Alison Mills is Vice President of Design and Development for CRG. Based in Chicago, she joined the Clayco family to grow the firm’s residential development practice. She focuses primarily on acquisitions and early-stage underwriting, front-end entitlement and public approvals processes, due diligence, pro forma and design management, and GMP procurement.
Over her career, Alison has developed over 1,500 residential units representing over $575 million in total capitalization, and currently oversees the firm’s overall development activities for the residential business. Alison also actively tracks trends in multifamily amenities, technology, and operations, and is involved in managing and implementing company standards and specifications across CRG’s national portfolio. Alison is also a member of the Real Estate Finance Forum, Urban Land Institute, and the National Multifamily Housing Council’s Emerging Leaders Program.
Tell us about your background. Where did you grow up? Where did you go to school?
I was born and raised in Los Angeles as the daughter of two tax attorneys. I went to Marlborough School, an all-girls independent school, from seventh through 12th grade. I give a lot of credit to the single-sex education and the lessons I received there in shaping the confidence I had as a woman entering adulthood and pursuing a career in a widely male-dominated industry.
After high school, I earned my undergraduate degree in architecture at Princeton, where I graduated Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude and also picked up minors in urban studies and environmental studies. A couple years later, I received my master’s degree in city planning with a certificate in real estate development from U.C. Berkeley.
I’ve only lived in very large cities my entire life – Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Boston. I like to think I “collect” them. Experiencing the energy and diversity of these urban metros throughout the U.S. has really shaped my career and informs my approach to each real estate development.
When you were young, what did you aspire to be?
I was that young kid who always said I wanted to be an architect when I grew up. I loved the built environment and knew from a really young age that I had to do something with it, but when you’re that young it’s hard to know that development is a door you can open, so I thought architecture was the route for me. My mom always loves to tell stories of how I would ask to tour open houses for fun on the weekends, and when I got a gift card to a bookstore one year for my birthday, I asked to buy an atlas because I loved cities and maps and real estate so much.
How did you get your start in the industry?
Right after college I worked as an architect for the firm Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF) in New York City. So many of our clients there were major developers, and those years were really what made me want to make a move to the “other side of the table.” I loved the architecture component to ground-up developments, but I wasn’t satisfied with touching that piece alone – I wanted to be a part of the whole process from site selection to groundbreaking. Graduate school was then my opportunity to pivot to what I call a different leg of the same stool. I was able to learn tangible real estate analytical skills there but also able to intern for developers and learn on the job. I worked for Sterling Bay during my time at Berkeley, and then after graduating with my master’s, I took a position on the residential development team at CA Ventures in Chicago, where I developed over 1,400 multifamily units representing over $575 million in total capitalization. Last summer, the opportunity to join and help grow CRG’s national residential development platform arose, which is where I have been ever since.
Did you have a mentor who helped you get on your feet, or is there someone you turn to now for support?
I have been very fortunate to have worked directly for leaders who have both advocated for me and taught me the tools to advance on a path on my own. I’ve known and worked for JJ Smith, the managing partner of our residential group at CRG, for several years and have been very grateful for the balance he’s struck in letting me grab as much rope as I possibly can while also giving me the necessary feedback and support when I run into a challenge.
What does a day in the life of Alison Mills look like?
Part of what I love most about working in development at CRG is that every day is so different. My expertise is primarily focused on acquisitions and early-stage underwriting, front-end entitlement and public approvals processes, due diligence, pro forma and design management, and GMP procurement. All this means is that one day I am getting deep into the weeds on setback requirements in a jurisdiction’s specific area plan; another day I’m marking up unit plans for a Sun Belt multifamily deal; another day I’m reviewing and negotiating allowances in a GMP contract; and another day I’m leading a community meeting and engaging with local stakeholders. In the background of all of this, I’m also actively tracking trends in multifamily and student housing amenities, technology and operations so I can help manage and implement CRG’s master standards and specifications across our national portfolio.
What do you like most about your job?
Beyond every day being so dynamic and getting to work with teams of creative people, I am deeply motivated by the ultimate product we are building at CRG. Fundamentally, I love building housing and building the real estate that people very literally live their lives in – knowing that I am responsible for designing and developing the apartments and the spaces that will hold important memories for people absolutely gets me out of bed every morning.
Looking to the future, what do you hope to achieve/work on that you haven’t already?
It’s important for me to continue building and leading teams that are diverse, as they create a more collaborative, representative project team that responds to the needs of various stakeholders to create the best product.
How do you spend your time away from the office?
I’m a big believer that our identity shouldn’t be so tied to achievement, and I find an outlet a lot in the arts. In my spare time, I love to frequent galleries and new exhibitions, and I also love to paint acrylic and watercolor. I enjoy being outside and running along the lakefront, and I’m an avid puzzler when the weather turns cold.
What is your favorite place that you have traveled to? Where do you hope to go next?
I’ve been lucky to travel a lot in my professional capacity and have particularly enjoyed getting to know markets like Atlanta, Nashville, Salt Lake City and Denver. My “fun” places tend not to overlap much with work. This past winter, my partner and I traveled to Socotra, which is an extraordinarily remote island off the coast of Yemen, with species of birds and trees that don’t exist anywhere else on the planet. We love that part of the world, so I think Israel or East Africa will likely be high up on our list to do next.