ULI Boston/New England Blog

Member Spotlight: Laurie Zapalac, Founding Principal, Zapalac Advisors

Laurie Zapalac is the founding principal of Zapalac Advisors, an urban planning firm. Zapalac Advisors provides strategic consulting services for urban regeneration initiatives, including adaptive use and infill development. Laurie works closely with clients to understand industry and demographic change, enhance the quality of the built environment, foster place-based innovation, and increase community resiliency.




  1. After completing a doctoral degree in the Urban Studies and Planning department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, you launched Zapalac Advisors. Why did you launch this new firm and how has Zapalac Advisors impacted land use since its inception?

I loved having the chance to refine my research skills while doing the Ph.D., particularly because I was studying location choice of entrepreneurs in three amazing historic maritime cities – Boston, Amsterdam and Venice, Italy — but I also found that I missed the direct engagement with clients that working in the private sector provides. Now I focus on developing strong social science, place-based research and planning approaches for clients – whether they are real estate developers, architecture firms leading complex projects, entities in the public sector, or companies with property holdings.

Creating Zapalac Advisors has also given me the opportunity to continue to focus on maritime cities. I’ve long been fascinated by the knowledge and culture of maritime places – those that have persisted over long periods of time. I see them as being “beta tested” for human habitation and think they offer many important lessons for other cities. Currently, I’m working with a dynamic oyster farm looking to consolidate and expand its land-based operations on a single site. It’s been an awesome opportunity to think strategically about the evolution of aquaculture in Massachusetts, and at the same time to work with a client that has such a strong appreciation of place.

  1. Big data and knowledge-backed industries are transforming the way everyday people interact with the built environment. Should these changes in the marketplace impact the way cities think about land use?

Absolutely. Speaking generally, today we have a far greater degree of choice about when and where work takes place. But this doesn’t mean you can work from anywhere all the time. Rather, it means that workers, particularly those in a knowledge-based economy, need to be even more discerning about choosing the right location, and the right tool, for the task at hand. It’s an increasingly critical aspect of business strategy. Walkable, mixed-use environments naturally offer a broader location choice set – and this makes them more valuable particularly for entrepreneurs who are often solving a different problem every day, but really for any company seeking to be and stay innovative.  

The vast amounts of data and information available over the internet, in turn, put a premium on access to even more acute types of knowledge. Environments that support meaningful face-to-face interactions — more sophisticated, highly efficient flows of knowledge –and access to diverse types of knowledge, particularly when it’s still in tacit form and isn’t yet widely available – will continue to play an essential role. But we have new questions to answer: how do we design for sociability and serendipity in a world where people spend an increasing amount of time with their eyes on their phone instead of taking in the world around them? It’s essential that we understand how architecture and the built environment perform – not just environmentally, but also economically and socially – to support new ways of working and interacting.

  1. You have a love for adaptive buildings. As the needs for buildings in communities change, how should the private and public sector weigh the value of preservation versus new development in cities?

What I appreciate about the process of adaptive use is the opportunity to transform buildings and places in ways that enable them to take on new layers of meaning and purpose. The juxtaposition between old and new can be immensely powerful. The process can be complicated, but it’s usually filled with opportunities for all who are involved to more deeply understand the relationship between a community and its environment.

We need to take an idea-based view of preservation, not just an object-based view. In most cities, preservationists – who can be incredible stewards of the built environment – are put in a position of taking a reactive stance, in part because of a lack of high-quality data about all buildings (not just those already with a “historic” designation) necessary to inform comprehensive preservation strategies. Investing in better management of data about the built environment will enable us to hold more nuanced conversations about preservation.

  1. Why ULI?

What makes ULI such a value is the diversity of opportunities for engagement that it offers to its members. Early in my career, I worked as a cultural heritage planner for Overland Partners Architects in San Antonio, TX. Madison Smith, one of the founding principals of the firm, introduced me to the range of ULI resources available to support project and market research. Since launching Zapalac Advisors, ULI has also been invaluable for building professional relationships – and that’s an ongoing process. I appreciate that members represent a wide range of professionals engaged in the creation of the built environment. Being involved in the ULI Women’s Leadership Initiative has allowed me to take an active role in the organization and work closely with other members. Recently I participated in my first ULI TAP – an intense day that was also a lot of fun — I’d recommend it for every member.

  1. What is your favorite past time?

Trekking the New England coastline! Especially when a long run or hike ends at a local bakery, diner or clam shack. It’s a great way to recharge while getting to experience the nooks and crannies of the region, which I find to be incredibly diverse. Last Sunday I ran the back shore of Gloucester and then finished at Sailor Stan’s on Rocky Neck for breakfast out on their porch.

I also volunteer with the Friends of the Boston HarborWalk (part of Boston Harbor Now), leading tours that cover different stretches of the HarborWalk. Creating the tours is a bit of a crash course in the history of Boston and an awesome way to get to meet people – from the public sector, the private sector, as well as community organizations — who are shaping and stewarding our waterfront today. It’s affirming to see just how much interest there is in the harbor, and cool to learn about the different ways in which people relate to place. I always learn something!

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