Close Menu
  • Volunteers

Wearing Two White Hats: Paul Sehnert

Paul Sehnert at the Collaborative's 2015 Leverage fundraiser. Photo Credit: Poseybooth
More than one board member has described Paul Sehnert as the Collaborative’s biggest cheerleader. Paul is wrapping up his service as board co-chair, but will thankfully remain on our board. We’ll continue to appreciate his perspective as designer and developer—and his contagious enthusiasm.  

Paul is Director of Real Estate Development for the University of Pennsylvania. He’s helped facilitate over a billion dollars in third-party development deals and game-changing land acquisitions, including the former Main Philadelphia Post Office at 30th and Market and a 23-acre parcel of riverfront land that was the site of Dupont’s Marshall Research Laboratories.

The impact of Paul’s work is literally outside his office door, “I can go over and walk at Penn Park today. That picture has always been there for me, even when it was an fallow and underutilized parking lot.”

His current point of pride is the Pennovation Center, a business incubator and laboratory that brings researchers, innovators, and entrepreneurs together to turn research discoveries into business ventures. “I get to see young companies, fascinating startups come together… cool little companies of one or two people as they become big.”

Development + Design
Paul began his career, fresh from the University of Cincinnati School of Architecture, working on a series of plans to revitalize Cincinnati.  He then moved on to Denver to serve on the administration of Federico Peña. Paul recalls Peña as a politician “with a vivid urban design sense who said to his staff, ‘I want you all to imagine a great city.’” “It was an incredible time to be in city administration. My title was Director of Economic Development and Planning, but that really meant community planning meetings every weekend, charrettes like crazy.”

From Denver, Paul went on to a Public Sector Fellowship in Real Estate and Urban Development at MIT. He urges every designer to cultivate an understanding of real estate development. “There’s a secret language that developers have… what makes a deal work or not work. As an architect, you need to get upstream where business decisions are made. That’s where design and decision making happens.”  

“You may never be a developer, but you should understand the role they play in the building of our Cities… and the sooner you understand your role the better you’ll be at influencing the outcome.”

So how does a designer get inside the developer’s perspective?  Paul, who teaches real estate development seminars at Penn’s City and Regional Planning Department, offers one quick way: “Buy a building! All of a sudden your cost-benefit studies get a lot more focused. You will end up (like I did) at Home Depot purchasing drywall for a rental property. Are you going to purchase good, better, or best?”

Giving Back, Having Fun
Paul joined the Collaborative board in 2009, just in time for Infill Philadelphia: Industrial Sites, an exploration into the reuse of vacant industrial sites. “I joined the board because it’s important for me to give back. I’ve benefited from great education and experience. But, for me, staying in touch with the design business and being around designers is also really important. It’s great to be in a community of architects, planners, urban designers.”

Taking a leadership role in Industrial Sites was “a really great experience… we considered three representative sites to show how former industrial sites could be repurposed for current manufacturing.” The effort engaged some of the same themes as Pennovation—creating a development model that supports startup fabrication companies and provides a platform to take them to scale.

“Industrial Sites was my first big participation in the Collaborative.  I really had the catbird seat.  … Everyone who participated got what they wanted. The partner, the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation, got a thought-provoking solutions and process. The jury got to get contribute expertise]. And the designers (which included then-emerging DIGSAU) got exposure.”

In fact, his favorite Collaborative moment came during an Industrial Sites design charrette where discussion about a glass-strewn lot inspired Macro Sea’s David Belt to create Glassphemy, a pop-up installation where visitors could go to just smash glass, celebrating the creative aspect of placemaking.   

Paul sees the Collaborative as a great opportunity for architects.  “Architecture is a business with timelines, products, jobs. There’s a functional piece to it… but there is also this mission-driven aspect.” People in the profession navigate between two poles – idealist and pragmatic businessperson. He adds, “It’s part of a physical designer’s personality is strive to make things better. The Collaborative is an outlet to do good.”

“I see it as a chance to give back, but also a chance to have fun,” he says. 




More Info