Help in dealing with developers.
May 31, 2014 8:58 AM   Subscribe

I have a one-on-one meeting scheduled with a developer whose plans directly impact my quality of life and that of my neighbors. How do I best use this to our advantage?

Asking for a friend:
A local midsize developer has purchased half the block on which my house is located. They are planning to build about 15,000 square feet of retail space with 44 residential condo units above. This is a four story building with parking underground, albeit insufficient parking even by code and neighborhood need. All units will be sold as condos so there will be no overall owner and the property will be managed by a condo owners association. The local University campus is about four blocks from here and there is concern in the neighborhood that these condo units will be purchased as investments and rented to students at an increased density. I think there is considerably less concern about the retail portion of this development.

The developer will have to go through the zoning change process with the city to build a building of this height and for this use. In the early 90s the neighborhood fought to change the zoning to its current zoning which allows for community appropriate commercial use and a maximum height of two storys.

My property and one other abut this property and there are two other residential properties on my side of the block which do not abut, but which will be impacted by noise, traffic, light blocking during the day and lighted parking at night,

I have met the lead architectural consultant on a couple of occasions and have raised concerns and questions about the project. Other neighbors have as well, but due to my proximity, letters I have written and comments I have made at community meetings and in a city council special studies meeting, it seems I have become the squeaky wheel. The developer has asked to meet with me next Tuesday at my home, one-on-one, to discuss my concerns. They want to see my place and my "point of view".

What I am asking of you is to help me formulate questions to ask them. What would you be concerned about? What issues do you think may arise out of this discussion? What do you think they might be looking for from me?
posted by Mr.Me to Law & Government (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Your property abuts theirs? I would wonder if they may be thinking how much it would cost to make you stop objecting (in other words, buy your house). Assuming this place goes up according to their plans and how much that will impact your property values and quality of life, what would you want for your current house to get another house somewhere else? Maybe they won't mention it, but it is good to have that figure in your head.

Meeting alone with you, away from the support of others, or in a public forum where other people may also hold them accountable to their words strikes me as a "divide and conquer
tactic". They have had many, many such meetings in the past and are coming quite prepared. List all your objections in writing, by priority order, and write out a couple of solutions you would be okay with to the problems to help you organise your thoughts (and dont bring it to the meeting because they can read upside down). You don't have to share all the solutions (basically stick to a hard line on all of them because if they see you are willing to compromise they will nail you for that). I would let them do most of the talking and let there be silence. So if they ask what your main objection is, tell them it is the density and that it exceeds the current zoning. Then silence. They may wait try the silence part too - just sit staring at each other then. Good luck.
posted by saucysault at 9:34 AM on May 31, 2014 [6 favorites]

I'm a city planner, and this is a really common issue. Obviously, without seeing the site and neighborhood, it's hard to provide specific design ideas, but some general thoughts on the developer v neighborhood dynamic:

1) Developers aren't (usually) evil: There are some terrible developers, but most of the time the biggest "sin" they commit is being narrowly focused on their business and not on the broader context of neighborhood change, etc. I've found that they can be remarkably accommodating if they're first affirmed as legitimate members of the community (they're often tired of being vilified) and if their concerns are recognized (being able to make enough money off the project to make it doable).

2) Don't get hung up over height/density: Every project seems to freak people out about parking demands or density, but the reality is most cities provide way too much parking. If the project is large enough, a traffic study will usually be conducted which can help determine what the actual parking impacts will be. If it's not that big of a project, and you're still concerned, see if you can get the developer to pay for it. They'll sometimes rather pay for the study than to have untested assumptions flying around. There are lots and lots of creative solutions for dealing with parking when it IS an issue, but trying to shut down the development usually isn't one of them (you can lose, and now you have a developer who doesn't want to work with you. or you can win, and the city at large starts running into problems because it can't attract new development/tax revenue).

3) Cities change: In planning, there's a term for people who oppose any development or changes to their neighborhood called NIMBY's (Not In My BackYard). I don't think you fall into that category, but it's worth reiterating the basic fact that cities are constantly changing, and the best way to respond to it is to work proactively to make those changes the best they can be, and to figure out how to adapt to the stuff we can't control (which turns out to be quite a bit). To that end, here are some very concrete things you can bring to the table in your discussion:

a) Ask them about what traffic impact analysis has been done. Usually a city planning dept. has some resources for doing basic estimates of traffic impact, and can also provides a second opinion to whatever the developer does.

b) Ask about how they're going to make the development blend with the neighborhood at the ground floor level. People get weirded out by building height, but from an experiential point of view, the ground floor is where the development can cause problems. There are lots of ways that a 4 story building can feel more like a part of a single family home neighborhood than a 2 story building based on how the ground floor is designed (setbacks, curb cuts, sidewalks or no, tree plantings, etc.

c) Don't rely on proxy concerns, be specific. If you're concerned about the students issue, then say that; don't couch it in general concerns over parking. The more specific you can be, the more the developer can provide proposed solutions. Also, don't hesitate to go to the city planning department; in a university town, I'd be surprised if you're the first person to have these concerns. There may be a policy already in the works that would help deal with the issue.

Feel free to PM me if you have any other questions. Good Luck!
posted by silverspeak at 9:48 AM on May 31, 2014 [18 favorites]

Seems like there are a few possible outcomes:

1) You could convince them to go away.
2) You could get some sort of payment from them to cover the loss in value of your property due to the encroaching development and loss of quality of life.
3) You could sell them your property at some sort of fair market value.

1 seems unlikely, and 3 may not be on the table for you.

It's not bribery to ask for compensation for the diminished value of your property- I'd have that number in your head as well, and see if they are making you an offer- and if the offer is acceptable to you.
posted by jenkinsEar at 9:49 AM on May 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

there is concern in the neighborhood that these condo units will be purchased as investments and rented to students at an increased density

I'm not sure why that's a concern. Students need rental housing!

I think you should ask for some compensation - losing sunlight really sucks - but avoid asking for changes to the density or parking situation.

Dense, multi-use developments with minimal parking are exactly what North America needs more of. If you go into this trying to keep your neighbourhood zoned for fewer people and more cars, you're the bad guy here.
posted by ripley_ at 9:53 AM on May 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

When you say "...these condo units will be purchased as investments and rented to students at an increased density..." I assume you mean that residents are concerned that more people will be living in the same number of residential housing units? This is not a completely unreasonable concern, but it's not higher density-- higher density would be more housing units in the same space, not just more people.

Please bear in mind that there is no inherent reason owner-occupied condos couldn't be lived in by larger families. Regardless of whether units are sold or rented, the maximum legal occupancy for a dwelling is usually about 2 people per 'sleeping space' (which can include rooms and spaces that are not bedrooms).

The widespread and, IMO, mistaken, assumption that renters are a detriment to the neighborhood is based on a lot of assumptions about income, family size, age, commitment to neighborhood quality, etc. This is problematic--especially in cities and neighborhoods that owning a place is going to start at $400k. If you're really worried about renters vs owners, you might ask about getting some assurance that the condo association will require owner occupancy and not permit subleasing units.

What is your goal, overall? Do you want the developer to just build ground-floor commercial and a single story of residential units above? Are you willing to see any change in your neighborhood? Does your area have a shortage of housing, with high rents and housing prices? If so, building more housing units is really the only realistic way of dealing with it.

What exactly are you worried about wrt parking-- customers visiting the commercial businesses? Residents living in the condos? Is there a shortage of street parking already? If so, is that because existing residents don't have (or don't use) their off-street parking spaces?

It's not clear from your post what you want, aside from "not what is being proposed". You really need to be prepared to talk about what you do want and/or are willing to see go in, and not just have a list of grievances and things you don't like about this development. Offering nothing but objections without any proposed solutions or willingness to compromise is going to get you labeled not only a NIMBY, but probably also an uncooperative Problem Resident, which is going to hurt your credibility for any future discussions with developers and/or your local planning department.
posted by Kpele at 10:03 AM on May 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

If the project needs permission from a land use commission, e.g.zoning board, go to the hearing. (You, or your landlord if you have one might have to be notified) Speak up if you have specific issues. The board members ought to be glad to see you. Don't bother with an unfocused rant; that would be ignored.

A big project is an opportunity for the city to fix, or get the developer to fix, minor problems that would otherwise never get attention. Things like improving visibility or alignment at an intersection, or drainage.
posted by SemiSalt at 10:07 AM on May 31, 2014

I work for a developer and have participated in group and one-on-one meetings with neighboring property owners.

The “evil developers” stereotype means that we never feel the love. A lot of developers are ethical people who want to be good neighbors and good corporate citizens. Of course, we want to make money, too, or development would never happen. But the margins are much, much thinner than most people imagine.

The posters above, especially silverspeak, have given some really good input, so I will try to cover new territory.

Ask what specific variances they will be seeking. It may be called something else depending on your jurisdiction. For instance, if code requires x number of parking spaces but the developer’s plans only include y number of spaces, they will request a variance. Same goes for height, density, setbacks, open space requirements. Ask what agency is responsible for granting each variance. Planning commission, design review board, city council? This will guide you in lobbying against a specific variance should you decide to do so.

Ask about the inclusionary or affordable housing component. If required by the jurisdiction, some developers will include below market rate housing in the development, or the developer may choose to pay an in-lieu fee.

Ask if any environmental reports are required by the jurisdiction. This may be something like an environmental impact report or a mitigated negative declaration. Ask to review it, as well as the traffic study, the shadow study any other studies the jurisdiction is requiring. It may be worth spending some money on an independent consultant to review the technical aspects of the studies.

Ask what mitigation methods will be employed during construction. You appear to be mostly concerned about the impacts of the completed project, but you also need to be concerned about the 18-months to 2-years that you will live next to an active construction site. Ask about traffic, dust, noise, stormwater runoff and especially environmental mitigation. In redevelopment, it’s common to turn up something nasty in the soil that has to be dealt with and you are going to be living next to that.

You say there will be below grade parking and that your property abuts the site. That means excavation and shoring. It is possible that they will ask you, as a neighboring property owner, to grant an easement over (technically under) your property for shoring tiebacks. Developers will pay a pretty penny for such an easement since alternate shoring methodologies can be much more expensive. If they ask for any type of easement, work with an attorney. But don’t think that refusing to grant an easement will stop the project. If you don’t grant an easement, the developer will find another way to move forward, so you may as well work with them and get some cash or other considerations in exchange.
posted by rekrap at 12:19 PM on May 31, 2014 [5 favorites]

the developer is a pro, he has done this before, you are an amateur. he can say anything he wants in a one-on-one meeting, because it isn't on the record. do you have a land-use/real estate attorney yet? he/she would know how to handle this meeting.

44 units, about two drivers per unit, each with their own car, plus the cars of their guests is going to be 80+ cars. does he have a firm idea of where all these cars are going to go, other than on the street in front of your house?

he may be ready to offer you some money. it is difficult for an amateur to speak one sentence which will enhance his position, but it is very easy to shoot himself in the foot. you need a pro in your corner.

developers versus enviros is the core conflict in every american city. you will be called a nimby. silverspeak's answer above was pretty good, i agree that developers are not evil, but i come down a little more enviro than he does.
posted by bruce at 3:29 PM on May 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

I asked a related question a while ago. Although the situation was rather different, the thread might still be useful.

Some thoughts on the general predicament:

What silverspeak and rekrap write is in many respects true and useful, however you will be facing seasoned pros with expert knowledge of the local law and political scene. It's better not to go it alone. I would look for pre-existing organization around the issue of development amongst residents in your city. You said your neighbors organized to influence zoning in the past. Are those people still around? Talk to them. Is there an official neighborhood association group you can consult with? Are there any interest groups in your city who are concerned with growth and are aware of the legal and political configuration? These can be sources of guidance and support.

It sounds like there will definitely be public hearings, since the developer needs to have the zoning changed, in some sense. You will definitely want to go to all of those hearings, and educate yourself as to the operative laws and the public process. I would go to other hearings on land use in your city to get a feel for how these go. I would become acquainted with your city's councilpersons. Depending upon how exactly the city is contemplating changing the zoning (through a variance or through a development agreement or through an amendment to the code) the councilpersons may have a say in it. In either case, they may individually be available to have a meeting with you and talk about the project.

A book like this might give you a sense of the scenario from the developer's p.o.v.

What I've seen frequently at hearings is that residents are often unaware of the law and make testimony that is emotional and moot. The more you know about what sort of discretion the board you are before actually has with the case in question, the better. So you can speak to that. And it would be very useful to know, before you meet with the developer, what exactly they need to be granted by the city, and how and by whom.

(Again, silverspeak is mostly right, imo, about NIMBYs often being on the wrong side of good planning. But you are certainly no more evil than the developer is; your interests are legitimate and your rights are worth defending. Courage!)
posted by bertran at 3:55 PM on May 31, 2014 [3 favorites]

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