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Bringing The Community Into The Development Process

Written by Al Heavens on Wednesday, 16 October 2002 7:00 pm

As hard as it may be for many builders and real estate agents to understand, residents of city neighborhoods or older suburbs may not be all that eager to have new development in their midst.

Propose senior housing for a vacant parochial school building, or infill housing that will be sold to mixed income buyers, or apartments for single professionals in an area of traditional middle-class or working-class families, and the reaction can often find a developer beating a hasty retreat.

As one veteran developer once suggested, "If you show up at zoning meeting and the room is filled with the opposition, it is often too late to do anything."

However, community opposition to development can be overcome through early and frequent contact with existing residents, consistency in proposal presentation, some compromise and a project that fits the character of the neighborhood.

That was the consensus among industry experts who gathered in Chicago earlier this month at an Urban Land Institute conference on in-town housing development.

The two-day session focused on all aspects of downtown residential development, including methods for winning neighborhood support for the projects. Participants said that while in-town housing projects usually are planned in areas that are more densely developed than outlying suburban neighborhoods, community opposition to new development or redevelopment can still be formidable. As a result, gaining support for such projects, particularly if they are mixed-income or mixed-use, can prove challenging.

To succeed, a developer must repeatedly accentuate the positive aspects of well-planned, dense development, including increased tax revenue, expanded job opportunities, expanded housing opportunities, additional public amenities and revitalization of blighted areas, said Gail Goldberg, San Diego's planning director.

To gain support for its "City of Villages" plan, which focuses on better-connected, mixed-use, clustered development, officials provided residents with independent analyses of San Diego's population projections, held numerous meetings, published feedback reports and distributed brochures on existing dense projects familiar to the residents.

Without intense outreach, the city's plan, which is designed to accommodate a population increase of more than 500,000 by 2020, would never have been accepted, Goldberg said.

The most successful in-town housing development efforts occur where there is a strong public sector support for changing the growth patterns. Generally, the public sector must be being willing and flexible enough to work with the private development community to raise awareness among the general public about the benefits of smart growth development, which integrates land uses and de-emphasizes dependence on automobiles.

"Full community support may not always be possible, but support from the city government is critical," said Maurice Walters, principal of Torti Gallas & Partners, CHK Inc., architects and planners, in Silver Spring, Md.

To be successful, Walters suggests getting to know the community before you show your designs. A developer also should be a community benefactor to generate goodwill.

After meeting with residents, you should bring design concepts to show you've listened, to present visuals from different vantage points and to prepare to negotiate and re-negotiate, Walters said.

"The key is to frontload the process with informational sessions and keep your word," said Katharine Kelley, president of Green Street Properties LLC in Atlanta. Green Street is developing Glenwood Park, a $150 million mixed-use project on 28 acres outside Atlanta's core.

Several months before filing for its zoning application, the company met repeatedly with existing residents in groups and individually, using numerous visual aids to help them fully understand the concept, she said.

"The project needs to be an outgrowth of the community. If it's in harmony with its surroundings, it will have a much better chance for success," she said. Douglas Farr, founding principal of Farr Associates in Chicago, said that residents who opposed his project -- a $350 million, mixed-use project in Minneapolis – "went from chaining themselves to trees to being comfortable with a five-story building."

The firm met with residents to pinpoint what they perceived to be the strengths, opportunities, weaknesses and threats associated with the development proposal, he said.

Farr offered residents three choices for the development plan: one that would retain a segregated use, auto-dependent development pattern; another with more integrated uses, and a third with a full mix of residential and commercial land uses situated around a town square.

The residents ultimately favored the second and third integrated-use plans over the segregated-use plan, even adding suggestions for off-street bicycle lanes, bike storage and shower facilities in office buildings to make the area more bike-friendly, Farr said.

"We showed them the potential for a true small town feel," he said.

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