Landscape in the Real Estate Industry: Ben O'Neil
March 25, 2013
As a Vice President of Leasing and Development for Liberty Property Trust in Washington, DC, Ben O’Neil is not your typical landscape architect. He spoke with LAF about his career path and the role of landscape in both his day-to-day work and in Liberty’s larger sustainability goals.
As Vice President of one of the nation's largest real estate companies, you are in an unusual position for someone with a landscape architecture degree. What was your career path?
My career path has definitely been anything but typical. Coming out of college as an Economics Major in 1996, I began working as a clerk on the floor of the New York Mercantile Exchange in oil and natural gas futures trading and later became a self-funded trader of Nasdaq stocks and options through 2001. Although I loved living in New York and was fascinated by the financial markets, I always had a deep love for golf and golf course architecture. So, in 2002 (as the stock markets were crashing) I decided to take savings I had built from trading and pursue a landscape architecture degree at Penn State University with the goal of becoming a golf course architect.
During my second year of the BLA/MLA program, I took an incredible course on urban real estate development that was sponsored by Liberty Property Trust and its Chief Operating Officer, Rob Fenza, himself a PSU Landscape Architecture grad. The course, with its final studio set within a real-life Liberty Property Trust development project, had a profound effect on me. The professor (Dan Jones, FASLA) helped forge a personal connection between me and some of the senior folks at Liberty, which resulted in an internship in 2004 working on the Philadelphia Navy Yard and Comcast Center projects. After that summer, I was hooked.
I continued on at Penn State and eventually earned a BLA and an MBA from the business school, and joined Liberty full-time in early 2006. Liberty’s culture and structure provide an incredible mix of entrepreneurship and opportunity for its employees, and I couldn’t imagine a more exciting future than working for Liberty in a global gateway market like Washington, DC.
What do you do in your day-to-day work and how do your landscape architecture skills come into play?
Great question. I have a pad of trace paper in my desk drawer and am constantly space planning for offices and common areas in and around our buildings – solving people’s real estate problems means putting myself in their shoes, the same way I was taught to think as a design student.
On a broader scale, I am responsible for identifying acquisitions for Liberty in the District of Columbia which puts me very much in an urban planning mindset, a perspective I gained from my years as a landscape architecture student. One of the most powerful ways to create returns for our investors is to see the potential in a particular building or block and know how it can be transformed into something more than it is today. As I walk around Washington, DC I am always thinking about what makes a space successful or unsuccessful — Is the scale of the space right? Are there enough “prospect and refuge” type areas programmed? Is that a good species for a street tree? What would a better hardscape design do for this building’s arrival experience? Where is all the stormwater running off to? So, in short, my landscape architecture skills come in to play every day, and I’m fortunate to work for a company where sustainability is such a guiding principle and this kind of thinking is absolutely encouraged and rewarded.
What goals does Liberty Property Trust have for sustainability and what role does landscape play?
Liberty is committed to the sustainable design, development, and operation of our real estate portfolio. As a leader in our industry, our goal is to create work environments that limit resource consumption, improve building performance and promote human health and productivity. When we look at how the landscape factors into these goals, it guides where and how we develop — pursuing mixed-use developments in urban brownfields, maintaining/improving riparian areas near our waterways as well as conserving water within our buildings, mitigating the urban heat island effect of roofs and paved surfaces, etc.
Liberty has its own internal Sustainability department where we are constantly pushing the envelope on how to improve on factors like energy and water consumption, waste reduction and occupant productivity. For these efforts, we have won the EPA’s Energy Star Partner of the Year, an extremely prestigious national award, for the past two years. We recognize that every business decision has a potential impact on our environment, and we are committed to understanding and reducing these effects. We believe that high-performance buildings and environmentally-responsible business operations are not only good for the planet; they also create value for our tenants, shareholders and employees.
Liberty Property Trust is a $6.9 billion real estate investment trust, which owns 78 million sf of office and industrial space in more than 21 markets throughout the U.S. and the U.K. Founded in 1972 and headquartered outside of Philadelphia, Liberty develops, acquires, leases and manages properties with the mission to enhance people’s lives through extraordinary work environments.
Any opinions expressed in this interview belong solely to the author. Their inclusion in this article does not reflect endorsement by LAF.