Essays by John McNellis

Modular Construction: “Not there yet”

There is only one way for a modular project to go right, and a million ways to go wrong. Watch enough construction and it may occur to you that things have scarcely changed since Ramses II’s building spree. Yes, we have cranes, forklifts, and electric saws, but so much of building still comes down to…

California: not “Permitting” Recovery

The city’s building inspector confided, “I don’t know why anyone would ever pull a permit for an apartment remodel; the cities make it so difficult.” California’s cities want to do the right thing. They’ve been telling us all the right things since the Covid mess began: promising to speed building permits…

Silicon Valley: Supply in need of Demand

“Britannia est insula. Italia est paeninsula.” The first two sentences of my freshman year Latin book were easy to understand: England is an island and Italy a paen or almost island. After that easy beginning, Latin tumbled into incomprehensibility, but the thought stuck that England was fully insulated…

Retail: One Year After

A year ago, our shopping centers were shuttered, and our tenants so crushed we forgave their April rent. Believing the world would reopen by mid-April, we thought our merchants would have a couple weeks of free-rent to make up for March’s closure. We couldn’t have been more wrong. A year later and we’re…

Retail’s Not-So-Artificial Intelligence

Geofence: A virtual boundary set up around a geographical location, such as a shopping center or retail space. Owning retail has been challenging since the Great Recession. You likely know the reasons why: overbuilding, the internet, rapacious private equity, too many lackluster tenants. You also know…

The City in 2025

Twenty years ago, I attended a real estate conference that featured a very impressive doctor as a keynote speaker. This Harvard doctor didn’t merely proclaim, but flat-out guaranteed that cancer would be cured within five years. Seven years ago, I chanced to sit next to Astro Teller and Sebastian Thrun…

The Art *on* the Deal

“There is no there there.” When Gertrude Stein wrote that deathless line about Oakland, it seems she wasn’t being snarky after all; she was grieving over the loss of her girlhood home to its path of growth. What would the poet say today? Oakland is popping: 2400 residential units built since 2016, another…

High Times In the Plague Year

Landlords already know this: People are getting more toasted than Wonder Bread. Happy Hour starts at 3 o’clock. Tenants selling reality-relief are killing it. I called a number of retailers to double-check my desultory anecdotal evidence. One, the owner of a first-rate supermarket chain, said his alcohol…

Flight of the Techies

Viewed a certain way, life resembles a Vegas sports book — its dramas have at least a few winners; not everyone loses. Covid-19 is no exception. The airline industry is on the tarmac, but RVs have never been in greater demand. Public transportation has a flat tire, yet bicycles can’t be found for love…

California Flame-Out?

“Scotts Valley evacuated. Our Safeway center is shut down,” my partner texted last Friday. That meant four of our shopping centers in Northern California were threatened by wildfires. The CZU complex fire, the one endangering Scotts Valley and Santa Cruz, remains out of control as of this writing. Another…


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