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Close-Up: Robert Laing

Urban renewal, South County excites Barratt Urban

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Venezuela and London might be widely divergent homebuilding markets from San Diego, but Robert Laing credits his experiences there with inspiring the idea of Barratt Urban Development.

Robert Laing

British-born Laing has been involved in the Southern Californian building industry since 1987, and has been at Carlsbad-based Barratt American for the last eight years. One of his major accomplishments has been influencing the creation of a new building division within the company, something that stemmed from his position in London.

"One of the things I liked about working in that marketplace (London) is every site was different," Laing said, citing his involvement with many urban renewal projects that varied from the normal single-family detached home that some homebuilders focus on.

After his first five years working for Barratt, an opportunity arose in the San Diego market that would allow the company to expand outside of the detached market.

"(I) decided one of the things coming up in the future was urban housing (in San Diego County)," he said, adding soon after this decision Barratt's urban division was established.

Laing was president of Barratt's urban division until the beginning of June this year. He's just handed over the baton to Larry Clemens, previously president of Lennar (NYSE: LEN) urban division.

"This is an opportunistic time for urban (building), especially with larger publicly held companies pulling back. I never thought I'd see the day when San Diego would have that type of urban experience, but today with the change in demographics that becomes paramount," Clemens said.

He cited Lennar's decision to move its urban division offices to Los Angeles as the key reason for his decision to join up with Barratt.

Laing, who enjoys new challenges and opportunities, is to head Barratt's newly formed land acquisition division -- its formation was another of his suggestions.

"The idea with the new venture is to expand the company's horizons a little bit, to try and secure more (land) for the future and perhaps look to different markets (in the Bay Area and outside of the state)," Laing said.

According to Clemens, Laing has a huge background in land acquisition and will work closely with the urban division, as acquiring valuable land is essential to the future success of any urban development.

When looking for land fit for urban development, Laing said he eyes property that is close to mass transit, which is one aspect of smart growth development. For example, the company has developments in La Mesa, Aragon and Escondido, City Square.

"I like to look for communities where there's a commitment to an urban renewal ... where there is already catalyst for change," he said. "We like to be in our own marketplace (where) we don't have to be competing against the rest of the builders."

Most cities are usually happy to see urban renewal, but builders still need to keep the community's needs in mind, such as the desire to maintain the past character of the community, Laing noted. Aside from reacting to community demands, the actual acquisition of the land can pose problems.

"Buying land at the right price and at the right level of entitlement is probably the single most important thing that we do," Laing said, adding there are many different competing entities the company must satisfy in order to get permits, which lengthens the time and cost of a development.

Another hurdle in the way of development is ever-increasing construction costs, which prompted Laing to suggest the industry as a whole will see upcoming projects delayed or canceled. Unlike the detached single-family market, urban infill and high-rise projects can't be stopped mid-construction as a result of sales or a change in product type.

"Builders always get accused of making huge profits when the market is good, but people forget when the market is bad we may break-even or take a loss," he said, commenting that copper piping has increased rapidly as have steel and cement.

Despite this, the company is not hesitant to expand by acquiring new land in locations where they haven't developed.

"Now it's probably time to turn around and take a look at South County," he said.

While he will be eyeing new areas for development and is now serving in a new position, what won't change is where he lives and whom he works for.

"Barratt gives one a lot of independence to pursue deals," he said. "It's fun to be able to come up with an idea that makes sense and then go ahead and implement it."

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