Culture

Coolest Person in the Room: Laura Mueller-Soppart

Interview & Photography by Megan Walschlager

Popularity is relative, and especially in the digital age. You could have hundreds of thousands of followers online, but be completely unknown in the streets — massively famous on Instagram, YouTube or Twitter, but lack any kind of real, authentic cool in person. For our new series, Coolest Person in the Room, New York-based photographer Megan Walschlager pinpoints all the people whose energy is contagious regardless of their following count or celebrity. Meet Laura Mueller-Soppart, the NYC-based millennial and founder of Built Interest who's trying to redesign the world.

Tell me about your day job.

My day job is real estate development.

Basically, I work with real estate developers who own property in city centers to help them figure out better uses and more exciting master plans for their assets. Real estate developers really aren't always the worst person in the real estate equation — usually they are kind of creative and want to leave a legacy and want to do something cool, but as they get older they don't always know what that is. So they work with someone like me to come up with a concept in terms of, "Hey, you're going to add value in terms of not only your assets, but also to the neighborhood and the story and everything else around it."

And to me that's super important because real estate is everywhere — it's under our feet, it's above our heads — we're in the built environment all day long, so as long as there is someone at the table advocating for something that's a little bit better than the status quo, that's what I'm there for. And that often turns into a lot of interior design work and place-making strategy. If you have an idea of what kind of brand or service or place should exist, I really believe you ought to be able to build it too. 50% of my day is strategy and 50% of my day is figuring out how to build those spaces.

How did you get into this work?

I was always really connected to politics. I worked on the Obama campaign, I interned at the White House and worked at the State House in Massachusetts and I kind of really loved every level of government. Except the State House, that was kind of weird. But then, I was like, "Okay, now let's do city government." But what I realized was, city government doesn't have as much control as they would like and that the real estate developers have the real chokehold on how a city will function, what they do, and what they build or don't build.

So, I was like, "Well, why don't I sit on that side of the table?" But the only real estate developer in New York I saw doing projects that I thought were inspiring was Two Trees — they own most of DUMBO, the Domino Sugar Factory. And I just really loved that they actually built public schools, they built art festivals, they actually built art galleries, they had actual reasonable rents for creatives, and they cared about the types of apartments they built. It wasn't just: buy the cheapest stuff as fast as you can and see how long it lasts — it was a completely different mentality around building something and owning it as long as you can.

And that meant that they were willing to invest in things that were more than just the kitchen countertops. They were willing to invest in making sure DUMBO stayed interesting or making sure the Domino Sugar Factory has a big beautiful park. Not every developer is ready and willing to do that because usually there is no "value" there for them. Or at least, they can't connect it back to their balance sheet. But because Two Trees had neighborhood as their main asset, I wanted to work for them because they get it. I was there for 2 years and my biggest baby was the Domino Sugar Factory — the brick one.

That's amazing! But you have started your own business now, right? Tell me more about that.

I loved working at Two Trees, but I felt that there was a missing link between the fact that almost everything now is some type of service or there is a layer of hospitality to almost everything that we do. From buying makeup to eating out to renting an apartment to traveling, everything is super service-oriented. And I felt like if the service and the space where that service happens isn't better connected, then we're gonna create a lot of waste and have a lot of lag times and you just won't have the best product that it could be, and it just won't match what "we" want.

So, I was like, "I get that, I see that, I did a little bit of that at Two Trees, we can do so much more of that." So I started my own company called Built Interest. I actually started it in Berlin because I wanted to see something beyond New York. And at that time Brexit had just happened, so Berlin was the new capital of Europe, which is kind of a crazy thing to hear in the 21st century. So, I thought that would be interesting. I'm originally from Germany and German is my first language, so I thought, "Alright, I'll connect with the motherland and start this adventure!" So I was there for a year and then I went to London.

Photo by Megan Walschlager

What projects were you working on in Berlin?

In Berlin we did a lot of co-living projects, so actually looking at how people want to live. And in Berlin it is much more normal to have these shared spaces and there's always someone who leads the apartment who has the lease — it's just more naturally organized. Whereas in New York, it's such a rat race for an apartment and it's a shit show and you spend way more money than you want to spend. No one walks into an apartment in New York and is like, "Oh, yeah this is amazing!" But in Berlin, that happens all the time.

We were really interested in that. And so Built Interest started building a lot of clubs, and restaurants and food halls during that time too. And that for me was like hospitality plus living — I could see how it all comes together.

I remember once we were talking with our friend who was moving to LA, and he was saying a lot of apartments there don't have kitchen appliances in them and that's pretty routine, but then you said you worked somewhere and it was custom to, like, carry your own floors with you to each apartment?

Yeah! In Amsterdam.

That's so interesting. What do you see happening to New York over time?

Right now I'm really focused on learning more about apartments that are designed to be shared. And it's threefold. One, it's an affordability issue. It's an access to a home issue, you know? The barrier to entry is too high.

And then two, sustainability, which I don't think is thought a lot about in terms of how we live. I always say if you can make the case to share your car because you only use your car 3% of the day, we use our kitchens even less. To build a kitchen in every single unit is old school. It's not necessary and I think there are better ways to do that.

And three, the social connection part. The way that we live is not designed around the fact that the population is getting older, and the age at which people now can afford a home is much older. Baby Boomers now want to buy affordable apartments because they buy their homes and then are obviously going to live longer than they have ever before. You have young people that don't expect to have the traditional family unit until 10 years later than people did 50 years ago — but everyone complains about how we don't have community and we don't have a place to hang out and connect and there's this loneliness under there. But I really think it's because the way we're forced to live isn't designed around the reality of how we want to live.

So when you put those three together — right now people call it co-living. Which I think as a term can evolve and change and become more nuanced and accurate. Right now in New York there are a lot of players trying to figure that out — and it's by no means a new concept. There are kibbutzim in Israel, there are shared apartments in Berlin — it all has existed, but in the most modern sense we need to change zoning codes and we need to incentivize developers to underwrite these developments that kind of allows for this type of thing. And people, designers, architects and consumers need to understand the product better, too. There's a lot to do there — it's a super long horizon — but I really think the way we live is just not designed for the way we want to.

Photo by Megan Walschlager

Totally. Also, I love your Instagram stories because you're always talking about these insights. One day, I remember you were talking about strip malls and how they are extra terrible for the environment. What are other things that you want to see us transition out of?

For me, the most important aspect of any development — even a residential development — is how the building meets the street. That right angle is the most important angle to me in the whole real estate game. And a strip mall is like the nastiest way for a building to meet the street. It was obviously born out of this idea of a car-centric community and so we have these asphalt islands in the middle of cities — like in Chicago where I grew up. It boggles my mind — it blows me away — every time I drive down Clybourn like, "Where are we?! This isn't Chicago!"

That's a big part of what place-making is. So when I talk about combining hospitality, living and place-making — place-making is, how does that building meet the street? So right now I'm working on a big development on the Williamsburg waterfront and advising on how to think about how the building meets the street. What is the street going to do? Are we going to create new streets and new plazas? What are people going to do there? What is the user design of our cities? And the worst user design is a strip mall for the modern shopper. So any opportunity to think about those moments and ask why is it this way, we need to break down and figure out how to do it another way.

Tell me about some of your other current projects.

Well, I'm doing a lot of consulting projects, but for me the idea was that I always want to be a real estate developer, but as far as I know I'm not inheriting any land and I'm not inheriting a lot of money. So, like how else do you become a real estate developer? It's like a big question mark.

For me, I was like, "Ok, I know I can add value." So with each project I do, I try to command more and more equity in the project. And looking at the hospitality world, and really wanting to get good and understand that in a real way — because we are never going to be able to divorce real estate and hospitality — is looking at this opportunity to come in as the concept and creative partner for a restaurant and a nightclub. There was a back of house operator that has an amazing lease on Lafayette St, and they just needed new creative partners to pull this off and so through friends I got connected and pitched my idea with one of my buddies and they we're just like let's go, let's do it.

So this is kind of the first big project where I own more than 10% of the company, and we are raising capital and building it all out and just being as iterative as we can. Because again, this is an opportunity for 4 young people to have a huge hospitality space on Lafayette and to build what people actually want. I was super influenced by going out in Berlin. When I came back to New York, I was like, "What is wrong? Why aren't people going out? Why aren't people getting ready to go out? Why isn't there this fun culture everywhere?" Obviously there are pockets of it, and subcultures that are alive and well, but honestly they're mostly in Brooklyn. Then in Manhattan — the "Center of the World" — everyone's running around like, "I don't know where to go!" What a crazy problem! We're in Manhattan! Like there's no place where you're like, "Ugh I wish we could get in there!"

And to me that was a problem that needed to be answered. It's a societal problem! So let's answer that and build the right type of nightlife and let's build a restaurant that connects to that. At the end of the day, people do want to go out and be seen. It's not like we've become more shy as a society, but the culture around going out and everything has to connect back to your day. I really, really think that how we conduct ourselves during the day is now as important as how we do at night — in terms of creating your identity — and there's very few places where those are connected.

Is it open yet? Or what is the timeline?

It's not open yet. [Laughs] And I'm not giving you a timeline on record!

Well, is it close?

We are going to open this year.

Love.

And the goal is to open it all at once. But we want to do it right, so if that means opening the downstairs and then the upstairs — we're gonna play it by ear. Come soon, but come correctly.

What would be a dream project for you? Or is there a space in New York you are always thinking about transforming?

I think a lot about libraries and churches. To me they are these big, beautiful, stately, basically public spaces with old school uses. I go into churches all the time, especially in Midtown, and it's like, "Wow, it's silent in here and it smells kind of nice!" And there's no one walking around talking and puffing on a juul. And it's kind of nice to escape all that for a second! That's so special. Same with libraries. That's so deeply American, to have the library as the center of the town. Almost everywhere else in the world, some kind of religious institution is the center of a town, but American towns and cities are built around libraries — which I think is so sick and totally underrated. But they need to catch up. It's like OG co-working. Like how aren't libraries the WeWorks of the world? I think about those a lot. There's so many cool things you could do.

Also post offices. Like mail is different now! But they have amazing real estate sometimes. And you could even use them as places to register to vote. Like it's the most basic, minimum, viable situation, so we should probably do that. So I think figuring out uses to match public desires — and silence is rare as our cities get bigger and bigger but it's really important for negative brain space. And I think about public schools a lot. They can be so beautiful. And beauty is the most sustainable thing in real estate.

Photo by Megan Walschlager

There's always this discussion of American migration patterns, like at one point everyone was moving to cities, then they retreated to the suburbs, now it's kind of in flux and rural areas are in trouble. Do you see any solutions or have any predictions for rural America?

The part of the US that I always have in my peripherals are the ex-urban areas. So, I've been going upstate a lot more, researching a lot about the South — all of the fastest growing cities in the US are south of the Mason-Dixon line. What does that mean? What are we doing?

And living in New York, we talk a lot about how access to nature is the one true downside to living here. And being able to connect those areas to cities will become more and more and more important. So is it a different type of hospitality offering? Is it a resurgence of the motel and roadtrip culture? What is it that is going to get us out of the city and get us out of our own heads?

Also, while you are talking — I keep thinking about the lack of transportation infrastructure in the US. Do you ever deal with transportation issues?

Absolutely. In multiple ways. So, when I worked at Two Trees, I was part of the founding crew of people that started the campaign for the Brooklyn-Queens Connector — it's like a street car. I think it's really important to connect transportation to the built environment because, ultimately, again, it's another way for the building to meet the street and for that street to have transportation.

That project was really interesting and we learned a lot about traffic and cars and like — the power of the car in local politics is crazy. I don't remember the statistic, but it's something like thousands of dollars to lobby for one car to be removed off the street. And a car is for one person, whereas it could make room for a bus that holds at least 50 people or a street car thats for 110 people. And so when you think about those statistics, it's still kind of wild.

It's also about always planning for bike lanes and Citibikes and all of that in terms of place-making strategy. There are also a lot of tax programs right now around transit-oriented communities. So, I'm doing a project in LA right now with a developer who owns 4 plots of land in Koreatown and so the brief is, "What's the highest and best use for my land?" But he's owned it since '87 and suddenly he's next to a metro station. Game changer. What does he do with it? How do we integrate that into the overall scheme and the financing model? What kind of hotels do we start talking to? What kind of restaurants are going to want to be there? All of that matters.

Even with the Williamsburg one. There's a dock right there. What kind of cafe do ferry commuters need and want? So, what do we put on the ground floor to make it a ferry-oriented world? You can never divorce transportation from the built environment in a city, but I think more and more in rural America too.

I imagine it has been difficult to be a young woman in this arena — what has that experience been like?

That's real! It's really hard. It's one of those things where it's like, is it difficult and is everything stacked against me? Or is it challenging and an opportunity to move things forward? And to grapple with those two ideas and figure out how do I keep moving up without getting beat down is a lot of brain power, for sure. And there are more and more women around you that make you feel like we got this. My team is only composed of women. At the end of the day, if you're really focusing on making sure that places are conscious of the people that use them — well my team is advocating for the other 50% of the population that isn't heard.

Right, like people always talk about breastfeeding rooms.

Yeah, little things like that that never get thought of. Even just now in the restaurant — making sure we build a medicine cabinet that actually opens to put things in there that women would expect to find there — like feminine products and things like that. Let alone the menu and making sure there's a young female voice advocating for things women want.

I think also what's really important is those board meetings — when you sit at the tables with those CEOs and investors and all of that — they are just reminded that there is a face that looks different than there's and that that face is an equally important consumer of their product. That in and of itself always feels like a powerful reminder. Physically being there is so important.

What do you think are some of the coolest spaces in New York?

I've done a few clubs and restaurants in New York. I've done a lot more strategic advisory, but in terms of physical places — one is called Ophelia on the Upper East Side. It's actually in the old Beekman Tower, which is where the Panhellenic Society used to be, so honestly it was like the first Wing. It was where women in the 1920s lived together when they first moved to New York City to find jobs, so it was like a big sorority house essentially. You had all these women, young women, new to the workforce, living together, and they had this amazing lounge space at the top of the tower. And the building itself was also developed by a woman in the 1920s, which is so unheard of.

It was so well done and so beloved by these women that the men in the area were like, "I'm sorry, but we need access to this too." So after a few years it changed to the Top of the Tower and it became known as the place where Frank Sinatra and those guys used to party, and then it shut down. So we reopened it and called it Ophelia, and worked with a curator for 6 months to find all these curiosities from that era, and actually we found a lot of trinkets and memorabilia and postcards and sashes and hair pins from women that lived in the building. It's like a little museum up there of that history. So doing that, to me, is the coolest opportunity with these spaces. Spaces that are about a story and a little educational and a little exciting. I think people crave that knowledge.

There's no such thing as timelessness in architecture, in my opinion, because everything is of the time. But things that care about beauty do kind of last forever. That to me is super important.

I love that. Any final words?

Not really. I'm just super excited for there to be more conversation in the world about our built environment. And how we can appreciate how these spaces should be designed for all of us and the more people that represent all of us that are building these spaces, the better off we are for sure.

Follow Laura on Instagram (@lauralonglastname).

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