by Tia Will
Over the past 5 years, I have favored some development projects and opposed others based on their individual merits. What I am going to write now is an opinion piece based on my observations and perspective, not on facts and numbers. It should be taken as such.
I am writing this piece not with regard to any specific project as I am addressing process, not projects. I will however, use the most recent of David’s articles on the two hotel projects with its quotes from members of the City Council to illustrate my points.
First, from Will Arnold: “[T]here is a lack of options being given from the neighborhood as to what might satisfy you. The two that were mentioned specifically were going down to the three stories and underground parking. My understanding is that underground parking is a no go and that going down to three stories would result in sacrificing a lot of the things that we find very beneficial about this project, including many of its environmental attributes,” he explained.
There is a certain irony in the statement that a lack of options is being presented by the neighbors, when there were no options or alternatives whatsoever being given by the developers. There was no initial discussion with the neighbors about what use might be preferable to them. The Hyatt was presented as the only option with all mitigations being essentially minor tweaks to make an undesired project less unpalatable to those most directly affected. Our current business practices make the assumption that whomever has enough wealth to acquire land and enough influence and/or persuasiveness to gain exceptions should be entitled to proceed with whatever project they want presumably for the greater good of the city.
This is our current model. I do not believe it is the only way that we could achieve thoughtful development. An alternative would be to develop a project that from its conceptual onset has the backing of the neighbors. One approach might be to choose a target amount of revenue generation first, decide on an unmet need in the city (of which there are many according to those who post about our city’s need for more business) discuss the goals of revenue generation and city need with the neighbors and present a number of options to see which would be the most highly desired for that location. This format would have the potential of being a win-win-win with profits for the developers, revenue for the city, and a project that had the backing of the neighbors from conception.
Before anyone decides to write this off as totally unrealistic and fanciful, I would like to point out that there is precedent for just such a business paradigm shift. When Henry Kaiser and Sydney Garfield decided on a completely different model for the provision of health care based on prepaid, non-fee for service, integrated care they were widely reviled as communists and their system was decried as doomed to failure. And yet, Kaiser is now one of the premier models for the delivery of prepaid health care in a fully integrated, collaborative model.
Also from Will: “My understanding is that underground parking is a no go and that going down to three stories would result in sacrificing a lot of the things that we find very beneficial about this project, including many of its environmental attributes,” he explained.”
David then wrote: “Without knowing the expected margins…”
This for me is the crux of the issue. We don’t ever really know “the expected margins”. We are provided with the statement “we can’t do it”.
This would seem to me to be the classic “doesn’t pencil out argument”. While it may be that the members of the City Council have been provided with numbers that demonstrate this to be factually true. I do not believe the neighbors, or the public have been provided with this information and therefore are left in the situation of just having to take the developers word for it. I cannot help but notice the discrepancy between the willingness to accept the developer’s word, versus the constant denying, degrading, minimizing, and trivialization of the neighbors when they state their objections to a project. I have to ask myself why the goals, projections, and conclusions of feasibility of one side are so readily accepted while those of the opposition are not.
Also, with regard to the concept of staying within guidelines as a “no go” this would, to me, argue against the feasibility of the particular project for the given site, not as a reason to change the site requirements to meet the project.
Next, Mayor Davis “made the argument that people are going to have to sacrifice. And it will not just be these neighbors – all of us will be asked to do so, whether it is more traffic, more taxes, worse roads, fewer services, etc.”
I am not opposed to the concept of sacrifice for the greater good of the community. However, I am opposed to the concept of disproportionate sacrifice which is what I believe that we are seeing when we trivialize the concerns of those most directly affected. They are being asked to not only accept any overall adverse consequences such as decreases in service, congestion, more taxes, worse roads but are also being asked to absorb the direct adverse consequences on their neighborhood. And I would point out that it really does not matter whether the rest of us believe they should feel that way or not. That is their perception, their reality just exactly as “not making enough profit” or not “penciling out” is the perception of the developers and investors. So, I have to question the fundamental fairness of expecting that some will be forced to “sacrifice” far more than others for the purported good of all.
Now this might be reasonable if it were the only option. I do not believe it is. We are not currently seeing any proposal forthcoming for increased taxes which would distribute the “sacrifice” over the entire community rather than limiting it to one neighborhood at a time. We also do not see any true compensation being offered to the neighbors to adjust for their extra burden. I have yet to see a development in which those most directly affected have been offered the opportunity to invest, either individually or as a group. Offering them the chance of a stake in the success of the development would certainly provide an incentive to collaborate on the best possible project and yet we seem content to follow a model that rewards only those who are already relatively affluent, well connected, or both.
A further point about sacrifice. If there is inevitable sacrifice, should not all involved parties have a share in the sacrifice as well as in the benefits? Where in these developments by exception is the sacrifice being asked of the developers and investors? Shouldn’t they also need to share in the “sacrifice” or are they to be let off the sacrificial hook because they are providing revenue for the city? Are we willing to discount that the neighbors, whose lives will be changed as stated accurately by Mayor Davis, not be rewarded for their previous and ongoing contribution to the city in the form of their taxes, work, volunteerism and other contributions to our community?
It is no secret that I believe that collaboration will always be more productive than an adversarial approach. With this in mind I have some suggestions for those in favor of developments and those in opposition. I would make the following suggestions for change in process.
- Sacrifices expected from individuals and neighborhoods should be matched by sacrifices distributed over the entire community in the form of taxes. This balanced approach has been discussed on multiple occasions, but does not seem to have been forthcoming, while the march of development by exception and litigation rolls on.
- Developments within guidelines should not be opposed by the neighbors.
- Developments that fall outside of guidelines might still be acceptable, but should be discussed with the neighbors for consideration before major investments of time and money are made with the expectation that exceptions will be made. This would of course require full transparency and good faith effort and flexibility on all sides.
- Those most directly impacted by a project should be offered the opportunity to invest and thereby gain additional benefit from the project to offset their additional “sacrifice”.
I have seen these kinds of approaches work within the setting of a large medical group, both within one of the largest departments, and on the interdepartmental level. I have seen it from the perspective of a front line physician with no administrative role, from 20 years of experience as lead for various innovation projects, and from 10 years experience as assistant chief of a department of upwards of 70 providers. I have zero experience with real estate, land development, or real estate investment or government.
What I would hope is that some of you who do have experience, or are just getting started in one of these areas might consider providing me with your thoughts as to how we might, within your area of expertise, move from our current adversarial process which is leaving our city tied up in an endless strategic battle in which everyone emerges bruised, to a collaborative process in which all who choose to can contribute to the development of a collaborative process. All constructive thoughts will be eagerly accepted and considered. All slings and arrows will be accepted with as much grace as I can muster at the time.