Like everything else in this fast-paced, blink-and-you-miss-it world of ours, buildings have a shelf-life. The grand old movie palaces so popular in the twenties sat empty and deteriorating after television took off. Suburban shopping malls, big box stores, and golf courses aren’t all bringing in the revenue these days that at one time seemed so certain. As tastes change, somebody has to re-imagine those environments to make them useful again. Commercial real estate agent, Zachary Schunn, is one of those professionals.
Not that he always thought that’s what he wanted to do with his life. Zach moved to Cincinnati in 2006 to study architecture at UC’s prestigious Design Art & Architecture program, more interested in the artistic side of the equation. But he frequently found himself wondering about the “why” of a building’s existence, economic logic that didn’t often filter down to his level of the process. After he finished his B.A. degree, he shifted his orientation to business and got an MBA in commercial real estate in order to be more involved with economic considerations.
A self-proclaimed introvert, Zach is not an obvious hire for straight-commission-based sales. He’s quiet with a tendency to stand on the edge of a crowd and observe. Not at all the pushy sort. But when he came out of school with (what a Boomer calls) significant loans a few years after the near-global economic collapse, like all Milennials, he could not afford to be picky. Oddly enough, he found his soft style – he cold calls with the line “I’m a commercial real estate agent and I’m calling to see if I can help you with anything” – and the small-town work ethic he credits to his parents in Marietta, Ohio, a good match. 3 1/2 years into the job, he likes it very much and is confident in his professional future.
Conversations about commercial real estate very quickly turn into discussions about how our economy is changing. He mentions that demand for fashion has really been hit hard in recent years as Milennials put an emphasis on quality over quantity, shun big wardrobes, shop online or hold out for bargains at outlet stores, TJ Maxx and Target. Most of his leasing work is with restaurants – a perfect reflection of the way he and his friends spend their own money. In terms of material possessions, he assures me that his generation doesn’t need much more than an Ipad and a cell phone. But as young people form families and move to the inner suburbs, those Milennials will want the same amenities they wanted when living downtown, and eventually he sees more bike sharing and the streetcar extending not only to Uptown and the University, but Walnut Hills, Price Hill, and Mt. Washington where housing prices are more affordable.
As our city makes this huge transition from sprawl to density, suburban to urban, car-focused to more walkable communities with transportation alternatives – somebody – in this case Zach Schunn and the 40 or so commercial associates in his office – has to figure out what the heck we are going to do with all these big dreams we’ve outgrown – “repurposed community use” as he calls it.
On particularly big projects, the first step is to go to the municipality and ask them what they need. There’s a precedent for turning malls into medical or general office space, attracting businesses that like locations close to the highway with plenty of free parking. Teams work for years developing a new concept before they pitch it to the current owner, vying for the right to be the leasing agent on such potentially lucrative deals. It requires long-term vision and a lot of patience. Recently, his group came close to locking in such a project, but in the end couldn’t get the older owner to see the structure’s purpose as anything other than the reason it had been built decades earlier.
Talking to Zach Schunn or any of the other smart, informed, self-assured Milennials I’ve met in the course of educating myself about all-things real estate in Cincinnati is fascinating, a lot like visiting a foreign country. Their world is so different than the one where I grew up; their values less materialistic with a personal responsibility for the bigger, broader community and environment we all share. Even Zach’s professional life in the cut-throat commercial real estate business is refreshingly responsible to a greater good, his version of our buildings based on the vision of a generation unafraid of change and eager to re-think what our future together can be.