Real Estate with a Cause: Identifying Investments that Serve a Triple Bottom Line

A derelict medical center for veterans in Salem, Va., that was transformed into an energy efficient place to live and work — thanks to a mélange of private and public funds — proves that investors can make money and support social change at the same time.

Panelist Elinor R. Bacon, president of a real estate development company in Washington, D.C., and a former deputy assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s office of public housing investments, noted that the amount of private capital invested in public housing in the last decade has increased four-fold. Her latest project is a 23-acre waterfront site in southwest Washington that is a private-public partnership between the District of Columbia and a team of six development companies, including Bacon’s.

Construction on The Wharf is expected to begin early next year and be completed in 2020. It is a poster child for socially responsible real estate development, Bacon added, because it will transform a swath of blighted and isolated waterfront land, owned by the District, into a vibrant place to live, work, shop, study and play. By creating what some are calling a “second downtown” for D.C., as opposed to pushing into the suburbs where building costs are lower, the project exemplifies smart growth, she noted.

There are several measureable ways in which the developer and the city are trying to ensure that The Wharf is not just another urban renewal project that gentrifies an area to the point that long-term residents can no longer afford to live there. While the project includes a yacht club, an Intercontinental Hotel, bike paths, a college campus and about 900 residential units, a substantial number of low and moderate-income families will be blended into those units, according to Bacon.

The plan also stipulates that 51% of the jobs created by the project will be reserved for D.C. residents. Locals also will get preference for 30% of the highly competitive construction apprenticeships attached to the project. Recognizing that the city’s waterfront — along the Potomac and Anacostia rivers and the Washington Channel — is its most abused resource, the project includes a massive reuse cistern designed to reduce or eliminate storm water run-off, Bacon noted, adding that the project will produce a triple bottom line because it will create profit for shareholders, protect the environment and improve the lives of those who live, work and pass through the space. “In the end, it will substantially improve the quality of life there.”

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