Hometown Commitment

Craig Ustler has witnessed the themes at real estate conferences shift in recent years. Now, social issues like affordable housing and reducing homelessness are hot-button topics.

“I’ve always been motivated about how you can use real estate development to address community problems like education, transit, food, health and wellness,” Ustler said. “It’s great to see that social issues like these are being talked about at these conferences.”

Ustler (BA ’91, MA ’95) has been a central figure in the revitalization of downtown Orlando, and his current project could have a lasting effect on generations of Orlando residents.

Ustler was a featured panelist at the Kelley A. Bergstrom Center for Real Estate Studies’ Trends & Strategies Conference last week at the Hyatt Regency Orlando. He participated in a panel discussion entitled “Community Impact” where his newest project—Creative Village—was discussed. Creative Village is a 68-acre, mixed-use neighborhood being developed in downtown Orlando. Creative Village will have spaces dedicated to K-12 and higher education, professional offices, mixed-income residential housing, retail/commercial businesses and lodging. The $1.1 billion project will take 15 to 20 years to complete.

The completion of Creative Village won’t be just a professional success for Ustler, but a personal one as well. Ustler, President of Ustler Development, Inc., is a third-generation Orlando resident, who witnessed the urban exodus of families moving to the suburbs. Creative Village is his “legacy project,” one that hopefully brings vitality back to downtown Orlando.

“I’ve always wanted what’s best for my hometown,” Ustler said. “This is a project where I’ve taken everything I’ve learned and made a comprehensive redevelopment plan.”

That the discussion in real estate has turned toward sustainability and efficiency is a welcomed event. It’s a drastic departure from the 1990s when greed and profit prevailed—a time Ustler labeled the “Charlie Sheen-Wall Street Era.” Ustler said the recent sustainability trend is in response to a market shift he attributes to the new generation of “millennials.”

“A high percentage of millennials want to live in developments that are sustainable and responsible,” Ustler said. “Those are real, core values to this generation.”

Creative Village is a huge step in the urban renewal crusade, but it’s a rare case because investing in urban areas is still considered a risk. While the “Charlie Sheen-Wall Street Era” was largely inefficient, it did bring sizable profits.

“That’s where the problem is,” Ustler said. “The people who make the rules in the real estate world are often behind the times or out of touch. They control the money, and they’re often the wrong people to build a community. They’re not reflective of the way the world is. There needs to be more diversity and fresh thinking.”

Ustler’s passion for revitalizing urban areas was sparked at UF, where he learned both technical and societal principles about real estate. His urban economics class examined land use from an economic standpoint while his urban sociology class analyzed the problems facing urban areas, including unemployment and poor-performing schools.

“My outlook is shaped by my education at UF,” Ustler said.

And Ustler is helping shape the outlook of future real estate leaders at UF. He has appeared as a speaker in the Bergstrom Center’s Alfred A. Ring Distinguished Speaker Series, is an inaugural member of the College’s Dean’s Leadership Circle and was a major donor in the building of Heavener Hall, the college’s new undergraduate building. Ustler’s relationship with UF’s real estate program now spans 20 years.

“[Former Bergstrom Center Director] Hal Smith shaped my thinking; I’m very loyal to him,” Ustler said. “Dr. [David] Ling and Dr. [Wayne] Archer were big influences on me, and they’re great professors.”

Ustler said he enjoys the Trends & Strategies Conference because it has the feel of a true industry conference and not a college event.

“Every year they assemble industry leaders, and it’s based on topics that are meaningful,” Ustler said. “And there’s so much going on in Orlando right now.”

Thanks to Ustler’s vision, there certainly is.