I was reading a letter to the editor this weekend that asks whether we should think of developers as villains. The letter concludes: “The bottom line is, developers are not in any way public servants. They are doing what they do for their own profit. Hence, many of them give us the impression of being, to use your word, villains.”
While there are some points raised here – I think it is important to note that developers are not supposed to be public servants, although at times they may be considered to perform a service to the community.
After all – do you like your home? Do you wish that your home was not here? At some time, a developer built your home and, depending on where you might live, that decision might even have been controversial.
Given that we all need a place to live – is it really helpful to villainize the people whose job it is to provide that housing?
At the same time, I think there are better developments and worse developments. I still largely believe that building Covell Village would have been a mistake. I am still not a huge fan of the Cannery development – particularly in its current form.
The letter writer goes through a litany of complaints over the years.
She writes, “I have closely followed quite a few local building proposals and projects. In all of the ones I followed there was a large element of sneakiness, such as sneaking in more units and less open space.”
She continues, “There were carefully worded lies, such as saying water use in the now-approved dormitory project for the former FamiliesFirst site (which will have one bathroom per bedroom) would be ‘metered.’ Later, the developer was forced to admit that the meters will be ‘informational only.’”
Next she goes after Paso Fino about which she notes, “Years ago, the first development proposal was to build two houses. Some years later the developers proposed eight large houses. After much negotiation with the city and neighbors, they ‘compromised’ with ‘only’ six still larger houses.
“That was three times what the original developer proposed. Much more profitable.”
Then she moves on to MRIC, and she notes that it “at first, for a lot of good reasons and in order to get approval from City Council and citizens, had no housing component. Then it came back with houses in the proposal. This would have enhanced profits for the builders but would not have added the type of housing Sagehorn, and the rest of us, would appreciate getting. Then the developers, facing opposition, took the proposal off the table.
“Now they’re back,” she says. “One thing about developers is they have a lot of money and resources, and they usually get what they want in the end.”
Thus she concludes, “The bottom line is, developers are not in any way public servants.”
To push back a little:
First, I think most developers would argue that they do not get what they precisely want in the end.
There is the fact that developers are 0 for 3 on Measure R votes. The Paso Fino example shows a greatly scaled-back proposal from what the developer initially asked for. Both the Hyatt House hotel and the Sterling Apartments ended up scaled back, as has the Hotel Conference Center.
Back in 2005, the city council attempted to ram through the huge Covell Village development, but with Measure J in place, the voters rejected it 60-40.
Last year, the council was willing to approve Nishi after some modifications, but perhaps did not go far enough as Nishi went down by a more modest vote.
The council in recent years has worked hard to find compromise between the developers’ projects and community and neighbor concerns. A conflict resolution process at both Sterling and the Hyatt House resulted in reduced sizes and community benefits.
In my view, the key variable is not the developer but rather the city council. The developer’s job is not to be a public servant. They are driven by the need to see a return on what is at times a rather large investment.
It is the neighbors’ and community’s job to use the public process to act as a counterweight. The community needs to be vigilant in looking at potential impacts, discovering potential problems, and alerting city staff and council to these problems.
Finally, it is the job of council to weigh a variety of factors. The council needs to concern itself with the good of the community, the impacts on neighbors and roadways, and also the viability of the project.
This process works best when the council is engaged and willing to honestly try to make a project work best for all involved. The council could have rammed through the Hyatt House on a 3-1 vote, but instead decided to take it back to the developer and neighbors to work out some differences, and the result was a project that the neighbors could at least not have to oppose.
I hear complaints from both sides on these things and that suggests to me that, while perhaps both sides do not get everything they want, the council has done their best to balance the needs. A decade ago, I’m not sure I would have agreed with this point, but I think the council is more engaged in the need for conflict resolution.
Yes, developers are going to do what they can to maximize profit – that’s how the system works. However, if the system works well, there is a balance of needs that go into the final decision-making process.
Could it work better? Always. But it is a process.
—David M. Greenwald reporting