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.
It's easy to use as well. I can just put in a lot and figure out the FAR, the zoning. One of my favorite features, and it could be the simplest one, is just that you have the dimensions of the lot. I could see if it's 26 ft or 23 ft by 100 ft. The amount of time that I've wasted on Google Maps, using the measuring tool, trying to see how long and wide a lot is. I can't tell you the number of times where I'd pull up UrbanForm just to check the dimensions. And dimensions really matters if you need to have a four-foot side setback, and it impacts what type of building envelope you can have on that lot.
I used to go through the municipal zoning codes or Google Maps, and there is still a lot of friction there. 15 years ago, folks had to go to City Hall or to the planning department to figure this out. Or to a surveyor's office, and that would have been days and days of work. But now you can pull up UrbanForm and just see the information is there. I don't have to worry about it. I don't have to spend all these hours. It has been really powerful for us.
But now you can pull up UrbanForm and just see the information is there. I don't have to worry about it. I don't have to spend all these hours. It has been really powerful for us.
And the way that we anticipate using UrbanForm in the future is for sourcing acquisitions. We have a lot of properties that are sent over to us. And I don't really know what we can do with it off the top of my head. We know what neighborhood it is in, but how wide is the lot? What zone is it in? What can we actually build on it?
We've been using UrbanForm a lot to check why deals may or may not be good. We'll pull up UrbanForm and see the FAR here is only 0.5. You really can't build anything. Or as I said to someone yesterday, you bought this as a duplex, and you thought you were going to sell it for $1.2 million in five years. But actually, you could build ten units on this. You probably should, and here's why. And so you can have those levels of conversations that you might not otherwise even consider, which is really powerful.
And so you can have those levels of conversations that you might not otherwise even consider, which is really powerful.
That's fantastic to hear. We talked about how previously you would have to go into the building department or the planning department itself and look up the binders. We rely on digital sources direct from government sources, but they vary greatly in their quality. So it's kind of funny that we're still just transitioning from antiquated sources of information to more digital sources. And I think the built environment will benefit hugely once that information becomes more accessible and transparent. Especially if there are developers with your sensibility working.
So again, it gives me great hope to know that you're out there, that you're writing, that you're working, that you're contributing to the built environment. And that you're working with UrbanForm.
I'm super excited about all of that. Okay, I think I just have one last question. Tell me about what's next for you both in terms of what you're going to write, but also the future of Backyard.
Yeah, I'll start with Backyard first because the writing can be more sprawling. I think it’s the same with any small development shop. Generally, we're hoping to compound win after win; hit a lot of singles and see where we end up in a couple of years.
Generally, we're hoping to compound win after win; hit a lot of singles and see where we end up in a couple of years.
We just finished our first project. And we're breaking ground on our second one. After a long time waiting to receive permits, we are finally submitting plans for a third project in the city.
We're really trying to go one project after another to show the market, the city, and investors that we're here to create lovely places. In the same way that a developer is constrained by the city, you're also constrained by capital. If you can easily raise tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in equity, you have a lot more latitude in the types of projects you're able to pursue than if you have to scrounge together a million dollars.
But I think I've found that at a smaller scale, when you are hustling a little bit more, you have a lot more creative solutions to problems. Not just because you're more cost-conscious, but because you feel these projects a lot more intimately. When it's one project, it's almost your baby, and you really want to nurture it and see the best outcomes.
But if you had 50 projects going at once, maybe one thing slides here, and another thing slides there. So there's a little push and pull. But ultimately we want to complete more projects, and build up our portfolio to the point in ten years where we think we can have a really nice aggregated portfolio of properties in the three-to-25-unit range. All highly walkable, highly dynamic, highly exciting, and more sustainable neighborhoods than the alternative. So we're looking to compound the wins that we're having with each of our projects and continue to push the envelope and create great places.
So we're looking to compound the wins that we're having with each of our projects and continue to push the envelope and create great places.
Primarily San Diego for now, or are you looking at other municipalities as well?
Right now we're primarily looking at San Diego, but we have been talking with the city of Los Angeles. Those may be fee-based projects where we don't raise equity. So they might not be a Backyard-branded project, but we'll build on behalf of somebody else. It's something that we're looking to explore and we would love to get into other cities.
The state of Oregon broadly, but the city of Portland specifically, has just made it very easy to try to develop housing. They're more builder friendly than a lot of other comparable cities. So we're always keeping our eyes open with a foundation in San Diego, I would imagine, but with hopes of extending elsewhere.
And then on the writing front, what's been occupying a lot of my time is that I’m working on a larger book right now. A lot of the thoughts that I've been writing about and talking about over the last year started with the Building Optimism project. Let's tell people that we can build great places and show them that it's possible.
Let's tell people that we can build great places and show them that it's possible.
But as I started to write it, I began to think it could be a little bit more than just a coffee table book that shows nice developments. I think it could be a way of reorienting how we think about the built environment. A new philosophy of how we view it. So it's become a lot more text heavy. As you know from some of my pieces, I am not short of words.
I've been writing about why our built environment looks the way it does today and how we can make it better. The lens that I'm trying to look through is an optimistic philosophy that we can make it better. First and foremost, far too many people don't believe that we can. But secondarily, there's something I've been calling romantic pragmatism. We have problems and there are pragmatic ways of solving them. We can't just throw money at an issue and say, we're going to pay a nonprofit several million dollars to deliver us three units of formerly homeless housing. That doesn't work.
We have to look at academic studies and empirical findings for what we think will work for certain problems. But it can't be so utilitarian that we're just going to build housing boxes for everybody to live in. That might be pragmatic, it might solve our pressing housing needs, but there is nothing aspirational about it. We need to imbue some romance into it. And these places won't last very long if they're built in a utilitarian way, because 1) they might be rather cheaply built, but 2) they won't be maintained by the people who live in them.
There's this notion of stewardship that we've lost in the American consciousness. We build with an assumption that a lot of our places will be gone in 20 or 30 years, but the neighborhoods that we love the most have been around for hundreds of years. There's a mismatch. And so I think we need to marry those together and say we have solutions or problems that need solving, but they need to be done in a really compassionate and aspirational and even romantic way.
We build with an assumption that a lot of our places will be gone in 20 or 30 years, but the neighborhoods that we love the most have been around for hundreds of years. . . [new developments] need to be done in a really compassionate and aspirational and even romantic way.
I love it. This idea of that romantic pragmatism is a wonderful way of looking at addressing our problems. This idea of stewardship, too. Especially as a working architect, you see that sometimes there's a cynical lifecycle built into projects. They build it and know that somebody is going to rebuild it in 20 or 30 years. Depending on the kind of building it's often shorter.
So this idea of stewardship of our built environment is a wonderful way of thinking about things. It’s not top of mind as much as it used to be. So I'm really glad to hear you talk about it. I'm also glad to hear you talking about this book that you're writing.
I want to bring up one of my favorite books. You probably know it: Allan Jacobs Great Streets.
I have it on my shelf right back there.
Allan Jacobs has these wonderful drawings and sections that delineate, in terms of feet and inches, what makes a wonderful sidewalk with tree canopy and building wall. These are the dimensions. It's really helpful because sometimes you see a photograph, and you can't measure a photograph.
For the Allan Jacobs book, every time I open the book, I sit and look for five minutes at Las Ramblas in Barcelona. I've never been, but I think his description is terrific. It's technical and maybe we appreciate it because we have backgrounds in architecture and planning and that's how we see the world, but it's really nice that you can say this isn't magic.
. . . it's really nice that you can say this isn't magic.
The reason why you like the street is because there's a two to one building height to street width ratio, there are enough trees, there's a certain amount of openings, a narrowness of the buildings, which is just great. I think it's a terrific book and it should be a manual that cities use.
It kind of feels funny because it's not full of glossy images that people are conditioned to expect, but it's full of real information and real sensitivity. I was at Las Ramblas this past summer with my family, walking down the streets, and it's one of those magic spaces in the world. It really is.
I haven't had the pleasure yet of going. I've just spent a lot of time looking online. I'm really excited to go. If an entire family can find joy walking through cities, that's a great success.
I’m also going to try to go to cities that I’m featuring in my book to take my own photographs, because there's a lot of projects that I've clustered in places like Charleston, Santa Barbara, or Portland. I think Portland is actually one of my top four or five featured cities. I think there's so much great quality new development going on.
I think Portland is actually one of my top four or five featured cities. I think there's so much great quality new development going on.
There is. Portland has done a really great job. Portland is getting a lot of bad publicity lately, but it is an incredibly well-scaled city for pedestrians and families. And you walk around and you realize it's rare and kind of surprising that there are as many wonderful little neighborhoods as there are. It's such a small area and it's incredible.
It sounds so nice, like how a city should actually work.
So I think that's a great place to end. It's an incredible honor and pleasure to talk to you, Coby. I love shining a spotlight on developers such as yourself, who have this wonderful sensibility. I love reading your writings, and I'm looking forward to all the work that you're doing. I hope this is the beginning of a long partnership. I hope UrbanForm can help you out immensely going forward. And that's my goal.
I'm really looking forward to this longer format book of yours. I think the number of words that you write is actually a strength in this day and age. We're slowly diminishing the amount of words that we write to communicate a point. But I've come to believe that true knowledge and wisdom only exists in books. Not in the shorter format that we are inundated with today. So, I think all of that is super exciting. I think we need to wrap it up because we're approaching an hour and it felt like five minutes. But I do want to say I think this was fantastic.
I loved it.