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Learning from the Pros

By: Stephen Davis,  MSRED 2014

Shortly before starting the fall semester I connected with a friend of mine to get his thoughts on Professor Tod McGrath’s Ventures course – a subject on which he was uniquely qualified to opine as a former teaching assistant for that course. “Stephen,” my friend said, “given your background as an attorney I’m just not sure it’s the best use of your limited time at MIT.” While I have tremendous respect for this friend, any doubts I might have had about my decision to ignore his advice would have been erased by my experience during our class session on October 17th held in the august Prudential Center offices of Ropes & Gray.

Ventures course_Stephen Davis

To prepare for this class session, my fellow classmates and I immersed ourselves in a topic of tremendous importance to any aspiring real estate developer: zoning. Our review of an extensive body of case law was complemented by a review session held at the John Adams Courthouse and taught by no less than the Honorable Mark V. Green of the Massachusetts Appeals Court, along with Matt Kiefer and Darren Baird of Goulston & Storrs, Susan Murphy of Brennan, Dain, Le Ray, Wiest, Torpy & Garner, P.C., Jason Dunn and Peter Alpert of Ropes & Gray and Brian Blaesser of Robinson & Cole. We reviewed a Development Agreement – a document by which a city agrees to provide zoning-related assistance to a developer in exchange for certain monetary consideration commonly referred to as “exactions”. And, together with our visitors from Boston College and Harvard law schools, we split off into teams to prepare for a negotiation of that agreement. My team, representing the developer’s interests, was fortunate to be paired with attorney Brian Blaesser. He spent his time helping us understand the agreement, and the important interests on which we should focus, via email exchanges, a mid-week conference call and face-to-face meetings.

Class on the 17th was game time – time to rise to the challenge of negotiating the Development Agreement before a panel of celebrity judges well versed in the subject matter and representing the perspective of both the developer and municipal parties to these agreements. For this session, our judges were Shawn Hurley (MIT CRE ’99) of Skanska USA Commercial Development, Pat Campell (MIT/MSRED ’87) of Commonwealth Development Consulting, Abe Menzin (MIT/MSRED ’06) of Samuels & Associates, Don Briggs of Federal Realty Investment Trust, Douglass Karp of New England Development and Mike Jaillet and Chris McKeown from the Town of Westwood, Massachusetts.  In addition, our negotiation sessions were simulcast to the offices of Ropes & Gray in San Francisco where spectators on the West Coast were able to watch the class in action. The negotiation itself involved a provision-by-provision discussion of the most important issues in the agreement. Our panel of judges provided valuable feedback concerning the way in which we came to resolution on each issue.

Finally, after all was said and done, we retired to Top of the Hub to chat with our judges over a beer, which rounded off this unique and thorough learning experience. Some of the subject matter was familiar to this law school alumnus, and negotiation is an activity not exactly foreign to me as a former attorney. However, this Ventures course curriculum – more broadly – has proven to be an invaluable, business-focused approach to my MSRED education. It provided me with lessons which will, no doubt, follow me into the next stage of my professional career.

Photo Credit: Zac Shore