My desire to work in urban development was sparked in my first year of college by Jane Jacobs' book The Death and Life of Great American Cities
. Jacobs provided me the first sensible explanation of the economic and social isolation of poor communities I saw growing up in Baltimore City. Her book spurred on my interest in helping to knit urban communities back together, an interest that has led me to a career in urban planning and development.
I completed my B.A. in architecture, but it was only after I returned home to work for a community design non-profit that I really discovered the fields of city planning and economic development. I decided to pursue a graduate degree in urban planning (M.R.P.) and an M.B.A. My years at Cornell were wonderful -- I was surrounded by bright classmates with wide-ranging experiences and had direct access to professors who were experts in my concentration and who also showed me new paths of learning. The balance between theory and practice in the M.R.P. curriculum offered me the opportunity to explore ideas while gaining professional planning skills, a powerful combination. The rewards of the program have not diminished over time: I recently spent a year in Berlin, Germany on a Robert Bosch Fellowship, and my Cornell network played a key role in helping me to win this honor.
My work has taken me from New York City to St. Louis, Missouri, where I now help manage project finance for a company that builds mixed-income (affordable and market-rate) housing around the country for families, seniors, and special populations (e.g., people living with HIV). Many of our developments replace deteriorated public housing projects, and the transformation is pretty stunning. The quality of design, construction and maintenance of our housing is very high, and you can't tell from looking at them which units are subsidized and which are not. We've built attractive, affordable, stable housing in places no other for-profit developer would go -- places like East St. Louis, Illinois and Gary, Indiana.
Financing for these projects is pretty complex, so it's rewarding to be part of the team that makes it happen. In addition to the 13,000 units of housing we've built over about 30 years, we have also developed a shopping center and completed several historic rehabs/expansions of schools and buildings for community organizations, all in distressed inner city areas. Our CEO, Richard Baron, is a visionary: One of his most interesting ideas is the reconstruction of a lake that once stretched across a section of downtown St. Louis (it’s now a train yard). The new lake would be surrounded by offices, shops and (of course) mixed-income housing. It may take us a few years to figure out the financing for that project, but I think it will happen.
Blumner received her masters of regional planning and masters of business administration from Cornell in 2000 and her B.A. in architecture from Yale University in 1993.