An Executive Interview with Nina Gruen

The Executive Summary is a brief video series in which Bay Area real estate and land use professionals discuss the arc of their careers, personal interests, and the impact of ULI on their careers.

An Executive Interview with Nina Gruen


Nina J.Gruen has been the Principal Sociologist in charge of market research and analysis at Gruen Gruen + Associates (GG+A) since co-founding the firm in 1970. Ms. Gruen applies the analytical techniques of the social sciences to estimating the demand for real estate and to understanding the culture of the groups who determine the success of development, planning, and public policy decisions. She is a pioneer in synthesizing the results of behavioral research with quantitative time-series data to forecast market reactions. Market and community attitude evaluations and programming studies led by Nina Gruen have resulted in the development and redevelopment of many retail, office, industrial, visitor, and residential projects, varying in scale from a single building to large single- and mixed-use projects.

Ms. Gruen has served as Chair of the State of California Transportation Commission Airspace Advisory Committee. Ms. Gruen served on the Policy Advisory Board of the Roy P. Drachman Institute for Land and Regional Development Studies at the University of Arizona, Tucson. Ms. Gruen is past president (1995-1996) of International Women’s Forum – Northern California. In 1984, she was the first woman to be elected President of the Western Regional Science Association. She is also a member of Lambda Alpha, an honorary land economics society, and Commercial Real Estate Women (CREW).

In 1982, Ms. Gruen became the first woman elected to the Urban Land Institute’s Board of Trustees. She served on the Board of Trustees until 1997. In 1997, Ms. Gruen was designated an honorary member of ULI. For five years, she was co-chairman of the ULI’s Low- and Moderate-Income Housing Task Force. In addition to influencing national and local policy, the Task Force sponsored research on the impact of growth management and organized community panels to help resolve local housing, economic development, and neighborhood revitalization issues.

Full Interview Transcript

Hello. I’m Nina Gruen and I am principal sociologist of Gruen, Gruen, Plus Associates.

First Job in Real Estate

We have to go back to 1963. I’d like to have the brief answer that my husband got me out of sex and into real estate. I had completed a master’s thesis on incest while he was getting his doctorate and his interest was studying why neighborhoods change, why they increase in quality, decrease, or are stable.

He was planning to do a survey, so he constructed a questionnaire and asked me what I thought about it. I had done a lot of that type of work in my program, developing questionnaires, so I looked at it and, being my usual tactless self, told him it was terrible.
He said, “If you’re so smart, why don’t you do one for me?” which I did. Then he asked if I want to help him in the actual survey in the three neighborhoods. I was very happy to do so. I loved every minute of it. He wrote an article based on the analysis and submitted it to the National Science Foundation in Washington.

We turned out to be the first husband and wife that won, each of us, a grant in our own names. We had not had that much money since we began graduate school because they not only gave us an allowance, they gave us a children’s allowance. We then were able to go to a six-week regional science program for doctorates at University of California at Berkeley.

While we were on our drive there Claude asked, “How did you feel about doing this work in housing?” I said, “I enjoyed it far better than I did my thesis on incest.” That’s the longer answer of how my husband got me out of sex and into housing.

Best Career Advice

Again, I count on my husband for giving me the best career advice, because when we opened our firm in 1970 he said, “There are three types of consultants: those who give the client what they want to hear, those who do good research and tell the client what they need to hear, and those who vacillate between the two.” As he put it, “You could only make money doing one or two.”

Given my personality, we had to pick the one that would tell the client what they needed to hear. It was very interesting because other clients who would not work with us, one of them a city in the Bay area, said, “That firm isn’t objective enough in our direction.” It was a very true advice that I got.

The advice I would give to other younger people who are in consulting is to take the choice we took, agreeing to take 20%, 25% of our work each year on jobs we had never done before. I have to confess, it’s not a way to make maximum income, but it’s sure the way to make it interesting every year you’re doing the work.

Proudest Career Accomplishments

In the ’60s I was asked by Cyril Magnin to do a store location study for him in San Francisco. At that time the standard store location study would look at income within a geographic market area. That’s primarily what it was.

We did one of the first behavioral models that was ever done and published at that time. What I did was survey his customers at existing stores and I looked at their primary characteristics. While income was important, it was nowhere near as important as education. The reason I say that: you could have a plumber’s wife and a young attorney’s wife with the same salary, and it would be the attorney’s wife who shopped at Joseph Magnin.

Eventually Cyril asked me to do his store location work for entire southern California: Los Angeles, and all the other nearby communities. It was very interesting to me because we could use the same products, a buyer could buy absolutely the same clothing, but advertise it differently. In southern California it was good taste, conservative. In northern California it was avant-garde. Absolutely the same outfits.

Early 1980s we were called in by the city of Scottsdale, Arizona to evaluate their downtown. When we looked at the downtown it actually looked an after condition. It didn’t look like it needed anything. We went back to the city council. We asked, “Why are you unhappy with the downtown? It looks terrific.”

They said, “We know it looks terrific, but we’re asking, what’s going to happen 20 years from now if the downtown population and around the southern Scottsdale all move north,” as they were beginning to do. “Won’t the retail move with them?” Of course it would, so we did an analysis there and we found that the way the city defined the downtown was they excluded two older shopping centers across from Camelback, which is one of the main streets.

We thought that area should be included in the downtown, but the centers were owned by two developers who didn’t speak to each other, so there was no way we could get cooperation. Working with the city, we got the Westfield company to buy the two centers, turn it into one phenomenal center, which is still one of the 10 best centers in the U.S. and even in the worst of the recession, was making $500 a square foot.

Why am I particularly proud of this study? It was our suggestion to make a Ponte Vecchio bridge that crossed to the older part of the town, anchored by Nordstrom, so that we brought the older part in with the newer part. That’s one reason that it’s continued to be the successful destination, shopping, entertainment, and residential area it is today.

Toughest Career Challenge(s)

The toughest challenge in my career was in the ’60s and ’70s being a woman. I didn’t want to become transgender, so I didn’t overcome it. Professional women, at that point, were very few and far between. We had problems not only with private sector clients but with organizations.

I remember several clients would ask me, “What do you do at GG+A,” expecting me to say, “I manage it,” or, “I’m the receptionist,” or, “the bookkeeper.” I finally came up with the idea to say, “I’ve been with the firm ever since I founded it.” That stopped conversation.
ULI was no better. I went to my first council meeting in the early ’70s, obviously being the only woman, and halfway through the meeting I made a comment. One of the gentlemen said, “That was an intelligent comment for a woman.” Obviously that was my last comment on that day.

What I found, and I think it was pretty typical throughout, is about 50% of the men didn’t care one way or another. About 35% were very hostile, and about 15% were very, very supportive. I don’t know what I would have done without Roy Drachman becoming a major mentor in my ULI history. He didn’t care what gender you were, what race you were, what age … none of this mattered. If you were competent, that’s all that mattered to Roy and he gave you a hands-up all the way.

What I really found interesting, and this was also true in the general world, not just ULI: the most resentful, even more resentful than the men, were the wives of the men who were working and helping run the companies and who were getting zero respect for it. You know what? I couldn’t blame them. I would have felt exactly the same way.

Impact of Forces: Past & Future

The greatest forces in the ’60s and ’70s and really early ’80s was both the private and public sector’s interest in market studies. They wanted to know, “What do consumers want and what will they want?” This began to change dramatically in the late ’80s and sped up in the ’90s. Marketing was supplemented with visioning and citizen participation.

It was no longer, what is there likely to be a future demand for but, what do people really want? That really changed the situation dramatically. Market studies went way, way down. In fact, the only market studies that were done were comparables, what had happened in previous developments. Except, in a time of change, comparables are history. They’re not the future.

Really, even in the last two decades, in terms of development, the only two interests that I have ever found from developers are two-fold: entitlement, “What can I get permission to build?” and financing. Because of that there are mistakes made every day. I’m hoping that over time they’ll understand with such quick cultural, technological, and demographic change they’re going to need more than, and they’re going to need more than comparables. That has been a problem.

What we did as a firm was expanded into other areas. For two or three years, for example, I was queen of the sewage sludge. I know that’s hard to believe, but what I looked at was, was there a market for soil amender made from sludge?

We did major studies on the economic impact of commercial versus sports fishing. Currently we’re doing a socioeconomic impact on the yellow-legged frog and if it’s considered to be an endangered species, taking away a lot of property for a county that needs it for tourism, so it’s changed.

Favorite Places and Buildings

Obviously, I love San Francisco because I choose to live here. I was so excited when we could move from the East Bay to downtown San Francisco. With five children it was far too expensive for us to live in San Francisco when they were growing up.

I love urban places, pretty much all very urban places. I think it’s because I grew up in a six-acre site, an Arcadia-like environment surrounded by woods. There was nothing urban whatsoever about it.

Currently, my favorite places, for sure, in the United States, are: San Francisco, Chicago, and New York. My own theory is, if Chicago had good weather like San Francisco, half of America would move there. In terms of other locations: London, Paris, Prague, and Saint Petersburg, Russia.

ULI’s Impact on Career

ULI has impacted my career greatly. In the early ’70s, and really all through the ’70s, I learned so very much. At that point in time, first of all you have to remember, ULI was very small. You knew everybody. There was a high proportion of developers.

What I loved were all the sessions on mistakes made and lessons learned. I think we should have more of those because people are still making mistakes, I would think. That was just wonderful for my career, learning that much. Obviously, making relationships, but not just business relationships. We’ve had friendships, like Bob Engstrom. There are many others. That’s very important.

Even today I think being able to meet people from all over the world, it’s far more global. I think as a global world, this is far more important. We can’t just limit ourselves to the United States. I’m very grateful for that.

Do I learn as much from the sessions? No. If I haven’t learned a lot in 50 years, forget it. But that doesn’t mean anything because what I do learn is the perspective of the various groups: the planners, the architects, the consultants, the developers, the financial people.
This is a wonderful opportunity to learn what people are thinking, all these other professions. I don’t think that should be minimized.

The Executive Summary: Season 2 was developed by Rob DeWaters, Virginia Rocha, Ashley Camps, and John Means. It aims to foster wider professional and personal connections across the ULI San Francisco membership.