Local developer leads an all-women team in new Chapel Hill Meadowmont project

A beautiful view — not only is that literal meaning of Bella Vista Development Group, but also what founder and CEO Mariana Molina hopes to bring to Chapel Hill with her latest project.

For Molina, commercial real estate has always been the focus of her career. She got her start in commercial real estate law, representing developers and becoming intimately familiar with the inner workings of the development process.

After joining Craig Davis Properties as general counsel, Molina saw the perfect opportunity to marry her legal savvy with her knowledge of the development field, creating her very own company: Bella Vista Development Group.

After spending time in the business, Molina was no stranger to the fact other women in the industry were few and far between. In fact, for many women in the commercial real estate industry, gender is a limiting factor to success — and Molina’s experience can be backed up by statistics. Out of 618 women in the industry surveyed by RETS Associates, 65 percent knew they were making less than their male counterparts, and 79 percent felt both their opinions were not valued as highly and there was a lack of promotional opportunities available to them.

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While a greater number of women are involved in the commercial real estate industry now than in the past, it’s clear there are still plenty of hurdles to overcome. That’s why Molina has taken matters into her own hands with her latest project.

“The Triangle market is growing so rapidly, and there’s so much room for opportunity that there’s enough to go around for everybody. There’s no reason that the development industry should be limited to a handful of developers,” Molina said. “But I noticed that it was a very male-driven industry, and it’s hard to get your foot in the door. The commercial development industry is tough in and of itself; but when you pair that with constantly feeling as though you’re having to break down a barrier, it makes it that much more difficult.”

As the CEO of her own company, Molina found she was in a unique position to elevate other women in the industry, so she made it her goal to work with women and women-owned businesses whenever she had the chance. This drive eventually led Molina to assemble an all-female team for her latest project: developing Chapel Hill’s Meadowmont Village.

For architecture, Molina hired Kristin Hess of HH Architecture; for civil engineering, SEP; for general contracting, Rogers Builders; and for structural engineering, Lynch Mykins — just to name a few. All of her hires are women-led.

“I think the fact that little me could have an impact on another company, it was a great feeling. I have found that the women that I work with are so incredibly devoted to the project and to doing good work,” Molina said. “It has made for a great experience, and we’re doing a lot of impressive work. I want to continue providing these opportunities for other women after this.”

While Molina is certainly passionate about encouraging more women to take their place in the industry, she’s also passionate about the work her team can do to better the Chapel Hill community. With her latest all-women project at Meadowmont Village Center, her team will be bringing a new, mixed-use property to the area, offering 150,000 square feet filled with offices, as well as retail and residential space.

The final product will occupy the Meadowmont Village complex near Harris Teeter and UNC Health Care.

Since such a massive project has the potential to change the local landscape, Molina and her team are doing what they can to ensure it makes a positive impact on the Chapel Hill community.

“They [the town] have been very open with me about what they want, what they don’t want, what they like, what they don’t like, what they would support, what they would never support. So I started at a baseline of understanding their needs, and now it’s my job to bring those needs into reality,” Molina explained.

“Every day, we as the development team brainstorm ideas and think of ways that we can make the most people happy — recognizing that we can’t make everybody happy, but we can try to accomplish that goal with as many people as possible,” she continued. “I understand that at all times you need to keep the bottom line in the back of your mind, but if there is a way to perhaps give on certain areas in order to make the community happy, I’m willing to do that.”

For Molina, this dedication to the Chapel Hill community’s best interest stems from the fact she’s seen the city grow and change firsthand for most of her life. After all, she grew up along the town’s tree-lined streets, attended Chapel Hill High School, and returned back to the area after years spent in Chicago.

“I am who I am today because of Chapel Hill,” Molina said. “If there’s a way that I can give back and leave the town with a long-lasting building and something that they can be proud of, my job is done.”

Since Molina recognizes it’s not always possible to work with an all-female team, she’s enjoying the experience while it lasts.

“It is much more of a team approach. Being in the judgment-free zone where your primary goal is to create an environment that is beautiful and sustainable and that is going to help the community around it,” Molina said. “Throughout my career, I have worked with powerful men. I’ve learned a tremendous amount from men in both the legal industry and the development industry, but it’s different. It’s difficult to explain, but there is a different feeling when you’re surrounded by a team of women.”

After the completion of Bella Vista’s work in Meadowmont, Molina hopes to use this experience as leverage of sorts for encouraging more female involvement in the development and commercial real estate industry. In fact, she’s already developing schemes for her next project: an affordable housing complex for the Chapel Hill area.

“I want it to be beautiful. I want it to be a home that people can be proud of and feel good about and not for it be labeled as, ‘Oh, well that’s an affordable housing unit,’” Molina said. “Everybody deserves a beautiful home, and so if there’s a way that I can contribute to that then, again, my job will be done. If I can put together a development team of women-owned businesses in the affordable housing industry, then I would be thrilled.”

This article was written for the Town of Chapel Hill.

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