Monday, July 28, 2008

Politics of development

My friend Rob, blogging on the ULI's The Ground Floor, notes some interesting statistics from a national survey regarding neighborhood opposition to new developments. As someone (admittedly selfishly) interested in seeing Atlanta grow, I am fairly disappointed about the findings:
Among the findings, 78 percent of Americans think there should be no new development in their community, 44 percent oppose new apartments or condominiums (up from 34 percent in 2006), and 69 percent say their local government is doing a fair to poor job on planning and zoning.
However, he notes some good news:
The significant changes in the Saint Index support the belief that views can shift according to information available to them. The complex character of development, especially in existing urban areas, means a proactive strategy to engage community members and build support is more important than ever.
Community interest and activism against development is strong in Atlanta, enough so that my recent post regarding the development of 315 W. Ponce in Decatur was one of my higher-traffic posts. I think in Atlanta developers often under-estimate the power of neighborhood groups. Consider the Georgia Tech Foundation story so far, or Wayne Mason's ill-fated tower at Piedmont Park.

I think this is overall a net positive for the city because it forces developers to interact with neighborhoods and often improve their projects. For all their business acumen, a lot of developers really misread the market for certain neighborhoods. I have been in NPU meetings where community members (correctly) told developers that their project was mis-priced and that it'd never sell, that the buyer they were going after wasn't going to move to the area.

The downside to community activism is that it can quite often be overzealous. In my neighborhood, I got a flyer one day warning about a new development, The Mix. While I think the architecture is a very bad fit for the neighborhood, overall I think the location on North Highland across from the Dark Horse is a good fit for a mixed-use condo building. I woke up one day to find a flyer on the door talking about the new "high-rise" building with untold numbers of parking spots in the ginormous parking deck.

The flyer really misrepresented the development, which met existing code for the commercial lot it was in, and was replacing a large surface parking lot. The five-story building is tiered away from the street to meet the height requirements, and only has 12 residential units. Calling it a high-rise was dishonest.

When a neighborhood takes an overly aggressive approach, it can turn a developer off from even trying to negotiate. I've said it before, but we need to encourage good development in neighborhoods that can support a pedestrian environment. This means areas like the commercial district in Virginia-Highlands, downtown Decatur, and yes, Monroe and 10th Street. In that case, neither the neighborhood, the city, or the developer was interested in negotiating. I still think a workable alternative was possible for that site, considering that there is an 8-story condo building on a hill half a block away.

The key, and the take-away from Rob's post, is that developers and communities must be willing to engage each other in dialogue. It is the only way a city can grow responsibly.

1 comment:

  1. The politics of development have fundamentally changed. Local officials who once ran for re-election on the basis of the tax dollars and jobs their economic development initiatives generated now find it more politically expedient to stand with the angry, passionate and frightened neighbors in opposition to new development. Back room deals and long cultivated relationships between officials and developers are often useless when an elected body faces a hearing room packed with angry constituents.

    Having a good project is no longer enough. Elected officials will not commit political suicide to approve a developers project.

    Americans are twice as likely to oppose a project as to support one. Developers and retailers have got to understand the politics and be able to generate constituent support for projects or they will continue to see more and more good projects go down in flames.

    Patrick Fox
    The Saint Consulting Group


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