'Having to think through what seems like a pivotal issue from the design perspective is less so from the development standpoint.'
Name: Jonathan Tate
Company: Office of Jonathan Tate (OJT)
City: New Orleans, Louisiana
Product Types: Architectural design firm, from housing to museums to pavilions
What did you do before you were a developer?
I was in high school, and didn’t do much of anything before becoming an architect. I graduated from college and that’s been the trajectory of my career. That said, though, in college I was in residential construction as a summer job, but right after finishing my undergraduate degree in 1997, I went right into architectural practice. Prior to opening my own practice, I was with another firm for about 14 years.
What motivated you to make the leap into development?
Everyone has a different answer to that one. I had an affinity for construction. It just felt like the right track for some of my interests.
In dealing with the day-to-day operation of your enterprise, what do you find to be the most difficult to accomplish?
Surviving, I guess, would be the toughest thing. Although that’s a broad thing, it is what I stress about frequently. Making sure there’s work, and making sure you’re doing what you want to do. Other than that, everything is a treat. We love the projects we’re working on, and we try to find pleasure even in the mundane things that we do.
Where do you turn to get a fresh perspective or experienced insight on a prospective or existing deal?
This is the thing: You develop relationships with colleagues and fellow practitioners and they become your pool of knowledge. People who are in similar predicaments. From a professional perspective, that’s an important set of relationships that you need to develop. That’s where I draw from as things come up.
Obviously, experience is the next thing you draw from. A lot of what we do is building on what we’re familiar with—sometimes very, and sometimes not very familiar with. You draw from personal knowledge more often than not.
What gets you out of bed every day to do what you do?
The challenge. The excitement and enjoyment of figuring things out. And incredible people in the office. Maybe no one specific thing. Drawing on your previous question, every day is a challenge, and so there’s that to look forward to, too.
What does being a successful land use professional mean to you?
A lot of what we try to do with our practice both internally and, more importantly, what we provoke on our own, is create challenges for ourselves. We want meaningful explorations and opportunities where we can go push ourselves into a direction in which we may not previously have been in. And so how it relates to development, it’s also about answering questions. Queries that we have, but also seeing potential for opportunities to engage with the public realm.
In looking at the next one to two years, what do you see as the biggest challenges to your business and projects?
Scale. It’s the challenge of trying to find work at the right scales. Maintaining the involvement with the level of quality and inventiveness, but trying to scale up. That’s what we’re doing right now. We’re looking for bigger opportunities that provide more stability for the office. Right now, we’re working on a lot of small things. It would be nice if we had fewer small things and more medium—large for us—scale work.
What skills or traits do you think are most important to make the leap into entrepreneurism?
I don’t think any of mine were unique. And it’s circumstantial a lot of times. The way this office came about out of necessity. It was a fork in the road. You decide to take one direction as opposed to the other. But once you make the leap, you realize how insufficient you are and what you don’t know at that point. But then it’s just learning a job, like everyone else goes through.
What was a memorable mistake?
It’s like the proverbial, “Where did you screw up and how did you correct yourself?” And maybe it’s a daily thing [chuckles], and maybe that’s why I have a hard time answering that question. It’s like there never was that pivotal, “Oh man, I really screwed up! How do I rectify this?” For me, it’s more incremental. Collectively, you try to do better as you move forward. It wasn’t any one thing. I can point to project-specific scenarios, but nothing was so seismic that it made us reconsider how we were doing things. It’s like there’s a mistake every day that you’re trying to work around and get better at.
As a designer, I think the thing that you need to be careful about is prioritizing the things that professionally you’ve been trained to prioritize. Specifically, design issues. Part of the realm of development is the opportunity not to compromise within that realm. It’s the opportunity not to compromise on design decisions. At the same time, you see the need to balance that. The perspective you gain from the other side, and having to think through what seems like a pivotal issue from the design perspective is less so from the development standpoint. It’s often contrary to what your impulses are. They often come down to the small things. You want to do certain things as a designer, but if you’re thinking about the person who’s developing this project and trying to be more holistic about it, then it might not be the same answer.
How do you balance designing for people versus designing a beautiful piece of architecture?
Hopefully you’re doing both simultaneously. Where I might distinguish, the difference is not designing for a specific person. You’re designing for an idealized consumer. There’s a lot of that built into multifamily residential projects, where it’s not a custom home. But even more so, what’s striking about doing speculative single-family housing projects, which is what we’re working on, is that it’s for a purchaser. So it’s not like a rental, so it’s not like, “Well, they’re either going to like it or not like it, and that’s fine.” It’s enticing someone to purchase something, so that begins to challenge some of your basic parameters that you begin to put into a project. So beginning to second-guess your responses and working with your partners creates an interesting dynamic where you can tell that we’re all pressing for our personal preferences and they never align. It’s tough to figure out what wins out.
Whom do you most admire?
The short answer is a lot of people. There are a lot of people I work with whom I admire. I couldn’t say any one person.
What’s your favorite city to visit and why?
It’s usually what city we’re working in right now. Especially if it’s a new place, it’s an opportunity to get to know that place and figure out the things that make it what it is. For instance, we’re doing some things in Louisville, Kentucky, right now, so I’m fascinated by Louisville. We’re in San Francisco now, and again I’m enjoying visits out there for similar reasons.
About Entrepreneur Profiles
Entrepreneur Profiles are conversations with real estate development professionals who, in most cases, have recently made the leap into the industry whether as young individuals fresh out of school or as mid-career transitions.
With a focus on small-scale developers often doing incremental and transformative work, these are quick and easy to read profiles to raise awareness of these professionals. By telling their stories, the Urban Land Institute hopes to inspire the next generation of small scale entrepreneurs to transform their own communities. See the most recent Entrepreneur Profiles.