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Can developers and their neighbors get along?

No development is simple; all development will be negotiated. But, yes, there is a secret formula: development in neighborhoods succeeds when everyone wins!

Development Training Institute

When I think of developers working in neighborhoods with active community associations, I’m often reminded of the song of frustration from "Oklahoma": “Why can’t the cowboy and the farmer be friends?”

But, in King County and thousands of places across America, developers with the support of neighborhood leaders are doing some of the most impressive and interesting new development in the country. Turns out, they can be friends but it takes a little struggle. The biggest struggle is often each giving up a view of how simple they wish development were.

Every developer would prefer the “green fields” of development on the fringe of the metropolis, presumptively an arena of welcoming politics, no “interference” from the public, no surprises. But every development is full of surprises, isn’t it? The true skill of the developer comes in mastering the unexpected as well as in the genius of the original concept.

Similarly, neighborhoods have their version of “easy development.” They want developers to produce what the neighborhood thinks it needs; let feasibility come later. They want design features that respect neighborhood architecture, the environment and the current culture of the community. Often, neighborhood images of commercial development are infused with nostalgia for retailing that no longer exists, like the junior department store that graced “the Ave” in 1950.

Can these competing viewpoints be mixed?

Yes, there is a secret formula: DEVELOPMENT IN NEIGHBORHOODS SUCCEEDS WHEN EVERYONE WINS! No development is simple; all development will be negotiated development. The formula requires each party be clear about its goals, able to listen to the other sides and willing to compromise to find common ground. There will be non-negotiables, but they usually turn out to be fewer than alleged.

Why compromise? First, any of the parties can stop the deal. Second, recognize what each party brings to the table. Successful neighborhood developers find the community can offer them political capital too, market intelligence, hidden information about the site, ingenuity and persistence. Sometimes, community groups have development expertise, access to new sources of capital or services to incorporate in the new use, like security, workforce preparation or maintenance.

Successful neighborhood leaders know that developers bring to the community creativity; market insight; financial, design and construction expertise; private capital; business partners; and a willingness to take personal risk. Sometimes developers bring an environmental commitment, an understanding of the architectural, economic and cultural history of the community and a design for incorporating them.

If all parties seek compromise, sustainable developments with positive neighborhood and environmental impact can go forward. Effective design can help, but today, for all parties, design is more than architecture. Neighborhoods are interested in use, market, operation and ultimate disposition. Let’s put the needs of all parties on the table and find common ground. Remember, developers need predictability; all else is number crunching. Neighborhoods need certain design and impact goals met. Environmentalists want no new damage, restoration where possible. Those with non-negotiable demands will exclude themselves, as they should be.

Look at the Beacon Hill redevelopment of PacMed. Some say, “oh, what a mess.” I suggest it could have been far worse if a savvy developer had not gone to the community earlier than the public zoning process required, even if it was not as early as some neighborhood leaders would suggest. A series of iterations finally produced a plan that most of the neighborhood supported to government agencies.

Can the developer, the neighborhoods and the environmentalist be friends? A few hints for all participants: Both sides need to know that the other side is willing to listen. Get to know each other well. Get to know the others’ goals and understand the pressures under which they operate. Start early; meet often. Know the details of the deal. Be clear and honest about your expertise, resources and constraints. Know what you bring to the deal; deliver and get a return for it. Most of all, remember that trust builds; hang in there!

Are there ways the local government could make the process better, more predictable? From a distance, the local situation can seem far simpler than it really is. With that risk in mind, I offer some suggestions from a national perspective. First, look at development opportunities and issues citywide, even countywide. Some recent controversies, like the garage in West Seattle, are the result of one development bearing the burden of precedent setting. Inventory the broadest list of potential future developments across all neighborhoods. Make some long-range decisions about the whole portfolio and stick to those principles.

Secondly, and in tandem with the first, create a more rational set of ground rules. Bring an authentic cross section of interests together to scan controversies; look at opportunities and competing goals; and hammer out a set of principles under which development will be permitted. Make compromises now for the most predictable situations and get commitments from all parties to stand by those principled compromises when a few voices of opposition appear. Maybe create a multi-party de-politicized monitoring body. Change regulations to conform to the new process. For example, Austin’s mayor recently suggested establishing criteria under which there would be a presumption of development for infill, shifting the burden of proof to the NIMBY opposition.

Finally, local government could assist all parties, orienting new developers, training all parties and brokering relationships. Seattle’s Office of Neighborhoods now plays that role when invited. Its sector managers are a valuable resource for developers to understand the neighborhood before floating their development concepts.

Local government anticipate more, generally briefing the real estate development and lending community to understand neighborhood goals and dynamics and training neighborhood leaders to understand development. There is not a lot a multi-sectoral experience here, but that could be built up.

Joe McNeely is president of Baltimore-based Development Training Institute. DTI provides consulting and training to individuals and organizations involved in community development.

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