Moving graduate students from the classroom into the field
By Heidi Coryell Williams
College of Architecture, Arts and Humanities
Before making the move to academia, assistant professor Robert Benedict logged 26 years in the private sector, doing everything from managing real estate investments to surveying historic properties to selecting sites for garden apartments.
So when it came time to assemble a group of professionals to mentor and guide students through Clemson’s Master of Real Estate Development program, Benedict — now program director — immediately recognized the value of connecting graduate-level students with the same folks who helped him along the way: folks in the field.
“It’s so rewarding to work with students and to prepare them for the real world,” Benedict explains. Clemson’s program is one of only a handful of graduate real estate development programs in the nation.
“Architects, construction professionals, planners — they all work together,” he says. “I try to have students work on projects with these professionals, too, so when they leave, they have that real-world experience.”
Benedict, as well as his fellow professors who serve the MRED program, accompany students as they travel all over the Southeast visiting current development projects. Called Development Tours, these field visits are now a hallmark of Clemson’s MRED program. They run the gamut — from several-day trips to Atlanta and Charlotte to a two-week minimester on the South Carolina coast, visiting up to 40 developments along the way. Students tour subsidized housing complexes, master-planned communities, resort properties, as well as industrial and mixed-use developments.
Prior to joining Clemson, Benedict was a vice president and partner with Carolina Holdings in Greenville with project management responsibilities for more than $30 million in development, including neighborhood retail, single-tenant retail and infill residential projects. But Benedict’s experience also included historic preservation consultations with public, private and nonprofit groups. He’s written listings for nearly a dozen properties on the National Register of Historic Places including Liberty Hall in Pendleton, Richland Cemetery in Greenville, and the McWhirter House in Jonesville, S.C.
Not surprisingly, one of the experiences Benedict recently offered to his MRED students was also a historic property, and it meant studying redevelopment of the vacant, 1850s-era South Carolina Lunatic Asylum in downtown Columbia. Developers Bob Hughes and Helen Sanders (MRED ’09) invited MRED students to submit redevelopment proposals for the property. The invitation was turned into a semester-long practicum in which teams worked to develop detailed plans for the asylum’s historic buildings and its 165-acre campus. The project required combining detailed site plans, financial analysis and adaptive reuse plans for the historic property. Student proposals included hotel space, residential living, retail and commercial storefronts, and walkable grounds as part of their mock-ups.
“Not every historic property can be preserved as a museum,” says Benedict, who still specializes in the adaptive reuse of historic properties. “That idea is part of what led me to Clemson, and that’s what I try to instill in my students.”
MRED students also receive unprecedented access to more than 30 industry professionals via the Advancement Board for Real Estate Development, which is made up of men and women who, like Benedict’s mentors, represent a broad cross-section of industry specialists — from developers, architects, planning and zoning officials to commercial lenders. They are available to students throughout the program and after graduation.
“They provide an excellent resource in terms of professional experience,” Benedict says. “Advancement board members are very generous with their time and very supportive of our students.”
Ultimately, Benedict explains, real estate is about people. Which is why the advancement board and all of the external support the MRED program has received is so vital.
“This is a relationship business,” he says. “We really strive to make students understand that.”
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