Concerned citizen meets with real estate developer and architect
November 25, 2013 10:09 PM   Subscribe

A real estate developer offered to meet with me and a friend and have his architect show us conceptual plans of their project in advance of the official unveiling to the public. I've never met with a developer or an architect. What do I do to make this a productive meeting & not waste the time of developer and architect?

Me and my friend are concerned citizens who take a mildly enlightened view of smart-growth in a city were infill is contentious. I'm inclined towards the "if we are going to do this we should do this well" and care about urban design.

This is a moderately large mixed-use development. We know the abstract project description but neither of us have seen any plans or meaningful images. The official unveiling will be at a community meeting, where there will be open mic public comment. I asked the developer if I could see conceptual plans prior to the community meeting and he offered to arrange this private meeting.

There will be many public hearings ahead in the permissions process, and probably a series of revisions in the course of negotiation with the municipal planning apparatus over all aspects of the proposal.

I've some experience with public architectural presentations, but none with a private meeting such as this. What are some things I should do to make this a good meeting so as to establish friendly and respectful relations with this developer yet prepare the way for intelligent and potentially critical input into the public process as the project goes forward?
posted by bertran to Media & Arts (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
As much as possible, I'd try to come in with a clear understanding of what you'd need to not oppose or organize opposition to the project, and what you'd need to actively testify in support or even organize support for the project.

As you alluded to, they are meeting with you to either quell potential opposition or build potential support from you and your allies. It would be great if you knew what you'd want from their plans in order to do either of those things.

To establish good relations -- have a discrete list of goals that you can discuss with them productively, share them sooner rather than later, don't overpromise or exaggerate your political pull, and generally be respectful and up front.

If you want help working out what your requests would be (e.g., what are appropriate levels of parking?), provide more detail and maybe I / we can help.
posted by slidell at 10:42 PM on November 25, 2013

Best answer: Be really clear about whether your interest in the project goes to urban design matters (form, character, scale, height, materials, etc.), uses and their antecedents (market/feasibility analysis) or impacts (traffic, wetlands, fiscal, school enrollment, etc.). Most people confuse or conflate them (or pretend to be worried about some technical matter because their real concern is politically incorrect). Similarly, distinguish between your concerns about community impacts vs your personal circumstances. Finally, be aware of what is being driven by the regulatory framework vs developer preference and experience. You may be able to help advance a better project by brokering support for changing the rules.

Most of all, listen to the presentation and ask open ended questions about their reasoning, background research, etc. Some developers don't go public until they're fairly far along in the process but others start early: it depends in part on how they perceive the town. They may want your insights into how the citizens might react, the approval process, or what helped/hurt past projects.

I work in this arena. If you want to get more specific, I can probably offer much more insight.
posted by carmicha at 10:47 PM on November 25, 2013

Best answer: I've conducted a fair number of interviews in the past and it is very, very easy to have a long and engaging conversation with someone and walk away to realise that you have actually got very little substance. You, presumably, have other stakeholders, who want answers or who have questions.

List your questions. Group them. Understand what kind of answers you are looking for and whether your respondents are qualified to answer them. For example, if the question can be answered in a quantifiable way, then you're looking for a quantifiable answer. It is easy to get sentiment though ("it shouldn't be high") which feels like it makes sense in the middle of a conversation but actually means nothing to someone else.

When you have your list of questions, group them. Then order your groups by priority. Then you can make sure you ask the important ones, and grouping them means you don't have to revisit themes when the conversation has moved on.

If your questions need preparation from the developer then submit them in advance. Or submit them after the event, if you feel that is preferable.

Like carmicha says, you should also be prepared to listen and feed back too - the meeting is partly for their benefit and you will get information you hadn't thought of and be able to give some insight.
posted by MuffinMan at 1:29 AM on November 26, 2013

Best answer: If I were you, I would hold my cards VERY close to my chest during this meeting. Express no personal opinion and refrain from making any judgements.

Do not ask: "What about the rainforest you are going to cut down?"
Instead ask: "How do you plan to handle the people in the community who oppose you cutting down the rainforest?"

When asked what you think, respond that you are still taking it all in, still working it all over in your mind. You can see both sides of the issue.

These kinds of "private" meetings, especially in local politics, can blow up in your face down the road.
posted by Flood at 4:24 AM on November 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Do not assume that any particular item you see in the pictures is actually going to be put in. Our HOA had to fight with the city to get a brick wall put up to separate our subdivision from a highway under construction instead of the flimsy wire fence they were planning to put in that came as a complete surprise to the HOA president, who saw a brick wall on the architectural renderings and assumed that it meant a brick wall was going in. The city harrumphed a lot about "artistic renderings" when called on it.
posted by telophase at 8:45 AM on November 26, 2013

Realize that the developer will probably develop the property and it's in your best interest to keep it cordial. Make no specific answers as whether or not you approve the project, take notes, ask for copies of anything they show you. Ask specific questions in regards to your concerns i.e: "I am concerned about the runoff from such a large project going in, can you address it?" or "In this mixed use development, what types of commercial companies will be allowed, bars, restaurants, nightclubs etc." Questions along that line will get you more answers (or not) and also bring up more opportunities for you to get more govt. regulation on it.
posted by lasamana at 9:35 AM on November 26, 2013

Most areas require any objections to a future development that meets the zoning requirements be actually based in either the development code or the public works engineering standards for your jurisdiction. Basing your objections on 'I Don't Like It' or 'where will I walk my dog or play frisbee' isn't going to carry much weight with city councils or planning commissions, whether or not these are actually code phrases or sincere concerns. It boils down to if you don't own the property your only valid concerns are impacts on surrounding properties or the city as a whole and if there isn't a way to address those in the existing code language the city operates under there isn't much you can do about it.

So my suggestion would be to familiarize yourself with the relevant code passages for the type of development you are looking at. And good development generally follows some basic guidelines-does it integrate well with the surrounding, existing neighborhood? or is it going to be the first step in gentrification? Is the developer going to build their fair share of the improvements/infrastructure to make their development work? what tax deals are they being offered/asked for? Do you have any tenants/buyers lined up (they aren't going to answer this but you should still ask)? How are you going to mitigate stormwater runoff/traffic/noise impact to surrounding/existing areas. How are you going to improve ped/bike facilities and do you tie into the existing mass transit system (if there is either one-and for a successful mixed use in an urban area you better believe they need to if they want to succeed)?

In reality these things are why cities HAVE a public works/planning department and your best bet is to try and schedule a meeting with them also to learn what you need to and get their attitude about the development to help form yours. You are getting into the realm of highly paid professionals that make very lucrative careers specializing in these areas and your best bet to gain any expertise in this area is to get their ear.

(BTW I am one of these professionals working in a public works department and we LOVE having concerned citizens come and talk to us with an open mind about how they want to make development better and nothing, NOTHING works better at city council meetings and planning commissions that honest citizen input with valid concerns to change a problematic development to a good one-especially if a well organized group shows up in person and testifies).
posted by bartonlong at 9:55 AM on November 26, 2013

Try to have some awareness of what the developer can do by right versus what the developer might be asking the city and/or the community to accept that is beyond what is permitted. If development code only requires 1 parking space per housing unit, for example, it's going to be difficult to convince the developer to provide 2 parking spaces per unit just because you think that would be better.

If you ask the developer to do/not do things that drive up the cost or reduce the revenue of the project, be prepared to make some concessions or compromises in exchange.

Depending on your city/state, be aware that the developer may not be able to do some of the things you might like. I recently had a community group suggest that developers restrict commercial space to local small businesses. We can’t do that in Oregon—we can create commercial space of a particular size that’s designated for a certain category of uses, but we can’t allow Local Joe’s Homegrown Hair Salon but not SuperCuts because we like small businesses but not chain stores. The community may prefer one or the other, but that doesn’t mean it can be required by local governments or developers.
posted by Kpele at 10:03 AM on November 26, 2013

Response by poster: To follow up: the meeting took place yesterday. It's a development agreement project, so zoning isn't relevant so much as the local political and planning culture: it's all about the negotiation between developer and city government. I prepared by itemizing questions I had and sorting them by type and trying to make determinate to myself the "concerns" I have (mostly urban design.) It went passably well and they gave me an enormous amount of time, so I guess I did not make them impatient. There turns out to be much to like about what they showed, but I tried to measure display of enthusiasm and did not offer conditions for support or the like, which they also did not solicit. I came away feeling very well informed about their thinking and with material for further and more specific inquiry.

The variety of perspectives from your responses was very helpful to clarify for myself what motivation I had to be going in to them.

Thanks, all!
posted by bertran at 1:29 AM on December 5, 2013

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