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Episode 54 Guest Mariia Zimmerman

Underutilized public assets like parking lots or former government buildings in every community could be used for housing or redevelopment. Mariia Zimmerman from MZ Strategies shares what the best communities are doing to maximize the public benefit from these public lands.

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Cohen: Josh Cohen
Zimmerman: Mariia Zimmerman

Cohen: Coming up on The Movement podcast, my conversation with Mariia Zimmerman of MZ Strategies not only tackled what the best communities are doing to activate their unused public lands but also about overcoming the status quo around racial and economic inequities, in what she thinks is the urbanist issue not enough people are talking about. Let’s go.

F: Mobility is an essential component to the cities of our future. To build this future, we need to do more than invest in technology; we need to invest in the people who will make the hard decisions necessary to create vibrant, equitable, and sustainable cities. Welcome to The Movement where we talk to the brave leaders who are effecting change in an effort to build a coalition of leaders who will make tomorrow real. Here is your host, TransLoc’s National Director of Policy, Josh Cohen.

Cohen: My guest today is Mariia Zimmerman who is the founder and principal of MZ Strategies. Mariia has significant experience on the federal level at the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities as well as spending six years working on Capitol Hill for the godfather of The Congressional Bike Caucus, Representative Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, among other fun stops in her career. Mariia is now based in Richmond, Virginia, which is where our recent guest Andreas Addison who is a Richmond City councilmember is also based. So welcome to The Movement, Mariia.

Zimmerman: Thank you. Thanks, Josh. It’s good to join you.

Cohen: So I first saw some of your work at Rail~Volution several months ago up in Vancouver. And you moderated a panel there about using public lands for public benefit. So for those in our audience who aren’t familiar with the term “public lands,” what do you mean by that?

Zimmerman: It’s a pretty broad scope and definition. Public lands can be surplus, underutilized property that a city or a town or a transit agency or the state DOT—some public entity owns this land; they’re not using it. It may be in the process of being disposed of, or it may just be kind of sitting on their books, but either way it’s public land that’s there and we think could be a ripe area to look at redevelopment.

Cohen: I’m based in Durham, North Carolina. It’s near the state capital of Raleigh. You’re based in Richmond, the state capital of Virginia. I know many state capitals have these acres and acres of state parking lots that may be underutilized or may be not the highest and best use. Is that an example, or are you thinking of more what I call distressed assets in the sense that maybe they used to be a government plant of some sort that’s not being used any more, or both?

Zimmerman: Yeah. No, it definitely can be both. In looking at it, it can be everything from that surplus parking lot that there’s more parking than is needed, so that could be land that could be better put to use doing something else like housing or a business incubator or even a public open space; as well as—yeah—there could be facilities that have become obsolete, whether it’s a school that’s no longer being used or a transit facility or something like that. It could also be different foreclosed properties that often times the public sector takes over the ownership of those. And so I think that’s probably the most common where different cities have different programs to get those foreclosed properties back on the tax roll. But it could also be—a lot of transportation projects have excess property that they’ve acquired through imminent domain. Those come with some strings, based on what kinds of funds were used to acquire those public lands; but all of that kind of fits within what we’re talking about.

Cohen: Excellent. And is this an area that has been getting more attention recently? I mean, it’s certainly something that I’ve become more aware of over the last couple of years. But do you get a sense that governments are being a little bit more aggressive or assertive about trying to think about using these public lands for the public benefit more mindfully?

Zimmerman: Yeah. I think actually for my work and my research and my involvement with communities it definitely seems to be a concept that in some ways has been around for a while but I think is gaining traction both in high-cost markets like out in the Bay Area and Seattle where I think there’s been some really great work looking at how to prioritize those public lands specifically for affordable housing but also for some community benefits in part just because land costs are so high and available land is becoming more and more scarce. And so looking at that public resource that might be available and be able to tap; but also in some communities in Chicago where they’ve had a lot of public land in more distressed communities, and so how could that land actually be an opportunity to kind of be a catalyst for creating new development, bringing in new investment into a community?

I think it’s being driven both by advocates who are really pushing this concept. Enterprise Community Partners has been doing, I think, some great work in writing up best practices and case studies. I saw they just had a piece out earlier this week about Seattle where there was an example that they’d been working with, as well as, I think, you know, for cities and many forms of government they’re often times cash strapped. And so they’ve been looking at how can they get the best return on these surplus parcels that they might be trying to be putting back into production, and, again, I think community is saying, “Hey, we might want to take a broader look at what the best community use is beyond just the bottom line.”

But there’s a tension, and there’s a balancing act between those needs. Sometimes it really is in the public interest to get the best return on those lands that you can, and that’s money that can go to the general fund that can help to fund social services and other things. But, again, in really thinking about the context, the surrounding context of those public lands, you might come up with different solutions and different, higher uses of that land than just, you know, “Let’s get it back and see how much money we can get back into government coffers.” So, yeah; I think there’s different motivations behind it.

Cohen: How much of that is due to specific leaders within either the government structure, so whether it’s an elected official on council or mayor or governor or that kind of thing, versus community advocates? Is there, like, a traditional template on who is pushing these things forward, whether it’s kind of from the inside or from the outside? Or is each situation different?

Zimmerman: There’s definitely nuance from place to place, but I think we are seeing a lot of community advocates and housing developers and others who are part of the push behind this. And I think in some places it’s actually been a push by what I call kind of good government of—in my work with some communities, the public sector actually doesn’t often know what its land assets are. And so even if you’re not looking at it from public benefit per se affordable housing but just public benefit in terms of, again, maybe raising revenues or something, I think that there’s been this push to have public agencies step back, create an inventory, publish that inventory, do some asset management analysis—so not all public lands are going to be suitable for redevelopment.

It may be a park or a wetland or, you know, something that no way do you want to redevelop it. Or it may not be suitable. It may have contamination or just be a funky parcel size or something. So I think this notion of both the advocates who are really pushing looking at ways to really make sure public interests are served is one leverage point and, again, others who are saying, “Well, let’s just do a better job of knowing what our assets are and how do we manage those and think more thoughtfully about them,” and I think both of those kind of come into play in different ways in different places.

Cohen: So I imagine part of one of the really fun things about your job with your firm there is that you get to engage with all kinds of communities and get to see all kinds of different places and how different folks are tackling this challenge and other challenges as it relates to sustainable and transit-oriented development and so forth.

What communities are really doing this right? And obviously it’s easy—I mean, I know you already mentioned obviously California and Seattle because they have to, but I want to really kind of push a little bit to try and identify some tactical things that other communities can learn from, some of those communities that you think are really doing this kind of thing well.

Zimmerman: That is a great question. I mean, I think, first off I do love what I do. And I think how fortunate I am to get to work in such a variety of places with such amazing people. I’m from rural Minnesota, so I even, like—part of my heart is always in, like, rural places as well. And so whether it’s urban or rural or suburban, you know, this notion of, “How do we make our communities that we live be wonderful, special places for all of us?” and kind of ensuring that sustainability.

Cohen: Yeah.

Zimmerman: And so I always get a lot of inspiration, and I’m constantly learning. I feel like I never have a dull moment, wherever I’m working, whatever I’m doing. You know, I feel like there’s, again, depending on the issue but just this issue of public land, say, there’s lots of bright spots that are emerging from this. And, I think, whether it’s—one of the places that I first kind of really learned about what was going on in this area was the City of Oakland. And I will say I was not a consultant to the City of Oakland, so this was just me kind of looking from afar at what was going on and was doing some other work in the Bay Area and was hearing about what was going on with this public lands work. And then when I was doing work in Minnesota and the Twin Cities, I was able to kind of connect up some people who were working on it in Oakland, with Seattle, with Twin Cities. I always kind of love being that connector person.

But in Oakland, you know, it was this example of where the city, I think, was trying to kind of do the right thing of looking at some of its public lands and putting those back into production. And the community, the advocacy community, the local community said, you know, “Hold on a minute. We’re actually not very happy with the approach that you’re taking, because you’re not fully realizing a larger set of community benefits that could be made available,” thinking about all the pressures that are happening in the community around displacement and gentrification.

And so, yeah, I think to the city’s credit they sort of paused and took a step back. And there’s a whole kind of cross-sector group of preservation advocates working in the Bay Area and particularly in the City of Oakland who came together with some of the developers, the landowners, the city to look both at, you know—a best practice, I think, is kind of like, “Let’s first figure out what we have. Is there a there, there?” And often the advocates will say, “Oh, there’s all kinds of public land that’s available and we can do something with,” and the public sector will be like, “Oh, we hardly have any public lands that we could do anything with.”

So figuring out, you know, how to create that inventory, how to do the analysis so everybody has the same data and everyone can kind of look at that and assess what’s real versus what’s perceived, what does it mean to actually have development potential, really having those conversations about what is in the public benefit, what is in the public interest, and really letting community drive that. So, I think, creating those processes that can daylight this so it’s not something that’s just kind of this internal, opaque process within the public sector but having that be more open.

In Washington the state legislature actually passed provisions that require all state agencies to publish an inventor of public lands and look at kind of how well they’re fit for housing, so really creating this inventory but particularly publishing that inventory of lands that could be made available for housing purposes. So I think, you know, that’s kind of step one of, like, creating this mandate, creating a transparent and open process, getting all the partners around the table. But then, you know, there are different ways to look at this, whether it’s really thinking about the policies and the leverage points that different partners have. And I think that’s true for whatever the topic is. I’m a big believer of before you try to create something entirely new to solve the problem that you have, look at the tools you have; and are they actually aligned with the goals you’re trying to seek?

Cohen: Sure.

Zimmerman: Because I think it’s easier to tweak and adjust something than to, like, start something from wholly new. So, again, you know, I think there’s different examples in different communities of—I mentioned the Seattle example I just read about this week. That was, “Let’s create a dollar ground lease that will be an extended ground lease that we’re, you know, making the cost of that land very affordable but we’re not giving up control of that land, so the public sector is still maintain that.

Cohen: Hmm.

Zimmerman: There can be ways to write RFPs so that, again, you’re still being good stewards of the fiscal dollar, but you can write those RFPs in ways that actually allow affordable housing developers to be more competitive. That’s something that we’ve seen coming out of Los Angeles, for instance, the city and County of Los Angeles. I’ve been doing some work with the Purple Line Corridor Coalition in Maryland. And they have a tool in Montgomery County that’s the right of first refusal. And so, again, this isn’t public land per se; it’s private land, but when a private, market rate, multi-family project that’s affordable to folks at lower incomes goes up for sale, the public sector actually has the first right to go in and to acquire that land or to work with a designated affordable housing developer to be able to acquire that land.

So I think that there’s lots of different models and examples. There’s kind of no, like, “This is the one way to do it.” And, again, like, I think that’s pretty exciting, because if there was one way to do anything it probably wouldn’t work for most places because every place has different markets, different politics, different culture, a lot of different dynamics. So really kind of how we can look at some of the examples and what works best for that local context and making the time and space to figure that out.

Cohen: I really like what you mention there about making sure you have clarity around the inventory and what is considered a public land and what’s a good public land and what’s not. You know, because I think the risk there is that you have this opacity. And I think the Amazon HQ2 is a great example where, you know, this whole thing was cloaked in secrecy, so it was kind of the exact opposite of that approach. And I think that’s kind of what people reacted against to some degree, beyond some of the other elements of that. But I definitely think that that’s part of what didn’t feel right to folks as they went through this process, is that the whole thing was totally in the dark.

Zimmerman: Yeah. No—well, you mentioned you recently talked to a councilmember from Richmond.

Cohen: Mm-hmm.

Zimmerman: I mean, we just this week had a rather massive redevelopment project that was being proposed by the mayor go down in flames. It involved public lands. It had, I think, a lot of things that would be good for the community. But the process was, again, pretty opaque, and people felt steamrolled by it. So I think even if you have good intentions and some of the right ingredients, you know, the reality is there’s a lot of distrust in government. And so when government is acting in secrecy that just feeds into that fear that people have and those negative stereotypes; and it’s not to say it’s easy to have a transparent process. It’s really hard. It takes a lot of time; it takes resources; it takes effort; it takes patience; it takes mediation. It takes all of that, but I do genuinely believe you come up with a better product at the end of it, so.

Cohen: It seems like the conversations that we’re having today in the U.S., at least as it relates to equity and its influence in comprehensive plans and transit access and housing and so forth, it’s as present as it ever was and maybe more so. And I guess my question for you is do you think we’ve turned a corner there as it relates to making equity part of all of these conversations just standard? Right? I mean, are we there yet? Is it true that we kind of have; it does feel different now than maybe in the past?

Zimmerman: That is a great question. And I’d like to say yes, but I don’t think I can. I feel like we have such deeply embedded institutional and structural racism that permeates almost everything in this country, especially, I think, in urban issues, in transportation, in planning. So I don’t feel like we’ve turned the corner, but maybe, you know, we’re at the intersection of the roads and we’re looking and we can see around the corner.

Cohen: Yeah.

Zimmerman: You know, I definitely recognize that issues of equity and in particular racial equity and economic equity are coming up a lot more often in a lot more places. And I think there’s also a lot of examples of rethinking our community engagement practices to really try to engage voices that have traditionally been underrepresented. But I still see, despite those intentions, a lot of times when decisions are actually getting made and resources are actually being allocated, I don’t think that those equity considerations are there in the way that they really need to be.

I think there’s still a lot of status quo that gets pushed and permeated and replicated, and so I think we have a lot more work to do on that. I think I am encouraged though that I feel a lot more people are willing to have those conversations and do that hard work. And we’re seeing just a lot more diversity of who is in the planning profession, who is in the transportation profession, who is at those tables, but haven’t quite turned the corner yet. That’s my perspective.

Cohen: Sure. Sure. So the status quo that you mention there that kind of is still kind of there and lurking, is that an issue of capacity building, just, you know, having enough folks with the exposure to some of these topics? And, you know, like when you go to Rail~Volution, you know, the folks that are there, if they weren’t already confronted with this in their day-to-day work, they are getting a great amount of exposure in a great environment to kind of learn from. Right? Obviously not everybody goes to Rail~Volution. Right? So I guess I’m trying to understand, like, to overcome that status quo, is it an exposure issue, is it a training issue, is it a mindfulness issue? I guess I’m really trying to, like, drill down into how to overcome that status quo.

Zimmerman: I don’t pretend to have the silver-bullet answer for how we do that. I don’t know that anyone does or maybe we would have figured it out by now. But, I mean, I certainly think having conferences like Rail~Volution or the PolicyLink Equity Summit or, you know, other convenings where we can bring people together and we can both kind of get a better shared understanding of what is inequitable in the current status system and who is benefitting and who is burdened by that and we can share examples of what are better strategies and better ways to move forward and reimagine what that might look like, like, those are all great things. We should have more of those.

I still think, you know, we can go to a conference, and we can talk about it, and we can have an equity officer for the city or something like that—like, all good things—but it’s often seen as this, like, piece that’s happening over there and not in our, like, daily body of work. I think there’s a few places that I would call out. I keep calling on Seattle here, but, like, King County that actually has an equity analysis of all the policies and things that are happening in the city, City of Minneapolis that’s coming up with metrics and different ways to really hold themselves accountable. To me those strategies that, again, are really trying to have transparent process of how do we define equity, how do we evaluate that, how do we hold ourselves accountable to know if we’re actually doing that, not just in things that we call equity but in, like, our larger body of work, to me that’s where you start to get at it.

But there are challenges. I’m on the board for the Shared-Use Mobility Center. And I think they’ve been doing really great work of trying to make sure that as we’re thinking about electric vehicles, autonomous vehicles, shared use, you know, bikeshare, scooters, TNCs, all this stuff, that equity interests are really being met. But I feel like many of the conversations that I go to on those topics, EVs, AVs, TNCs, you know, alphabet soup, equity is hardly ever discussed in those conversations. And, you know, I’ve been doing some work on regional housing strategies; and then we’ll do all this conversation of engaging people, but then at the end of the day there’s a real reluctance to actually do some of the hard things that are needed to get at more equitable housing policies and strategies. So we kind of revert to, “Let’s streamline the development process,” and, “Let’s have ADUs,” and, you know, “Let’s do these little kind of things around the margins,” versus, like, “Why do we really have deep racial disparities in homeownership? And what is needed to actually change those disparities?”

So I guess that’s kind of where—you know, again, I’m like, “We’re in a better place than we were,” but I don’t think we’ve turned the corner to, like, really doing the deep, hard work that’s needed. And I think it is deep and hard work, so it’s not something you can just get from a conference. I think it needs, like, all hands on deck from data, to process, to our own cultural biases that we bring to the table, to funding decisions that get made, to our political bodies and who’s representing us and who’s having a voice in those decisions.

Cohen: Yeah. I think that’s a fair point. I mean, it reminds me a little bit of the difference between being a Vision Zero community and really committing to Vision Zero.

Zimmerman: Yeah.

Cohen: Right?

Zimmerman: Yeah.

Cohen: Those are quite different things. And, you know, if you truly want to commit to Vision Zero, that’s going to require making some hard decisions. And, you know, often times folks are not necessarily willing to do that. Right? They want to do the easy stuff, which is to say, “Yeah, sure. We believe in Vision Zero. We’ll pass a resolution for that.” It’s another thing to say, “Oh, yeah. We’re going to reduce all the speed limits in the city” and then see what happens.

Zimmerman: Yeah.

Cohen: So building on that a little bit, I’m curious what’s next. I mean, are there any topics or issues that you’re particularly bullish on that maybe the larger urbanist or development community has not—maybe they’re not talking about it to the same level that you’re thinking about it, if that makes sense?

Zimmerman: One issue that just—it’s kind of shocking to me that we don’t all talk about a lot more, the Silver Tsunami that is almost upon us just in terms of, like, the aging of America.

Cohen: Yeah, sure.

Zimmerman: And it is going to influence everything we do, whether it’s who and how we’re funding transportation and services, our housing needs, our housing stock, the housing market, transportation mobility. I mean, it’s just like it goes on and on and on and on. And I feel like we really haven’t gotten our arms around that. And it’s been interesting to me just in some of my work, whether it’s the transportation work or housing work that I’m doing, how, like, it keeps popping up and popping up. And I’m like, “Wow. We are just on the cusp of this huge demographic wave,” and we are just I don’t think in any way prepared for it.

But it’s kind of been cool to me how in thinking about that wave like “What does that mean for some of these other issues that are kind of percolating up?” whether, you know—again, it’s like autonomous vehicles. Okay, how do these two things intersect, and how are they going to kind of change what comes next in transportation? Or community ownership models, so thinking about hosing and cohousing and land—

Cohen: Sure.

Zimmerman: You know, like, all this stuff. Like, it might be these concepts that we’ve thought are too hard or are going to take too long to, like, really scale up, that this huge wave might, like, push things in totally different and dramatic ways than we thought about. And, again, like, how do we think about equity in the context of those things? Because a lot of times I feel like when we are talking about the aging population we kind of make this assumption of, like, it’s a predominantly white, middle-income, aging cohort that we’re talking about; and it’s anything but. So, you know, whether it’s TOD and it may not be that super active boomer that we’re talking about, like, it can be a totally different household dynamic. And so how do we think about putting all those pieces together? I think it’s, like, mindboggling. I’m kind of curious to watch that space and see what happens.

Cohen: Hmm. Yeah, I really am going to be curious to see that and especially in how it’s tackled. Right? I mean, I could see it being tackled at a local level, and then I could also see it being tackled at a federal or state level. And I think those would be tackled in much different ways, but—you know, and I’m sure there are some communities, especially ones that may be in popular retirement areas, that have already been forced to confront some of these things just based on their current makeup. So I wonder if there’s some lessons that can be learned from some of those communities that could be applied writ large as this population ages and healthcare at a macro level keeps getting better and better.

Zimmerman: Yeah, to be sure.

Cohen: That’s really interesting. Mariia, where can folks learn more about your firm and some of the work that you’re doing?

Zimmerman: So you can check us out at, or I’m also on Twitter at @MZStrat.

Cohen: And for anyone who’s listening that sees this write-up, it is Mariia with two I’s.

Zimmerman: That’s right. [LAUGHS]

Cohen: So just a heads up there. That was not an error on her part or our part. That is correct, so just heads up on that. Well, Mariia, thank you so much for joining me and sharing a little bit about some of the work you’re doing with public lands and equity and what we need to think about next as it relates to the Silver Tsunami.

Zimmerman: Great. Thanks, Josh.

F: Thanks for listening. If you like what you hear, head to Apple Podcasts and subscribe, rate, and review this podcast. You can find out more at Be sure to join us next week for another episode of The Movement.


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