Updated: Jan 21
Nur Asri, Senior Consultant, joins Karp Strategies as lead project manager on the BQX and other real estate and economic development projects. She brings a combination of hands-on project management experience in economic development initiatives as well as applied research in placemaking and active design. Nur has spearheaded downtown and commercial corridor revitalization studies for a mix of public sector, private sector, and non-profit clients, and teaches at Pratt Institute.
We recently sat down with Nur to learn more about her extensive economic development knowledge. Read the full Q&A:
You’ve worked on numerous downtown economic development and corridor planning projects, both within the region as well as across the country. Tell us about the core tenets that lead your work with diverse communities?
Observing and listening is the number one principle that I follow regardless of where I am working. Having worked alongside numerous communities, I’ve learned that every opinion is valid and that no one is necessarily wrong or right. Especially as consultants, we strive to keep an open mind and see things from a different perspective. For example, the way I’ve approached my work in the Tri-State region differs from my work in southern cities such as Atlanta or Memphis. Each city has its own history that impacts the current day realities, and if we don’t keep an open mind we stand to lose critical insight.
And what are you most excited to work on at Karp Strategies?
Definitely BQX. Since moving to New York six years ago, I’ve always lived in Brooklyn. To be able to work on an alternative transit project in the borough I call home is very exciting. The economic impacts that the BQX could have on the borough and the neighborhoods that it touches is something that I look forward to thinking about. And later this month I’ll be attending the Women in Transportation Seminar Conference in Boston, where I’ll be get to engage in fascinating discussions about the latest developments in the transportation space. I look forward to applying some of those takeaways to our work on BQX.
Where do you think the opportunities or challenges lie when we think about real estate and economic development and community engagement? How do you approach this work?
Opportunity Zones have the potential to incentivize developers to reinvest in some of the lowest income census tracts in the city. This could be huge for economic development, but it also has the potential to offer massive tax breaks to developments that do not necessarily benefit local communities. We need to be careful about how Opportunity Zones are used in our cities; developers and communities will need to work together to ensure equitable developments. Too often, developers do not understand the benefits of involving communities in the planning process from the get-go. As part of the Karp Strategies team, I look forward to working to fill this gap by working closely with partners across sectors.
I’ve done extensive work in the retail space, including research on the potential opportunities that retail real estate now present to cities as sites for redevelopment. As malls continue to lose popularity across the country, commercial property owners are forced to creatively turn their sites into mixed-use and transit-oriented development. Many cities are leveraging this idea. For example in the Boston area, Arsenal Yards is a former mall property that has become a mixed-use development with retail, offices, housing, and even a hotel. Cities can use this model as an opportunity to meet local community needs around affordable housing and employment opportunities.
Last month, you presented at the Westchester Municipal Planning Federation alongside Sam Schwartz, President & CEO of Sam Schwartz Consulting and Mayor Gina Picinich of the Village of Mount Kisco, among others. Can you tell us a bit about some of the zoning and regulatory solutions you shared to support—rather than inhibit—small, local retailers?
Through my previous work I had the opportunity to speak with numerous small business owners in various cities and towns. All of these conversations had a common thread—small business owners face high barriers to entry when it comes to getting through city permitting processes and meeting city codes. It’s a difficult regulatory landscape for small business owners who are often operating on their own, and even more so for immigrant business owners for whom English is not their first language. Take for example, something as basic as signage outside of storefronts. In any city there can be 10-15 business regulations that business owners need to be aware of. They need to pay for permits on an annual basis and a by-use basis if they want to change anything about their sign.
What cities can do is start to streamline the regulatory process from the beginning. Agencies can hire designated staff to provide technical assistance for business owners on a one-on-one basis to help them through their permitting processes and make rules and regulations clear and easy to understand through visual guides.
So many of the existing restrictions are outdated and no longer make sense in the modern day market. Regulations should align with the strategies that business owners use to effectively market their storefronts in this day and age. People are looking for “Instagram-able” storefronts, and regulations should adapt to allow for that kind of flexibility. This could include allowing movable furniture to be placed outside brightly-painted storefronts so that customers can sneak a cute photo of the product they’ve just purchased with the attractive storefront in the background. These days, stores also need to do more than just sell products. They need to sell experiences, like holding classes in the stores. This usually triggers a change of building use, so our use groups need to become more flexible to enable businesses to offer more than traditional retail.
And on top of all of this, you teach a graduate course on downtown economic development at Pratt. What’s one lesson that you’d like your students to walk away with?
That quantitative and qualitative data are both key to understanding any place. As part of the course, we go into market data, demographics, and conduct a retail gap analysis. The students then combine all of this with on-the-ground surveys, community outreach, and interviews with business owners and property owners. The qualitative data fills in the gaps that quantitative data doesn’t reveal. Finding the balance between the two can really enhance the overall picture for any downtown.