades of experience in mixed-use and shopping center development. What was the impetus for MURAL?

As a COO, I was operating retail grocery-anchored shopping centers in all different parts of the country. I was really seeing that there is a need in underserved communities for retail services, as well as affordable housing, and that historically, capital has really been deployed in certain markets in our country and not others. I started to think: “What would happen if you deployed those types of projects in underserved areas?” I was able to start the focus of that ethos at Cedar Realty when we put together Northeast Heights in Ward 7, [a mixed-use redevelopment of two shopping centers in an underserved Washington, D.C. neighborhood]. We also worked on two other projects in Philly that had that same type of urban underserved community. It just proved again to me there really is a strong demand and a lack of supply in these neighborhoods. As we were going through the pandemic and with George Floyd, I decided that if not now, I would never do it, so I decided to take a leap and start my own company.

What sort of projects will MURAL focus on?

We look to find projects or land or opportunities in markets that are underserved. Typically, what that means is that pick a city, and capital has been deployed on one side of the highway, road, bridge or street but not on the other. When you go across that bridge or highway or street, the capital deployment just falls off of a cliff. But there’s still a lot of community there, spending power there, demand there, just no supply and a lack of capital investment. We specifically look for those areas because we can see [that] the city trajectory moved towards this particular area and then stopped. What we look to do is continue that economic vibrancy past whatever the previous barrier was. We have several projects that kind of fit in that category. And then we also feel very strongly about creating mixed-use developments.

Why is mixed-use so important to you and for your firm?

There are many affordable housing developers out there that are focused on creating affordable housing, but affordable housing by itself does not create economic empowerment. What does create economic empowerment is having a vibrant tax base, having goods, having services, having people continuously coming in and enjoying the economic offerings of a set community. A lot of these communities don’t have that. We’re really looking to create mixed-use elements in neighborhoods and communities in these areas that have a strong vibrant street with the residential above.

When looking at a project, you’ve said MURAL looks at six points of “advocacy” MURAL to ensure success: stable and affordable housing, job creation, providing educational opportunities, facilitating health and wellness programs, fostering and supporting the existing culture; and environmental sustainability and responsibility. Why are these six points so important in mixed-use developments?

These are the areas where we feel real estate can be most impactful to ensuring sustained economic empowerment to communities, particularly in communities that have been historically underserved. Not all six would be deployed in every single project, but we look to really talk to the community and figure out what are the specific needs in each project and then deploy them as it makes sense.

What do you say to people who believe it’s impossible to do socially beneficial work and also do well financially?

We are a real estate investment company. We are investing MURAL’s capital into these projects, as well as deploying them with general partners and limited partners. Getting an economic return is vitally important. I would say, though, that there is a sense of a risk-adjusted return for some of this. You cannot create a project that fits all the buckets of social impact and still get the highest return that you would in a luxury high-rise, high-income neighborhood. That’s just not realistic, but we do think that a healthy risk-adjusted return can certainly be gotten in these projects. We’ve seen that and proved it out with our underwriting. It’s important, though, that people understand and look at the risk-adjusted piece of it.

Particularly [in high-income] residential areas, folks move in, but when another project opens up right next door, they move out and they move over there. They’re not loyal to their four walls at all, whereas in the other income trenches in the country, they are a lot stickier. They stay where they are, there’s more community, there’s more generational community in those locations, and so you don’t have as much turnover, which reduces cost and reduces risk. There are also different things related to risk-adjusted returns that I think people have to look at. In other markets, for instance, folks have a lot of different retail offerings. They have the ability and interest to shop online. A lot of the communities we’re looking at do a lot of their shopping in a bricks-and-mortar location where we might be the only retail in town. There’s a different risk-adjusted return there.

What are some of the projects you’re working on?

There’s two that we’re focused on as far as our first two equity deals. One is in Jamaica, Queens, in New York and the other is in Miami, Florida. Because we are at the final stage of the [purchase and sales agreement], I can’t say much more than that publicly at this point, but we hope to announce more on both of those deals in the near future. We’re also looking at deals in places like Birmingham, St. Louis and Charlotte.

Many companies have publicly announced their commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives as a way to achieve more equitable and inclusive leadership. And during COVID, a lot of companies have talked about the importance of support for local business and of zoning entitlement collaboration among municipalities and developers. Has it become hard to get projects through? Have you seen any differences from these efforts?

It’s still a little too early to tell. Generally, I would say yes, although I do get concerned about really being able to ascertain what is lip service and what’s actual action. I’ve seen globally some firms have come off of the focus on [DEI] because interest rates are high and the supply chain is struggling to keep up with demand. There are all these other more macro business issues that folks have to deal with, which makes the diversity and equity piece not at the forefront as much in folks’ day-to-day business. I do get concerned that it will dissipate as far as being relevant and top of mind for folks.

Do you have any advice for companies to ensure DEI doesn’t fall to the background?

The most important thing for companies that are interested and serious about DEI initiatives is figuring out on a company-by-company basis how they can actively help participate and move things forward versus talking about it or having some pictures on their website. What are the actual actions? What we’re about as a company is helping to actually put forth action to make people’s lives better, to give more opportunities, to create economic empowerment through real estate, and then using that tool to help with some of the softer things like workforce training and education and things of that nature that really help bolster a community.

You recently resigned from Cedar Realty Trust and launched MURAL. Where do you see yourself in five years?

Running MURAL — I hope to have grown the company by then — and continuing to do good work and continuing to be successful in what we’re doing.

What do you want your legacy to be?

That anything that I or we, as MURAL, have touched is better when we left than it was before we arrived.

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