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When asked about the most important feature when considering a graduate executive program, “flexibility” is the most repeated response of students and alumni alike. Considering the professional and familial demands on those early- and mid-career professionals returning to schools to pursue a master’s degree, it’s easy to understand the importance placed on that program feature.
Emanuel Gunn, Auburn MRED Alumnus, and Michael Robinson, former Director or Auburn MRED at Flamingo Crossings Village
Flexibility was a notable benefit for Emanuel Gunn, who was assigned to work on the largest project in his company’s history while pursuing a Master of Real Estate Development (MRED) degree from Auburn University.
Gunn, now an MRED alumnus, was attending his first MRED field study in 2018, reviewing some of Philadelphia’s commercial real estate developments, when his company, American Campus Communities (ACC), publicly announced a deal with Walt Disney World Resort to develop Flamingo Crossings Village. Austin-based ACC is the nation’s largest developer, owner and manager of high-quality student housing communities, and this project, ACC’s largest, called for construction of two villages—designed to house 10,440 Disney College Programs participants—and a 25,000-square-foot education facility with classrooms and offices for staff providing program support services.
Started in 1981, the Disney College Program is a national internship program offering an immersive experience—typically a semester in length—that includes on-the-job training, housing, and college credits where eligible.
Flamingo Crossings Village is comprised of two villages—east and west—and the West Village officially opened January 10th. The East Village had been scheduled to open May 2020, which would have coincided with Gunn’s MRED Capstone presentation, a final hurdle to program graduation. Fortunately, flexibility is a key feature of executive programs like MRED, and MRED Director Michael Robinson was working with Gunn on a schedule that would allow him to attend the East Village opening and arrive at Auburn’s campus the following day for his final Capstone practice and presentation. However, Covid-19 hit during this time frame, delaying the opening date and anticipated scheduling conflict.
Gunn, who had previously managed several properties for ACC in the Northeast, was tapped in spring 2018 to oversee operations at Flamingo Crossings Village and promoted to Regional Vice President. Transitioning to his new role at ACC while pursuing a demanding MRED degree certainly presented challenges, but Gunn said it also offered advantages. Auburn Graduate Programs have a “learn today, use tomorrow” philosophy that stresses instruction that moves beyond theory to immediate, practical application in students’ given fields. Gunn found direct applications of lessons learned in the classroom to apply to the Flamingo Crossings Village project.
“There are just so many practical applications where I’d be in a class one week looking at a proforma and the next week we’re dealing with the same type of proforma for the project.”
“Having our project’s Phase One delivery coincide with the completion of the (MRED) program was very convenient but also probably the most impactful learning experience I’ve ever had in my life because there were so many direct applications from the program to my actual job at that time.” Gunn said he would be at a program field study talking with the architects about elevator designs one week and the next week be in his office talking to his construction team about elevator design and site plans to reduce the possibility of flooding that could result in costly repairs.
The Auburn MRED program has a slogan, “see what others don’t, build what others can’t.” Gunn found it to be more than just a catchy phrase. “I remember thinking that being catchy, but as the program progressed and I was able to network with more people and take those direct applications to my actual job on the construction site, I realized the program provided a very cool holistic experience in which classroom instruction and work challenges played so well off of each other,” Gunn said. “I know it’s something I will be able to take with me for the rest of my professional career, and I know it will continue to open doors for me down the road. I’m very grateful for the faculty and staff at Auburn and felt that I was very blessed to be part of the program.”
Flamingo Crossings Village, which is owned and managed by ACC, includes quality living spaces, resort-style pools, fully equipped fitness centers and community-building common areas. Having a comfortable home throughout the duration of their program was top of mind in ACC’s approach to designing Flamingo Crossings Village.
“They [Walt Disney World Resort] started a conversation with us, and throughout that process of seeing what we valued—putting the student first and building purpose-built communities that lend themselves to helping students in the classroom and helping young professionals be successful in the workplace—they decided to formally engage us to develop and build Flamingo Crossings Village.”
Prior to construction, ACC surveyed previous program participants to determine amenities, privacy and controlled access features most desired by residents; and as you would expect, Walt Disney World was closely consulted in planning to ensure the community would meet the needs of participants, while offering an unparalleled experience synonymous with the ACC and Disney brands. Both companies took a blue-sky approach to developing the perfect living environment for those working in the program. The result was a design requiring a ten-phase construction plan valued at $630 million.
Everything is access controlled by keycard entry to the community and its amenities, including two 12,500-square-foot fitness facilities with state-of-the-art equipment and four resort-style pools. All apartments are quads with four occupants and three different floor plan configurations are available, each designed with occupant privacy in mind.
Gunn was originally brought into the project for operational readiness. He and the ACC Operations team worked closely with design and construction teams during development, and much of his first year and a half on the project was spent coordinating the processes necessary for community and facility daily operations.
The operations of Flamingo Crossings Village provides Gunn and his team unique challenges. For example, apartment occupancy rotates much more frequently than at most university housing facilities. With more than 10,000 occupants and a percentage of those rotating every six to nine months, it creates operational challenges for exiting, onboarding and preparing apartments. In comparison, university housing typically has an annual rotation that occurs each August at the start of the academic calendar.
Gunn said due to the flexible program dates offered to participants, Flamingo Crossings Village is turning over apartments roughly 42 weeks out of the year. Residents transition out on a Thursday and new participants arrive the following Monday, giving Gunn’s team roughly three days to paint and prepare rooms for new occupants. “That cadence and frequency is different than what American Campus Communities typically experiences, so we had to make sure we had in place the proper staffing, the proper relationships with vendors and the proper administrative processes outlined between Walt Disney World Resort and ACC.”
Since receiving his MRED degree in 2020, Gunn has given back to the program by facilitating a field study trip of Flamingo Crossings Village. In October 2021, second-year MRED students toured the facility to learn about design, construction and operation challenges, while also discovering more about Disney College and the ACC-Disney partnership that led to the massive construction project.
The MRED program, offered jointly through the Harbert College of Business and the College of Architecture, Design and Construction, delivers the skills and insight required for its graduates to shape communities and change the way people work, live and play within them. MRED graduates plan, finance and build economically sustainable real estate developments based on principles taught in our classrooms and experienced firsthand via field study trips to successful developments in the U.S. and abroad.Learn more about Auburn MRED