10/12/2010 04:02 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Art and Science of Building Communities in the Digital Age

It's not an overstatement to say that our communities are vital in shaping a rich, meaningful life for everyone. We are social by nature and our communities, both the real and digital ones, reflect and amplify these tendencies.

While that was always true, we are seeing the emergence of a new type of community - one that merges the physical with the digital and ends up with something that incorporates and enhances the best of both. Most significantly, this type of community is powered by a new sensibility - a broader communal perspective that strives to create the institutions that will drive success; the "rising tide lifts all boats" concept played out at a communal level.

Spotting one of these communities is not easy because they are just now being created by a group of next generation, real estate "outsider" developers. People like Gary Barnett and Beatrice Sibblies who, despite the current economy and the odds, believe that our collective experience of communal living needs more, well, "community."

We'll start with Gary Barnett. His "outsider" status in the large scale real estate development world, may account for why he has been able to, "emerge stronger than his rivals" during this unprecedented downturn (New York Magazine, "The anti-Trump," October 4, 2010). His strength lies in his ability to create community oriented residences which transcends the traditional "cookie cutter" apartment building paradigm that often results in very separated (note the "d" at the end of "separate") apartments; discouraging community. "I don't see there being significant competition for what we are doing," explained Gary Barnett. Indeed. He proudly believes his Carnegie 57 project in NYC will be, "the nicest project... because the architecture is so beautiful." His focus on developing a holistic sense of living and community has enabled him to see what his competition could not - that people will always pay to be in a community that reflects their sense of self. Some might say, "he is out of step with the industry at large" and that, in fact, may account for his success.

Then, there is Beatrice Sibblies - a woman in a traditionally male world. Working at a more intimate level, Sibblies seems an unlikely community builder but her non-traditional background, much like Barnett, gives her a unique view, which is exactly why she is the perfect pioneer. The youngest of seven children, Ms. Sibblies grew up in Jamaica, then came to the U.S. in the 1980s and attended Yale and Wharton. She started her career as a corporate finance analyst at Morgan Stanley, moving in 1993 to J.P. Morgan, where she was promoted to VP. Then, for three years, she served as the Assistant Vice President of Economics for the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, which was formed to lead the redevelopment of the World Trade Center. Now Ms. Sibblies serves on many community organization boards: Community Board 10 in Manhattan, The Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, The Council of Urban Professionals, Sponsors for Educational Opportunity and Bill T. Jones Dance Company.

This diverse and decidedly eclectic real estate background meant that Ms. Sibblies was able to fully appreciate the assets of her local community of Harlem, activate individuals, and then create institutions and opportunities that allowed these groups to succeed. It was with this framework that Ms. Sibblies started creating her plans for the 88 Morningside project in Harlem. Working in collaboration with local development partner, Ed Poteat of Horsford and Poteat, they brought together a dynamic team of developer/contractors like Bluestone organization, architecture firm GF55 and the design firm Curated, and Halstead Property Development Marketing. This project includes 74 apartments, situated in a 12-story residential condo property located near so many rich community assets: Morningside Park, Columbia University, Central Park and Harlem's historic Gold Coast just one block away at 125th Street. The building's exterior, featuring large, semi-reflective windows provides a distinctive, welcome note within the architectural heritage of the community.

But there's something more important going on here than just apartments. As managing partner of BOS Development, an urban real estate development company, Sibblies says, "Community living is at the heart of the design principle at 88 Morningside." The building boasts a 6,000 square feet community facility and "much more space was dedicated to common spaces than most other buildings," she explained. "We want people to have comfortable places to gather."

What's interesting here is that true to her vision, she integrates real world community requirements and adds a level of digital sophistication to expand the communal connectivity. The building will be implementing 'Buildinglink' technology to aid connectivity for both ongoing building management to allow residents and local merchants and other service providers to be able to communicate directly with each other. Private residences are fully wired for a full range of technological connectivity. Even the communal spaces, which Ms. Sibblies makes available to the community, is designed from the perspective of technological connectivity - expanding the ability of the residents to bring their community together.

Nor does Ms. Sibblies stop at the physical walls of a building. Her focus encompasses the wider reality that her community needs a digital presence to encourage economic development. The building's own blog,, which Ms. Sibblies created, highlights cultural experiences that define living in the community. Activities like the co-founding of a local business network, Harlem's Park to Park (, or her 'space' support of the cutting edge local designers, are all part of the platform she builds for the community's success.

In the end, what sets Mr. Barnett and Ms. Sibblies apart is that they recognize that creating community vitality should drive development goals - not vice versa. They understand how to carefully assess the inherent assets of a community and use a myriad of tools - both real world, artistic and technological to develop the best in the communities they touch. In Mr. Barnett's case, he is quick to seize on undervalued assets that have potential for beautifully architected communities. In the case of Ms. Sibblies, she appreciates better than most that community building today means creating the type of places where people can congregate physically and digitally - yet all the while - communally.

Characteristically, Ms. Sibblies uses technology to make herself available to her community near and far: "I am easy to find," she declares. Indeed she is - she practices what she preaches.