Featured Customer: Coby Lefkowitz and Backyard Development
Updated: Mar 28
Many of you already know Coby Lefkowitz: I don't know of any other architecture and urban / housing / planning writers with more followers. As of today, Coby has over 33K followers on Medium (Coby Lefkowitz – Medium) and 52K followers on Twitter (@Cobylefko).
His long-form article "America's Affordable Housing Problem" is the one I point most people towards who are interested in a brief primer on the topic, and his year-long Twitter project was called: "A Year of Building Optimism: Inspiring a Better Built Environment."
He's not only a writer with a huge following, but he's also a working developer. Coby is one of the co-founders of Backyard Development, a young real estate development company focusing on infill development.
So we couldn't be more excited to feature Backyard as one of UrbanForm's newest customers.
Below are some edited excerpts from a conversation between UrbanForm co-founder Quang Truong and Coby Lefkowitz, co-founder of Backyard.
Quite frankly, we hope Coby's ideas become the playbook for a new generation of developers.
Okay, so let's start by talking about you. You have a huge following—really, a staggering number of followers—on Medium and Twitter. And it’s because of your writing. For those who don’t already know you: what do you write about? How did you gain this following?
Yeah, I'll start by saying it was entirely unexpected and organic. I started writing because I didn't have any other outlet. I was a nerd in planning school, and after class, all I wanted to talk about was zoning codes and how we could make cities better.
I was a nerd in planning school, and after class, all I wanted to talk about was zoning codes and how we could make cities better.
I had all these thoughts that I was gathering, so I started writing as purely a personal outlet.
What I was interested in was the intersection of urban planning and real estate development. There are far more people who talk about real estate development. But, in my mind, it’s way too transactional; the discussion treats it as a commodity or asset class, as opposed to a space where we inhabit that has profound implications for us as humans.
A developer can only build what a planner says they can build, and a planner can draw as many maps as they want. But if nobody comes to build anything, then they're both just dreaming.
A developer can only build what a planner says they can build, and a planner can draw as many maps as they want. But if nobody comes to build anything, then they're both just dreaming. So I started at that intersection with no expectation that anybody would read my stuff.
It was an outlet more than anything, and I guess over time, it resonated.
Let's talk about your later writing projects. I'm looking at your Twitter, and you have finished what you called “A Year of Building Optimism, Inspiring a Better Built Environment." Tell me about that project.
This started because I saw there was way too much cynicism about the built environment. If anybody talked about planning, zoning, or building, it was always how bad everything is. We have homogeneous sprawl. We have awful, tracked homes, five-over-ones. We tore through the core of cities with urban renewal. Anything that was talked about was negative.
Having had the chance to travel a little bit, growing up in New York, going to school in the South, and seeing a lot of places in between, I knew that just wasn't true.
There were so many people who were doing great stuff, but it was unheralded. And I thought there's got to be some voice for hope in this space because there's just too much negativity.
There were so many people who were doing great stuff, but it was unheralded. And I thought there's got to be some voice for hope in this space because there's just too much negativity. And if you're surrounded by negativity, you'll never transcend the negativity.
I had a compulsion before I started this project for aggregating really nice buildings, developments, and pieces of architecture as precedent. I'm a developer, and I wish I had the technical ability to be an architect, but I don't. So I had to pull examples and show others what I like. And I've been doing that for a number of years. And I had this small list of 50 projects I think are really worth highlighting.
I started simply posting one nice project a day that I thought was a really high-quality development. People think that it's not possible to build great places. Well, how does this public housing complex in West Virginia exist then? Or how does this new duplex in Cambridge, Massachusetts exist? Or this new apartment building in Portland?
The projects that I wanted to feature tended to be ones an urbanist would look at and say, well, they're right up to the street front. They're in walkable neighborhoods. Some of them are mixed-use. They're rather humane structures. And they were agnostic of style.
After a while, I found it a bit difficult, to be honest. Originally, I had intended to post one picture before midnight Eastern Standard time every single day. And that became very difficult: finding the projects and saying something that was compelling. I try to feature the developers, the architects, the city, and any stories as well. So each post looks like a small tweet, but it could take upwards of an hour or 2 hours. I would find myself at 11:30 at night Googling, very scatterbrained.
I was struggling because those first 50 I had known well and had researched for a couple of years. And I was like, maybe there is a reason to be pessimistic. Maybe there just aren't that many great places that are being built.
But the beautiful thing is, just when I thought there was nobody out there, when I thought there weren't very many voices, you get connected with incredibly bright and thoughtful people. Like yourself, Quang. Who show you, hey, there’s this neighborhood in northwest Portland that has some terrific development going on. Friends send you some projects, one architect site leads to a news article leads to another, and they start compounding.
And ultimately that led to 365 projects a year's worth of these really high-quality projects. And since I've found hundreds more. And it has made me even more hopeful, starting from a point where I thought that I wouldn't be able to find that many. You talk to people in places that you would never otherwise hear anything about who show you. And I think that's been an incredibly motivating force for me and I hope for others as well.
First of all, I do want to point everybody to it. It's on Coby Lefkowitz's Twitter @cobylefko / Twitter. It's called “A Year of Building Optimism, Inspiring a Better Built Environment.” I think it's quite clear there's a lot of work that goes into those posts: identifying the sources, finding the imagery, and documenting all the credits appropriately. It's incredible.
The other thing people should be aware of is that you are a long-form writer, as well. And you have several really great pieces that you’ve published on Medium. One that I would like to highlight is titled "America's Affordable Housing Problem." I think the subtitle is “An analysis of good-in-theory v. outcome based policies.” For such a complicated topic, I think your piece is one of the best synopses out there. I point everyone who is looking for an introduction to the broad strokes of housing affordability to that article of yours.
And the other thing you mentioned is the next part I want to talk about. Because it gives me great hope to know that you're a developer. You are not just a writer, but you're now a developer. So tell us a little bit about your development work.
When I was younger, I always knew I wanted to have a business of my own of some sort. I gravitated towards real estate at a younger age, but I didn't just want to own buildings. That felt very transactional; treating these important spaces as commodities. But I didn't have the technical ability to be an architect, so I had to find somewhere in between. And that's as a builder and a developer who can see a vacant plot of land or maybe an underutilized site and imagine something that's just a little bit better.
So I worked for a couple of years at a couple of different firms doing acquisitions, asset management, and development. But I had the itch to do projects on my own. And the big running joke once I got connected to my partners, Roee and Gabriel, is that New York was so expensive that we had to find somewhat cheaper. So we went to California. Which is not cheap at all, but perhaps only relative to New York.
As I said earlier, a developer's dreams are only as great as a planner enables them to be.
A developer's dreams are only as great as a planner enables them to be.
California has opened the floodgates to development for two reasons. One, because they had to; they were dealing with an existential housing crisis. The second was California has always viewed itself as this frontier, as the end of maybe America's manifest destiny. There are a lot of negatives historically that have come with that; there's no doubt. It’s not an unconditionally positive thing. But I think the state saw its image being tarnished and they wanted to reclaim some of that as a place where something is possible in a way that it hasn't felt in the last 20 or 30 years. It's lost a lot of that ground to places like Texas and Florida, Utah, maybe Tennessee.
Whether through insecurity or pride or aspiration, there have been new laws that have been leveraged to address this housing crisis. So that’s the roundabout story of how we became developers. We had these dreams of building. Many states have, unfortunately, very expensive regulations that make it very difficult to do work. California provided an opportunity for us to go into these markets that had a real need for housing. Not just speculatively building, but doing so in a thoughtful way that we think would be additive to communities. To create more walkable, sustainable places to live. And that's how we got started.
Not just speculatively building, but doing so in a thoughtful way that we think would be additive to communities. To create more walkable, sustainable places to live. And that's how we got started.
We just finished up our first project, which is two townhomes in the back of this existing single-family home. We have three homes on one lot. That's triple the density that previously existed. And if we can replicate that formula across other lots in the city in San Diego, Los Angeles, Portland, and Seattle up the West Coast, it will allow us to do what we love: to build projects that hopefully people will also love. But to address these existential needs, that's great.
We should talk about specifics. Your company is called Backyard, and your partners are Roee and Gabriel. I love how you talked about kind of the broader motivation for becoming a developer. You had a background that was founded in a desire to create and to build with an appreciation of great urban environments. And then you saw an opportunity in California, especially coming from New York.
So I'd love to dive into more of what Backyard is doing. You talked about your first project, which is a series of townhomes in the back of an existing single-family home. What kind of projects are you looking to do in the future? How are you approaching them? And what kind of opportunities are you looking for?
At Backyard, we want to be very tactical in how we carry out developments. We want to stay in this three-to-25-unit space. Those medium unit counts on small lots are really great pieces of urban fabric. They tend to be anywhere from three to five stories. But the idea is we want to be on narrow pieces of land, building three-to-25 units so that we can create great pieces of neighborhood fabric.
These are the places that people gravitate towards. If you look at cities across the country, places like Greenwich Village, Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill, Williamsburg, to use only New York examples, are incredibly dynamic, lovely, attractive, and desirable neighborhoods. And while they might look a little bit different from neighborhood to neighborhood, and certainly from city to city, when you compare them, they're compositionally almost identical.
They have some level of mixed-use. The buildings all tend to be three-to-five stories, sometimes punctuated by larger towers. They're eminently walkable, so they're built at a human scale, and people can find comfort moving about them, and they can carry out all their daily needs, and they're not imposing.
When you get above that 25-unit threshold on some of these narrower lots, you're forced to go up, which can be great on isolated lots here and there. But when there are too many buildings like that, we start to feel a little small and a little vulnerable.
And so we want to create places where people can feel very comfortable.
And so we want to create places where people can feel very comfortable. If we were to build large and imposing buildings, then we lose some of that essential element of community.
So that's the first reason. And then the second reason is that everyone else is building at a much larger scale. So we think there's a real opportunity for us to be in this smaller scale. There are a few reasons that we could dive into deeper there, but it basically comes down to capital imperatives. If you're a developer, you raise money from investors and limited partners. Increasingly, a lot of those investors in real estate development projects are large institutions—pension funds, endowment funds, insurance companies, real estate trusts, private equity firms. And they have a need for certain returns at a certain scale.
You can't really get that at a five-unit apartment building. You can only get that level of scale of a 200-unit apartment building that spreads across the block. These blocky five-over-ones that have come to dominate the landscape don't make for great communities. We think you can be more targeted and thoughtful in the way that you deliver housing.
So we think the three to 25-unit, more incremental, missing middle forms of housing create great and desirable neighborhoods. These are places people love, but also they're just not getting built. So it's part opportunistic and part aspirational.
I think it's incredible the way that you talk about it, quite frankly. You bring this sensibility of the most sensitive of architects and planners. You're talking about the feeling of spaces, the scale of buildings, the emotional content of cities, and then you go into the financial aspects and the economics. You're bringing together so many aspects of what make the built environment what it is.
I think sometimes people can be well versed in one aspect. Architects are often quite attuned to those sensual aspects—you’re already kind of a great architect, in my opinion—but then they neglect the other sides of building, the financial and economic, which are a huge part of the way cities develop. So I love the way that you talked about it. I thought that was really sensitive and really cool.
We've talked a lot already in this short amount of time, but I want to talk about UrbanForm a little bit, too. Because I have to say, it gives me so much hope and pleasure to be working with somebody like you and a company like Backyard.
So tell me a little about your experience with UrbanForm. How did you find out about UrbanForm and how does UrbanForm help Backyard? What about UrbanForm is going to be helpful to you?
Yeah, a huge issue that architects, planners, and developers face is when you find a great piece of land that you want to build something on, you don't exactly know what you can do on it. Which is really strange. It should be a lot easier than one would expect.
A huge issue that architects, planners, and developers face is when you find a great piece of land that you want to build something on, you don't exactly know what you can do on it. Which is really strange. It should be a lot easier than one would expect.
There's a lot to sift through that sometimes can take hours and hours. And it’s a big headache because there would be some sites that we would rely on information that was wrong. And we would build out our financial models for what we might be able to develop on a piece of land, only to come back and learn from somebody else that it was wrong. And I can't quantify the amount of time that cumulatively we wasted. Sifting through zoning codes was frustrating, to say the least.
I can't quantify the amount of time that cumulatively we wasted. Sifting through zoning codes was frustrating, to say the least.
And that’s where UrbanForm has been really powerful.
And that’s where UrbanForm has been really powerful. When I first saw the product, I said, this is so intuitive. It takes a lot of the raw and overwhelming amount of data and text that you might get in a zoning document and makes it legible. And this is coming from someone trained as an urban planner in college and spent time reading comp plans and zoning codes in my free time. And UrbanForm does it in a way that is very aesthetically easy and pleasing.