A day in Porta Norte

Versión en Español

At Ciudad Porta Norte, we strive to facilitate physical activity, connection with nature, and belonging. We do this by preserving natural waterways, building tree-lined trees, parks, and squares with lots of greenery, promoting sports, and more to promote culture.

In this story, I imagine what a father’s day will be like enjoying Porta Norte’s European town lifestyle.

I wake up at 5:30 am on a Tuesday. I open my eyes and see my roof supported by wooden beams from the trees of Porta Norte. My feet are on the bamboo floor and stretch my arms.

I go out onto my terrace, take a deep breath of fresh air and watch the tops of the trees dance in synchrony. It is one of the last summer breezes. But, then, I remember that I have a tennis match at 6:00 am.

I cross an inner courtyard on my way to the kitchen. I make myself a cup of freshly ground coffee beans, grab a plate, a knife, and salt. The mornings in the yard are spectacular. On a typical morning, the sun hits the mango tree, the birds sing, and the weather is chilly while I sip my fresh brew.

I go out into the inner courtyard and am greeted by my dog, Max, wagging his tail as usual. I walk through the grass barefoot until I reach my morning chair under the mango tree. Before I sit down, I stretch out my arm and pluck a ripe mango. I sit listening to the voices in the garden as I scratch Max’s furry neck. The birds sing as they drink water from the little waterfall in the pool.

A lot of little animals come here in the summer when they need water. That’s the beauty of having a courtyard connected to Mariposa Creek —it attracts biodiversity. I breathe in the fresh air before I begin to meditate. I close my eyes and focus on my breath.

In the end, I give thanks for another day and plan my day while I peel the mango and eat it with a bit of salt. Then I ponder, do I go to the Bike Park at midday? Do I bike? To the office? the orchard? the park? the river? a square? For a stroll?

I get ready for tennis and go to the Sports Club to play with a friend from 6:00 am to 7:00 am. Then, I go back to the house, grab the hose, freshen up the floor and my head. When I’m done, I start watering the plants. I love watching the plants grow, especially my tomatoes and cucumbers; it’s eatable art. My garden is pesticide-free because I want the birds, bees, and butterflies to grow as nature commands.

I continue my virtuous morning and go to the sauna for a few minutes. Inside I’m thinking about my new project, a small house overlooking the creek. I’m going to put a small office there.

When I finish, I take a dip in the pool, play with Max for a while and go to change. Then I meet up with the rest of the family. They say they want to go to our usual café in Plaza Fundadores for breakfast. So we grab Max and head out the front door to a pedestrian street.

Render Calle Peatonal en Porta Norte
Pedestrian street

This is my favorite street. It is full of pots with plants and ends with access to Mariposa Creek. We walk a little and see some children running in the community garden and the amphitheater in the park. The laughter of the children running is the music of the neighborhood. My son wants to go and play with them, but I tell him we will join them later.

Render de Calle Secundaria en Porta Norte
Secondary street

We walk along a tree-lined street where the trees form a green roof. The squirrels keep moving from tree to tree. It is nice to see how some rays of light pass through the canopy of the trees. The brightly colored veraneras are overflowing from the balconies.

We walked to the plaza in 3 minutes. On arrival, we greet neighbors and friends. A couple of people are enjoying their hot coffee while reading the news under the tree shade. The elders are in their usual corner chatting.

Plaza Fundadores en Porta Norte
Plaza Fundadores

There is a fountain in the middle of the plaza, and you can hear the water drops falling. Brightly colored mosaics dress up the fountain.

My favorite places in the square are the bookshop and the market where they sell fresh food. In addition, there is a park for children to play in and a dog park—the smell of freshly baked bread permeates the plaza.

Marco, the waiter, smiles at us and asks, “The same as always?” We nod. We enjoy our toast while we do some people and dog watching in the plaza until we finish.

My office is on the second floor of the plaza. I say goodbye with a hug, a kiss and go to work. My office has an antique wooden desk facing my balcony, which overlooks the María Prieta River, is full of plants, and has a hammock with a mola design.

I like to keep the doors open to take advantage of the cross ventilation and to see nature. It’s a great inspiration for writing. Also, the eaves over my balcony keep the rain out.

At lunchtime, I decide to exercise. I am thankful that I have direct access to rivers from my house and office. I walk down to the plaza and cross the pergolas that lead down to the river. Next to the volleyball court, I join the yoga group and then go for a hike.

There is a microclimate; the air is cooler and humid due to the river. The smell of the tropical forest is identical to that of El Valle or Cerro Azul. I walk for several kilometers, seeing howler monkeys, blue butterflies, iguanas, ñeques, small fish, bees, and hummingbirds.

The riverbank has countless species of trees. Some of them are huge centenarians. I enjoy the fruit trees the most because I love to take them home with me. The canopies form a green roof that cuddles me.

Árbol en Porta Norte
Tree Canopy in the Maria Prieta River

Occasionally there are cave-like passages formed by bamboo. I feel like I’m in a movie when I walk through them. The track is made of gravel, and every 2 minutes, there are spaces with benches, picnic tables, and barbecues made of wood, stone, and brick.

Many people love to come down and play. How nice to have that dose of tropical nature just a few steps away on any given Tuesday. It’s food for the spirit. When I finish exercising, I approach the edge of the river where some children bathe and play with frogs. I watch the water flow between the rocks, kneel, dip my hands in the cold water and soak my face.

Río María Prieta en Porta Norte
María Prieta River

I go home, bathe, cook and have a home-cooked lunch with my partner. Lunch includes vegetables from the community garden and free-range chicken eggs that we buy at the market.

Before returning to the office, I have to pick up my son from school. So I go out the front door and grab my bike parked next to the door. On the way, I greet many parents who are walking back with their children. Next, I ride by the Plaza del Amor. When I arrive, I wait a few minutes for the soccer match to finish.

On the way back along the cycle path, my son decides to go and play in the park. So we go for a while. The space we like the most is the vegetable garden. He enjoys pulling up vegetables and seeing the roots.

There we both learn about permaculture. There is a wide variety of flowers, vegetables, fruits, and medicinal plants. Medicinal plants used to be a mystery to me, but I am learning more and more about them. Now I drink anti-inflammatory teas.

I enjoy feeding the fish in the irrigation ponds. When I leave, I take a couple of vegetables with us for dinner. I leave him at home and walk back to the office to work some more.

The bells are ringing in the distance, so it’s 6:00 pm; as usual, I watch the sunset in the hammock on the balcony. A few minutes pass, and I see a couple of friends downstairs having a few beers in the plaza under the trees. I give in to temptation and join them at their table. As I arrive I am grinning from ear to ear, and we all greet each other with a hug. I order myself a glass of wine, an appetizer, and we start telling stories.

I have plans for the evening. First, I’m going to cook on the wood-fired barbecue on my terrace with my family. As dinner time arrives, I say goodbye to the table. Some of them have already started to dance to the guitarist’s songs, so I wave them goodbye from afar.

As I walk back to my house, I get a silly smile on my face when I see so much life on the street. The lighting at night gives me a warm feeling. Finally, I cross my pedestrian street and enter my home, where I am greeted by nephews and nieces who arrived early to play.

I begin preparing the wood-fired barbecue and rinsing the vegetables from the garden. Finally, we end the evening sharing the barbecue, a few dishes that each of us brought, including the fruit from the river, wine, and good conversation at a long, narrow wooden table under the full moon.

Some nephews and nieces decide to dip in the jacuzzi while others water the plants. Finally, at the end of the night, we all say goodbye and go to sleep. I look at my phone and get excited because I surpassed my 10,000 steps a day. Then, I thank this joyous day and go to sleep.

What a great day.

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Drones for Real Estate

In my early twenties, I played with drones. Then, some years ago, after founding Porta Norte, I bought a new drone to examine if it was worthwhile for the project — also to play. After tinkering with it, I realized it was beneficial for many purposes.

I thought a lot about the onboarding process and how to delegate drone usage. My strategy was to learn first, then teach. 

The team resisted using it at first because they feared they would break it. So I always reassured the pilot that the company would pay for another drone if something happened.

I decided to start using the drone with the engineering department to improve our engineering analysis capabilities. 

The civil engineer that is physically in the project learned to fly drones. We use drones to investigate areas of the project we cannot reach, analyze water runoff damages, audit our subcontractors, and much more. We take aerial views about every two weeks.

We have expanded our drone usage to our marketing and sales department. The Community Builder in the marketing team also learned to pilot the drone to make good videos and photos for regularly updated marketing material.

I fly drones often to appreciate changes in the project from a bird’s eye point of view, supervise the operation, explain concepts to clients, spy neighbors, study engineering challenges, construction updates, understand topography better, and more.

Quick story: The first time I used my newest drone was on a friend’s birthday. The celebration was in the outskirts of Panama City, on a mountain’s cliff edge in Vacamonte. There was a lot of wind, and I dismissed the notifications. Unfortunately, the battery drained, and the drone fell in the port.

My friend’s parents gave me advice on entering the port without permission: act like the owner — say hi, wave, and don’t stop at the entrance where the guards are. So I did. The guards shouted at me, but I kept on driving.

Finally, I arrived at the area where I lost it and found it after searching for 15 minutes. On the way out, the guards stopped me, told me I violated the rules, but they let me go. Often it is better to ask forgiveness rather than permission.

Drones can also improve parties and rekindle memories. This is a video of the occasion:

We have lost two drones already in the jungle. These are a few best practices:

  1. Pay attention to battery levels; don’t have the drone far away with less than 50% battery.
  2. Avoid flying with strong winds; return the drone and land it with the first notification of strong winds the drone will give you.
  3. Set your height limits; if it loses GPS connection, and the automatic return sets in, and your height limit is too high, then it might lose the battery just going up.

Now the company has acquired drone skills, and we have more data points to make better-informed decisions. Having an in-house drone and learning to use it is an excellent investment. Drone technology is improving fast, and we are excited to keep tinkering with them.

The following are recent drone outputs we use:


1st Phase of Porta Norte


Construction Update of the 1st Phase

2D updates


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Sustainability Guidelines for Porta Norte

These are the introductory words of Porta Norte’s architecture charrette report by the Master Planners — Duany Plater-Zyberk (DPZ) in 2015.



Panama City has experienced unprecedented economic and urban growth in recent years. The urban edges, in particular, have been seeing new development, including shopping centers, malls, office parks, apartment complexes, and single-family developments. Many of these, including those infill sites closer to the historic center, are auto-dependent interventions. By design, they isolate themselves from their surroundings and minimally contribute to the public realm.

The northern region of Panama City is not yet overbuilt. It affords Porte Norte the opportunity and the challenge to create a model of sustainable growth. The following few principles outline how the region should relate to its natural resources, pedestrian-oriented development, and sustainability in the long run.

The Metropolis

The region should consist of multiple urban nodes with identifiable centers and edges. They should be compact, connected, mixed-use, walkable, and diverse.

Development patterns should not blur the edges of the metropolis. Infill development should be encouraged. New, non-contiguous development should be organized as towns and villages with their urban edges and planned to balance jobs and housing, not as dormitory suburbs.

New development should respect historical patterns, precedents, and boundaries. They should incorporate a broad spectrum of public and private uses to support a regional economy that benefits people of all incomes. Affordable housing should be distributed throughout the region to match job opportunities.

A framework of transportation alternatives should support the physical organization of the region. Transit, pedestrian, bicycle, and other viable systems should maximize access and mobility throughout the region, promoting choice while reducing dependence upon the automobile.


Human habitats should be compact, pedestrian-friendly, and mixed-use. They are the main structural elements of cities and towns.

Many daily living activities should occur within walking distance, allowing independence to those who do not drive, mostly the young and elderly. We should design interconnected networks of streets to encourage walking, reduce the number and length of automobile trips, and conserve energy.

We should embed a range of civic spaces, buildings in neighborhoods, and green areas (parks, playgrounds, village greens, sports fields, and community gardens). We should define conservation areas to connect to different neighborhoods, districts, and nature.

Blocks, Streets, and Buildings

A primary task of all architecture and landscape design is the physical definition of streets and public spaces as places of shared use, with buildings seamlessly linked to their surroundings. Streets and squares should be safe, comfortable, and enjoyable to the pedestrian.

Architecture and landscape design should grow from local climate, topography, natural traces of the land, history, and building practice.

Civic buildings can be distinctive because their role is different from that of other buildings forming the city’s fabric.

All buildings should provide their inhabitants with a clear sense of location, weather, and time using natural heating and cooling methods.

Porta Norte

Porta Norte will offer a departure from Panama’s current development trends as a sustainable new settlement based on traditional planning principles. Well-connected to the region and respecting the natural and human-made local context, the new town will create new choices for compact, walkable, human-scale environments.

We envision Porta Norte neighborhoods integrating high-quality housing, associated retail and civic facilities, and employment development. Based on the Transect’s urban-to-rural methodology, the final master plan incorporates a range of human habitats, from the most urban and compact choices to larger homes and rural greenways along the rivers’ edges. Each neighborhood will undergo further detailing in such a large site during the next design and construction phases.

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Startup City: Panama

Versión en Español

This post responds to Balaji’s post on 1729.com called Miami Tech Week: The Start Of Startup Cities. They selected my response as a contest winner, so I won $100 in Bitcoin.

Panama was born like a startup out of the Panama Canal. Since its inception, Panama has experimented widely with Startup Cities. In this post, I will expand on trends like the increase in remote workers, how cities must adapt to them, the definition of startup cities, Panama’s success with Startup Cities, and Porta Norte — the Startup City I am building.

Geographic Independence Enabled by Remote Work

The Covid-19 pandemic dramatically accelerated the adoption of digital infrastructure worldwide. Lockdowns forced remote work on most companies. Now, as we reach herd immunity, companies have a choice whether they go entirely physical, remote, or something in between. As we all know, many more companies are now remote than before the pandemic.

CEOs who choose to go remote are unlocking new features like attracting more talent from a bigger talent pool and reducing costs by avoiding paying for office space. Remote employees can avoid commute and choose to work from ideal places.

The number of remote workers has spiked worldwide, and it is not going back to how it was before. It will be something in between, but as the digital infrastructure continues to improve, the market of remote workers will continue to expand.

Remote workers can stop thinking about their company’s location and relocate to places that offer them the highest quality of life. They can do arbitrage by earning in the US and spending in Latin America. Newly minted remote workers are weighing options with some of the following questions: 

  • Is it safe?
  • Is there good food?
  • Can I satisfy my hobbies?
  • Can I adapt to the culture?
  • Can I connect with nature?
  • Do they embrace foreigners?
  • Can I find like-minded people?
  • Can I get a resident visa quickly?
  • Should I move closer to my family?
  • Are there good schools and universities?
  • Can I get a direct flight to my hometown?
  • What city gives me the best bang for my buck?

Nowadays, remote workers go online to compare and contrast what cities are best for them to visit and hopefully relocate. They use websites that rank countries like nomadlist and teleport to inform themselves. It is a similar process to how people choose vacations or universities.

Remote workers are essential for cities because they are educated, bring know-how, are tech-savvy by default, and many more reasons. Immigration of talent leads to a higher productivity per capita, increased tax base, and results in a virtuous cycle — great citizens attract great citizens.

City as a Product

Talent is the leading indicator of a great organization. A great company is a group of talented individuals led by a talented CEO; a great city is a group of talented citizens led by talented leaders. To improve any organization, you must improve the individual contributor and recruit more talent. 

Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of Singapore, focused on improving talent as he led Singapore from rags to riches. He often spoke about the importance of education, interbreeding amongst intelligent people, and attracting foreign talent.

Singaporeans, if I can choose an analogy, we are the hard disk of a computer; the foreign talent is the megabytes you add to your storage capacity. So your computer never slows down because you got enormous storage capacity.

— Lee Kuan Yew

Recruiting is more relevant than ever before. It is an effective strategy for elevating the talent pool. Cities must align incentives with remote workers. They must be pro-technology, pro-immigration, pro-capitalism, pro-diversity, and proactive. 

If successful, the concentration of remote workers leads to increased production of startups, which begets a startup ecosystem that leads to a Startup City.

What are Startup Cities? 

Here I am going to expand on Balaji’s definition:

  1. A city where startups happen along with a thriving startup ecosystem like San Francisco and New York. In the pandemic, Austin and Miami have positioned themselves as THE next place.
  2. A city that acts as a startup with a clear vision and competent governance. A great example is Miami, where Mayor Francis Suarez is serving as the CEO of the City. For him, Miami is the product he iterates. He listens to feedback from startup founders, signals the acceptance of bitcoin, recruits through Twitter, etc. A CEO of the City delivers results and positions their city as a great place to move.
  3. Urban development with startup DNA are projects with a defined territory focused on delivering economic growth or a better way of living through an innovative vision. They are public or private enterprises, public-private partnerships, for-profit or non-profit, or a combination. Some examples:
    • Neighborhood Upgrade some examples of upgrades are Panama’s Historic District, through better infrastructure and fiscal incentives, Wynwood through art, and Times Square, through removing cars. Usually, there is a combination of public investment towards infrastructure and private investment towards buildings.
    • Master-Planned communities are mixed-use neighborhoods with a large number of recreational amenities. They tend to have sports centers, lakes, parks, public spaces, playgrounds, swimming pools, stores, restaurants, businesses, schools, universities, cultural centers, medical centers, etc. They are greenfield development — building in undeveloped land. They must push the envelope of what is possible with urbanism and have a strong vision like being car-free, an eco-village, off the grid, etc. Examples: Cayalá, Celebration, Culdesac, Kalu Yala, Las Catalinas, Porta Norte, and Punta Mona. The typical pattern amongst these places is active public spaces and walkability, which, unfortunately, is uncommon.
    • Special Economic Zones are geographically limited places with regulatory, fiscal incentives, and trade laws that differ from the rest of the country to foster economic and/or cultural prosperity. Examples: Prospera and Shenzhen.
    • Seasteading means living on environmentally restorative floating islands with some degree of political autonomy. The term derives from homesteading, which means making a home for oneself in uninhabited places. It generally has associations with self-sufficiency and a frontier lifestyle.
    • Micronations or Microstates are small sovereign countries or colonies. Examples: Liechtenstein, Monaco, and Vatican City.


Panama is a country of immigrants with a long history of experimenting with Startup Cities. Many businesses choose to settle here because:

  • It is peaceful.
  • It has good quality of life.
  • Our currency is the dollar.
  • It has open immigration laws.
  • It has a robust financial sector.
  • It has been a politically stable country.
  • It is a tax haven with many fiscal benefits.
  • It has a great relationship with the United States.
  • It has a strong logistics sector with the Panama Canal and a big airport.

The following are some examples of Startup Cities in chronological order.

Panama Canal Zone was an unincorporated territory of the United States surrounding the Panama Canal. The United States enabled Panama’s independence from Colombia to build the Panama Canal in 1903. They kept some land and set up a Microstate that infused Panama with American culture.

Colón Free Trade Zone is the largest free port in the Americas and the second-largest in the world. It started operations in 1948 and occupies 600 acres (242 hectares). It is a Special Economic Zone with fiscal benefits for importing and exporting.

In 2017, the government expanded some of the benefits of the Colon Free Trade Zone to Colon City. It is a Special Economic Zone and a Neighborhood Upgrade called Colón Puerto Libre

City of Knowledge (Ciudad del Saber) was born from the idea of converting some former American military area located in the former Panama Canal Zone into a center for knowledge exchange. It is a Special Economic Zone and Master-Planned Community of 296 acres (120 has.) full of academic organizations, technology companies, and non-governmental organizations run by a non-profit foundation.  

Panamá Pacífico is a former United States Air Force Base in the Panama Canal Zone. The government created a Special Economic Zone and a Master-Planned Community as a public-private partnership covering 3,450 acres (1,400 has.) of land. Many multinational corporations have already located in Panama Pacifico, including Samsung, DELL, FedEx, Pepsico, 3M, and Caterpillar, taking advantage of special tax, labor, and legal incentives.

Panama’s Historic District (Casco Viejo) is a Hispanic colonial town where the elite lived. By the 2000’s it was a run-down and insecure neighborhood full of abandoned buildings. The government decided to do a Neighborhood Upgrade by improving the infrastructure and giving tax breaks for development within Casco Viejo. It is one of the most visited places in Panama, and it has the highest price per square meter in the country. I lived there for six years.

Kalu Yala is an eco-village that targets digital nomads and students who take undergraduate courses for accreditation. They are building a new urbanist Master-Planned Community with their strong community.

Selina is a company that has built a network of hostels/hotels that cater to digital nomads. It was founded in Panama and quickly grew around the world with over 60 destinations. Recently they joined Kalu Yala, and you can now book your stay at Selina Kalu Yala.

Ocean Builders is a company experimenting with Seasteading based in Linton Bay Marina, a Master-Planned Community in Colón. They are pushing forward the Seapod, residential pods in the sea, in collaboration with the Seasteading Institute

The following are essential laws that improve our position as a Startup City:

Law for Multinational Companies (Ley SEM) gives them regulatory benefits, including residence visas to their employees and dependents. Since 2007, it helped attract 175 multinational companies paired with highly educated employees. In 2020 the government added more fiscal incentives to multinationals that did manufacturing.

Law for Free Trade Zones (Ley de Zona Franca) paves the way to create more Special Economic Zones and experimentation with Startup Cities within Panama’s territory. There are 10 active free trade zones and another 10 in development.

Laws to Obtain Residency & Visa:

  • Remote Worker Visa: You have to be a remote worker who earns a minimum monthly salary of $3,000 outside of Panama to receive a Visa for 18 months. The government passed this law in May 2021.
  • Friendly Nations Visa: Fast-track a permanent residency from over 50 friendly nations. You need to own a Panamanian legal entity, “a business,” and temporarily deposit $5,000 into a local bank account. You opt to have Panamanian nationality after 5 years.
  • Economic Solvency Visa: Invest $300,000 in real estate and/or a Certificate of Deposit in a Panama Bank.
  • Business Investor Visa: Invest $160,000 in Panama’s stock market.
  • Reforestation Investor Visa: Invest $80,000 to purchase at least 12 acres (5 has.) of land in a government-certified reforestation project.
  • Retired or Pensioned Program Visa: Permanent visa for those with over $1,000 in pensions.
  • Marry a Panama Citizen.

I was born and raised in Panama. Since 2014, I have been pushing the envelope of Panama’s tradition of experimenting with Startup Cities by leading Porta Norte.

Porta Norte

I am CEO and Town Founder of Porta Norte, a new-urbanist solarpunk master-planned community of 650 acres (262 has.) located in the city’s northern periphery, just 15 minutes away from the airport. Andrés Duany, the founding father of the new urbanist movement, designed the Master Plan.

Porta Norte has human-scaled urbanism integrated with dense nature and adapted for micro-mobility. It has a network of open, public spaces. We believe social interactions in public spaces are essential to fight the loneliness that remote workers often feel. You can get a clearer vision by reading A day in Porta Norte.

Porta Norte bird's eye view
Render of Porta Norta from bird’s eye view

Porta Norte has a unique vision, different from what has been built before in Panama. We are incorporating the best practices from Silicon Valley. My hobby for over a decade is watching interviews and reading blogs from Paul Graham, Elon Musk, Naval Ravikant, Balaji, Sam Altman, and Y-combinator founders.

One example of applying what I have learned is the importance of iterating the product. To increase fidelity and feedback loops, we have a developer in-house whose job to put our construction documents in Virtual Reality. Then we gather feedback from our engineers, architects, clients, etc., to do another iteration. The following is a video of our latest iteration:

Porta Norte in 3D

We build first-world infrastructure with underground utilities, fiber optics, internet in the public areas, cycling lanes, ample sidewalks, tree-lined streets, parks, pedestrian plazas, and much more. It is handicap and pet-friendly. Right now, we are finishing the roads of the first phase.

My most important job is to create a virtuous ecosystem of prosperity by attracting residents, companies, and institutions. We incentivize them with an excellent urban product and private subsidies for anchor tenants like universities, schools, sports centers, hospitals, etc.

After writing this post, I am committed to studying what laws we can use for our advantage as a Startup City and push the idea of making Porta Norte a Free Trade Zone. This is another step towards organizing the economy around remote work.

In Panama, we need to embrace our history of Startup City and continue experimenting towards an optimist and definite future. We must react to worldwide trends like remote work and crypto to position Panama as THE next place.

Please let me know how to do a better job attracting remote workers, companies, and great institutions to Panama and Porta Norte. How can I help?

Read more from the other 9 winners of the contest detailed on 1729.com/miami:

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Book Review: Developing My Life

The book, Developing: My Life is about the life of real estate developer William “Bill” Zeckendorf Jr. He was a pioneer who helped revitalize neighborhoods in New York and Santa Fe, New Mexico.

He developed many New York projects until 1987, when the stock market crashed and left him in a terrible financial situation. After that, he moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he continued real estate development. In Santa Fe, he was involved in community affairs with universities, hospitals, performing arts, and more.

Bill’s strength and focus was in structuring the project, which means envisioning a project, buying the land, choosing an architect, securing financing, hiring contractors, and placing a team that would follow through.

This book talks a lot about generations. His father, William Zeckendor Sr. was one of the biggest and most famous developers in the United States. His two sons have a billion-dollar real estate development business. His grandchildren are almost all involved in real estate.

Real estate development is a craft where the most common path to get in is by apprenticeships through family businesses. It is tough to get into the business because you need a lot of capital, expertise, and connections.

Development is slow, and having many projects under your belt might take decades. This book helps you identify some patterns and learn from someone who was once the most active developer in New York—one of the world’s most sophisticated markets. I recommend this book to people who want to improve their judgment on real estate development or better understand how cities get built.

Bill’s life story is full of warning tales. It demonstrates how someone so knowledgeable in real estate can make small fortunes in many projects but lose their shirt when a deal goes sour or when the market dries up. In the last chapter, “Summing Up,” Bill opened up on what happened to him and his father, explaining the concept of “developer’s disease.”

“After suffering with my father through the demise of his company and personal bankruptcy, I was determined never to let that happen to me. Still, many years later, I, too, succumbed to what ultimately took him down. I call it developer’s disease.

Developer’s disease is a rare but highly contagious condition that afflicts certain developers. They hire the best architects. Their projects are the most admired. They’re financially very successful. They start with one project at a time. Then one project grows into another and another until they have many projects—some would say too many—underway. They begin to take on the most difficult projects, not just to put up buildings but remaking whole neighborhoods. Their goal is no longer making money; it’s being a savior. And they are treated royally for their pains. Based on their sterling records, financial institutions rush to provide money, and investors clamor to partner on their projects. And then, just as these developers are riding high, invincible, a deal goes sour or the market turns, and their luck runs out. Developer’s disease mows them down.

That’s pretty much what happened to me. After a cautious start in the 1970s, by the middle of the 1980s, I was the busiest developer in New York City, with a full plate of deals in progress and a full-blown, if undiagnosed, case of developer’s disease…

…Were I to make my career over, I might undertake fewer projects, juggle fewer balls, and steer clear of personal guarantees. But I wouldn’t for a second choose another field. I can’t think of anything more challenging, more satisfying, more frustrating, and more fun than real estate development.”

Favorite quotes:

“Bill would chase a deal, secure financing, and then pore over the plans with the architect. But as soon as the first shovel hit the ground, he moved on to the next deal.”

“One of the challenges in a renovation is something most people don’t think about: you have little control over the construction workers. When a new building goes up, construction proceeds in an orderly fashion, floor by floor. The floors’ sides remain open, so you can readily see who’s doing what, and where and when. But in renovations, workers are hard to track; they are all over the building at any given time. We found that some of them were hiding in rooms, literally sleeping on the job.”

“These things happen: projects that look good on paper for one reason or another don’t pan out.”

“Big is key for turning around a decaying neighborhood. A small building won’t change anything; the infusion of high-quality new apartments must be sufficient to upgrade the available housing stock.”

“As a further amenity—one not offered before in a New York apartment building—the one and two-bedroom units were laid out so they could be combined easily into larger apartments. This provided to be an effective marketing tool, and designing interiors so the apartments could be readily joined became a Zeckendorf trademark.”

“For me, the thrill of developing was not in watching a building go up: I seldom spent any time on job sites, leaving construction supervision to my project managers. My passion was putting together the deal. I loved every aspect of it: finding a property, assembling a site, securing financing, hiring an architect, and working on the plans. Once we broke ground, I was happy to turn over day-to-day supervision, only stepping back in if a problem arose or we needed more financing.”

“Most developers like to hold on to commercial buildings, leasing out the office space as an ongoing source of income. However, I didn’t want to be a landlord any more than I wanted to be a hotelier and preferred the business model of our residential condos: sell off the individual units as quickly as possible and get out.”

“With apartment sizes ranging from studios to two bedrooms, the Vanderbilt was aimed at younger buyers. To attract this market, we put in a state-of-the-art health club with a swimming pool, sauna, and basketball and squash courts.”

“Building apartments near a hospital center is good for business: doctors welcome the convenience, and buyers find it reassuring to have a top-flight medical care close at hand.”

“Big projects take more time and money and involve more parties. All of that ups the ante. In executing the four biggest projects of my career, I discovered the many ways a project could go right—or horribly wrong.”

“The terms were stiff, however, and we had to make personal guarantees on the loan. I always tried to avoid personal guarantees: if you put up personal assets as collateral and the project runs into trouble, you risk losing your assets.”

“Negative opinions come with the territory: developers automatically get a bad rap because what we do inevitably means change.”

“A complicated project can easily take ten or more years to come to fruition, exposing the developer to uncontrollable changes in market conditions.”

“The key to a successful assemblage is to keep your intentions quiet. You don’t want to tip your hand and have other developers swoop in and tie up parcels you’re after. Nor do you want the owners of the lots to jack up the prices, or rent-controlled tenants to stick you up for exorbitant relocation fees.”

“And we were a full-service organization, not merely developing our own properties as a managing partner with equity but also offering our expertise as project managers.”

“Between New York and Santa Fe, I had more than a dozen projects in the works when the stock market crashed in 1987. I was leveraged to the hilt, and it was only a matter of time before I ran aground.”

“Unless a developer has very deep pockets or a large portfolio of properties, leverage is the only way to finance a deal. I seldom financed a project alone. Having multiple partners allowed me to share the risk, but also meant sharing the returns. And often, it meant taking my money out to invest it in my next venture before I could reap the profits.”

“Inevitably, if a project is going to make a big impact on a community, somebody is bound to oppose it.”

“I learned a long time ago not to assume that anything is impossible.”

“And while my father and I usually had half a dozen or more projects underway simultaneously, my sons concentrate on one or two buildings at a time.”

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Stefanos Polyzoides on Traditional Urbanism

Want to learn why modern cities are designed for cars and how to build beautiful walkable cities? Read on.

Stefanos Polyzoides is co-founder of the Congress for the New Urbanism and the architecture firm Moule & Polyzoides. He is Dean of the University of Notre Dame’s School of Architecture.

Stefanos has helped Porta Norte by refining the Code, revising plans, designing the town center, and mentoring the development team.

You can watch the conversation here.

Henry: Welcome, Stefanos. It is great to work with you in Panama again.

Stefanos: It’s always great to work with you and your excellent team. Let me start by saying that you have an exceptional Master Plan, designed by Duany Plater-Zyberk (DPZ).

Why is Panama City built for cars and not for people?

The car had massive adoption in the 1920s, and that started the modernist movement. That is why modernist principles are car-scaled, not human-scaled. Those principles were born in the International Congress of Modern Architecture (CIAM).

Panama imported sprawl from architecture firms in Miami. Thus, it introduces the urbanism of Miami, which is the most car-dependent urbanism in the United States. Panamanian leaders — even though they studied in great universities — have copied the wrong ideas. They have built a “modern” city that is comfortable for cars, but uncomfortable for people.

Suburban Sprawl in Miami
Sprawl in Miami

They have also built modernist buildings that look the same anywhere on Earth. They don’t respond to climate and disregard local culture. They have the same cold glass façade in the arctic, desert, and the tropics.

Old modernist buildings don’t age well. In some ways, that is why their price per square meter is much lower than those of Casco Viejo. Despite all this evidence, the majority of architecture schools still teach these ideas.

On the other hand, you have traditional towns responding to climate, culture, and public needs. The human race has built beautiful cities for thousands of years, with fewer resources. We must learn from them and continue the evolution process. Later, I will show you how.

What should be the inspiration for Porta Norte and Panama?

Humans understand that traditional urbanism works. Our ancestors have left us a rich legacy. We must learn from our past and use that information to create better places.

People love traditional urbanism. That is one reason why France and Spain are the most visited countries on Earth. People like to walk. It is no coincidence that tourists always go to walkable, traditional cities.

One great thing about traditional architecture is its flexibility. It adapts to new needs. For example, residents may use the same ground floor as a home, a shop to sell cookies, or an office to start a new business. Buildings evolve with people.

For inspiration, you must study the architectural DNA of Panama. By DNA, I mean the history of pre-car cities. You can explore Sevilla, Cartagena de Indias, and Casco Viejo.

Let’s talk about each one. 

In Sevilla, you can learn from the roots of Hispanic architecture in Spain’s warmer climates. Most of the ships that came to Panama started their journey from Sevilla. Sevilla’s architectural language influenced Casco Viejo; that is why they are similar in style. You can go to other beautiful cities of Andalucia like Málaga, Granada or Córdoba. Also, study different epochs in architecture like colonial, medieval, renaissance, or baroque. 

Sevilla Street

Cartagena de Indias is a majestic city where you can learn a lot. Let’s not forget that Panama originally was a forgotten province of Colombia, so it did not have a sophisticated architecture. Study it. It is only one hour away by plane. You will find a much wider variety of architecture with a tropical climate.

Street in Cartagena de Indias
Cartagena de Indias

Casco Viejo is small but beautiful and has the most abundant legacy of traditional architecture in Panamá. It was forgotten for decades and was on the verge of demolition. In a way, this was good because people living there had no money to demolish buildings or renovate them into modernism. It bought time to put in place rules for preservation. Renovations for all public spaces and most buildings are finished. The change is so dramatic that it has the most expensive real estate in the city. It has started a revolution in real estate.

Street in Casco Viejo
Casco Viejo

In Porta Norte, you should use Casco Viejo as your main source of inspiration. You are adopting the slogan “El Nuevo Casco Viejo”. That is brilliant because you are learning from the best of the past to produce a better future.

Street in Porta Norte
Porta Norte

Go to these places and study their squares, streets, buildings, construction techniques, etc. After that, you will have a much richer vocabulary and a more sophisticated language.

Something I enjoy is that Porta Norte is that it is a direct response to a classic new urbanism question:

If Casco Viejo works and has the highest real estate values in Panama, why not build more?

What advice would you give architects?

Stefanos Polyzoides with Edward McGrath
Edward McGrath and Stefanos Polyzoides

The purpose of listening to Mozart is not about glorifying him but celebrating the human race. When you hear the 9th symphony, do you say, “oh my God, Beethoven was a genius?” No. The first thing you do is take a deep breath and think, “my God, how could I be a human being and not know this?” It elevates the culture. 

It’s the same thing in architecture. I help create a building or a neighborhood, but I’m going to die in 20 years. I will leave behind a great legacy for humanity. We do this for our fellow humans, descendants, and other people who live 50 years from now. Everybody needs to understand themselves as being part of a grand obstacle race.

The second thing is that architecture is not independent of its setting. It is about responding to the context of a larger urban whole, whether it’s a neighborhood, a district, or a block. You need to understand architecture in the context of a block and the space between them. Architecture is dependent as opposed to independent of the world around it.

If you understand a city block, you will never design the façade and the back the same. You will know that buildings define public spaces.

You need to study how older buildings have responded to nature by making them comfortable in cold, warm, dry, or humid climate.

If you understand that architecture is dependent, then you can look at the Casco Viejo and say, “What am I learning here that’s special?”

How do you design traditional architecture?

The wrong, superficial, and quickest way of doing it is to copy a style like Mediterranean or French. This technique may succeed in the hand of a brilliant architect, but it often looks fake.

Let’s go over the order of decisions to design a building:

  1. Define the type: Know whether it is housing, offices, retail, a combination, etc. Let’s say it is a housing project.
  2. Study the context: Analyze the climate, fauna, flora, and what is going on around the lot. Use the topography as an advantage for parking, or to create views.
  3. Locate the parking: Parking is the first constraint. You need to hide the parking well. Try to put it on the lower side of the lot to reduce excavation.
  4. Locate the façade: It should be next to the main public space, such as a street, a plaza, or a park. The outer walls should follow the property line in a way that defines the street. You must be aware of the inside and the outside at all times.
  5. Define the shape: The building may vary in stories within the lot. Make the building increase in height if there are views.
  6. Revise private and public space: Make the buildings accessible from the outside. They should react to corners. When you follow the property line, it will be easy to form courtyards on the inside.
  7. Choose a style: After all this, now we are ready to give this building a style. You should have inspiration from local traditional architecture, so the style reacts to the local climate.
Henry Faarup, Stefanos Polyzoides and Edward McGrath

Refining the Plan

After you design this building, you can use it as a model to design other lots.

When you walk around Casco Viejo, you must study the decisions made for each lot. You will begin to see patterns. You will learn that buildings are human-scaled and that their shape reacts to public spaces and nature.

It all ties together in a language that is derivative of the culture and climate. You’re not repeating Casco Viejo. You’re getting inspiration and interpreting it to transform it into new designs. It is about the evolution of language.

We can enhance our language by studying towns, buildings, and construction techniques of the past. Architects must see themselves as being part of the local language. The language of Casco Viejo is not the end of the Hispanic architecture.

Now, let’s be specific.

You need to observe how walls, columns, and rooms are logical components that emerge from the human body to provide function, comfort, and beauty.

Traditional buildings in the tropics have overhangs and balconies to protect pedestrians from the rain while giving outdoor space to residents.

Architecture in Casco Viejo
Balconies of Casco Viejo

One example is the windows. The height in windows is equal to the length between your waist and your raised hands. This way, you can call someone by waving your hands and hinge your upper body outside.

To show you what I mean, look at Mediterranean roof clay tiles. They were formed around a log or the maker’s thigh, resulting in their semi-cylindrical shape.

Materials are locally sourced to ease maintenance. Materials have a manageable size so that one person may build or fix anything.

We, as a society, have forgotten how to build this way. We must relearn this art. 

What is the role of public spaces?

Public spaces let people get together and advance their culture. There are two kinds: natural and human-made public spaces. 

Natural public spaces are rivers, mountains, greenways, etc. It is where wildlife thrives. It is for connecting with nature in its raw state. They are places where humans can reset by hiking or just contemplating nature.

Río María Prieta in Porta Norte
Riverwalk, Porta Norte

Human-made public spaces are plazas, parks, squares, etc. It is where humans get together; they are the living room of the community. In them, they can do art, music, festivals, play, and be more active in civic society.

Plaza Fundadores in Porta Norte
Plaza de los Fundadores, Porta Norte

In Panama, Casco Viejo has the most human-made public spaces. It is no coincidence it has the most vigorous culture in Panama. Public spaces lead to the evolution of culture within a community.

Right now, there are crimes against humanity on the edges of Panama City. Developers are clearing forests to build suburbs without public spaces. They are building car-oriented developments with parking in the front of buildings. In those suburbs, people will have no room for interaction or connecting with nature. Their residents will end up with an unhealthy lifestyle, a weak sense of belonging, and a dull culture.

In Porta Norte, you have a beautiful forest. Due to heavy rainfalls, you will end up developing around half of it. You also have many pedestrian plazas. The best of all is that you connect them to form a network of public spaces. 

You have a high quality of natural and human-made public spaces. These public spaces, combined with dense urbanism, create a vibrant place. Porta Norte is the kind of urbanism that should be at the heart of the new urbanism.

What is your advice to Porta Norte?

You have a remarkable master plan, leadership, and guidance. You work hard to build this place and are also pursuing this at personal economic risk — so you have skin in the game. So I am confident it will succeed.

One of the crucial questions to address is: how to avoid mistakes? 

Your most important task at this stage is assembling great people to contribute. Get developers who understand that it is not about them in the short term, but about them and others in the medium and long term. Ensure that architects get inspiration from the places we talked about and make them read the Code of Porta Norte.

Everybody must understand that the first steps are the most important ones. If you do it wrong, people will come to Porta Norte and say, “Is this what they meant?” And not like it. If you do it right, you will have an urbanism people love, gain ambassadors, and the development will speed up.

One promising thing is that Porta Norte is in the middle of a developed part of the city. It has significant people around it and a major highway going next to it. That means you can have a mixed-use pedestrian town center built there. 

Charrette of Market Plaza Porta Norte
Designing Market Plaza Porta Norte

You must also build a school in the beginning. Between the mixed-use town center and the school, you will have two anchors of attraction. With this, it will be much easier to convince people that there’s life here, and they should be part of it.

It is difficult to build these many buildings well from the start because it is Panama’s first time. I am here to help you with this.

You need a lot of guidance in the first phase, less on the second, and in the third one, you are by yourselves. It is like learning how to bicycle. You get extra wheels, and somebody helps you climb it and ride with you. Then you ride alone and take off the wheels. After some time, you ride to school by yourself. I am here to help everyone become the authority they need to be to get this right.

What is the future of Panama, and how does Porta Norte fit in it?

Projects like Porta Norte will redefine living in tropical cities and refine citizens’ desires. It will enable an active civic life and a healthier relationship with the environment.

I have worked in Panama for over a decade, and I know at least six new urbanist projects. Together, they are inspiring more walkable real estate developments.

It is depressing to live in a world that does not know how to build well. Gladly, humans have recognized their mistake and are changing cities from cars to people. It is hard to think beyond our lifetime, but these changes are slow and may take over 100 years.

Panama City’s car-oriented growth made the city chaotic. We are here in the middle of the city with a horrible view of the “modern” city, dreaming of a romantic traditional town.

Porta Norte is an integral part of the expansion of the city. Fortunately, the backward modernism movement has not trapped you.

As I have seen in other countries, Porta Norte will awaken the market with its traditional planning. It will excite young people and be very successful.

You have been a great mentor. Thank you.

You can watch the video of the conversation below:

Town Founders were real estate developers

We used to call them our founders, and we honored them by erecting their statues in our town squares. Today we just call them “developers.” — Andrés Duany, Cofounder, and leader of the New Urbanism. The urban planner of Porta Norte.

It is human nature to resist change. When we were cavemen, if something changed in our environment, it may mean death (intruders, animals, etc.). We have evolved to resist change.

Today, real estate development is one of the most tangible ways a society changes, so society tend to resist it.

Real estate developers of the past were called Town Founders. They were the primary protectors of towns from intruders, animals, etc. by building forts, moats, walls, residences, commerce, etc. Interests were aligned, hence the excellent reputation of “Town Founders”.

So, continuing our survival patterns of resisting change without the added incentive of our survival (we don’t have our life at stake anymore), society tends to resist new developments. For example, you live in a house in a low-density area. If a developer wants to build a high rise, the community will fight them. The residents do not want the added traffic, construction noise, pollution, and the workers for two years in their neighborhood. The developer wants his project built. Short-term interests are opposed. We tend to think lowly of people who degrade our quality of life, hence the bad reputation of “greedy developers”.

The long-term interests of the neighborhood and real estate developers are aligned. Increased density makes us less reliant on the car by making it feasible for new businesses to survive. Increased demand leads to more products and services offered nearby.

The job of our modern-day Town Founders, real estate developers, is not to protect our lives anymore but to create a vibrant town were economic life, health, community, and cultural life thrives. If developers do not provide any of these, by all means, resist!

If you think someone is doing an excellent job of founding a town or improving our cities, help or join them. 😉