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Thread: Why are planners and developers rarely on the same page?

  1. #1

    Why are planners and developers rarely on the same page?

    I currently work part-time for a regional developer, and before that I had 500 hours work experience with the city, which included some planning.

    When I read some of the discussions here, there is a sense of frustation when working with developers. For example, many times the issue will come up as to why developers build sprawling type developments instead of developments which respect the noble goals of new urbanism.

    Now from a developer's standpoint. There is a sense of frustation when working with planners. Developers (mine included) would love to build higher density developments such as new urbanism, or something which closley resembels it. However, ask a developer why they don't build them, and many times it will be the zoning code along with planning issues. After the analysis is done, sprawl ends up being chosen over urbanism, even though the latter would be far more profitable.

    So how could two entities with common goals end up with not achieving the goals for either party?

  2. #2
    jimi_d's avatar
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    Sounds very much like informal briefings should be held at an early stage.

  3. #3
    Cyburbian Budgie's avatar
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    Simply answer.

    Planners are trying to build communities while most developers are trying to build profit margins. Finding middle ground that is acceptable to all concerned is the hard part, especially in communities that are not rapidly growing.
    "And all this terrible change had come about because he had ceased to believe himself and had taken to believing others. " - Leo Tolstoy

  4. #4
    Quote Originally posted by jimi_d
    Sounds very much like informal briefings should be held at an early stage.
    lol You're probably on to something. There is a huge risk associated with buying a property and applying for rezoning since there is no guarantee the rezoning will be succesful. But the legal, architectural, and planning cost alone are astronomical and sunk if rezoning is a failure. This is probably the largest reason why developers don't undertake anything different and simply just propose the same type of sprawling developments which have received approval in the past; developers are risk-adverse.

    If there was some discussion before hand, it would probably help reduce some of that risk to the developers. But if the NIMBYs ever found out, the planning department would probably be accused of 'backdoor dealings.'

  5. #5
    Quote Originally posted by Budgie
    Simply answer.

    Planners are trying to build communities while most developers are trying to build profit margins. Finding middle ground that is acceptable to all concerned is the hard part, especially in communities that are not rapidly growing.
    I don't disagree with what you're saying. But...
    as I look around at the built environment of my community along with the many others I have visited, it seems that very few of them were successfully able to find a "middle ground" that was actually desirable.

    Surely there must be a better way. For example, density usually has the largest affect on a developers' margin, but something like the site plan is almost a non-issue for developers (with some exceptions).

    Just a question... could a community be better planned if a developer keeps his/her desired density, and the city planners have full control over the site plan and come up with the most desirable arrangement for the community?

  6. #6
    Cyburbian Budgie's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by OfficialPlanner
    I don't disagree with what you're saying. But...
    as I look around at the built environment of my community along with the many others I have visited, it seems that very few of them were successfully able to find a "middle ground" that was actually desirable.

    Surely there must be a better way. For example, density usually has the largest affect on a developers' margin, but something like the site plan is almost a non-issue for developers (with some exceptions).

    Just a question... could a community be better planned if a developer keeps his/her desired density, and the city planners have full control over the site plan and come up with the most desirable arrangement for the community?
    Your "but" was not necessary. I agree with you. One of the reasons I mentioned towns that don't have rapid growth is because developers desired density in small towns tends to be very low density, which is not ideal for the efficient delivery of services, but is what developers believe the market is asking for. It's too risky to build density in small towns, because the upward pressure on the house market is not sufficeint to make the numbers work. For example, we recently approved a zoning change to General Residential, which would have allowed up to 40 units an acre. The developer went with 12 units an acre, so that everyone can have "acceptable yard space". I would have liked to seen a little more density, say 20 units. Bankers in the conservative plains states tend to see density as a dirty word. Yes, site planning is critical.
    "And all this terrible change had come about because he had ceased to believe himself and had taken to believing others. " - Leo Tolstoy

  7. #7
    Quote Originally posted by Budgie
    Your "but" was not necessary. I agree with you. One of the reasons I mentioned towns that don't have rapid growth is because developers desired density in small towns tends to be very low density, which is not ideal for the efficient delivery of services, but is what developers believe the market is asking for. It's too risky to build density in small towns, because the upward pressure on the house market is not sufficeint to make the numbers work. For example, we recently approved a zoning change to General Residential, which would have allowed up to 40 units an acre. The developer went with 12 units an acre, so that everyone can have "acceptable yard space". I would have liked to seen a little more density, say 20 units. Bankers in the conservative plains states tend to see density as a dirty word. Yes, site planning is critical.
    Interesting points, the situation does indeed change in lower growth regions.
    One final question about the density for new applications in your area, have they at least been increasing gradually?

  8. #8
    jimi_d's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by OfficialPlanner
    If there was some discussion before hand, it would probably help reduce some of that risk to the developers. But if the NIMBYs ever found out, the planning department would probably be accused of 'backdoor dealings.'
    This is why Freedom of Information isn't always a good idea. If the NIMBYs didn't know about the - er - lunches, or better still didn't know that there could be lunches to ask questions about, the lunches couldn't possibly distress them. Everyone's better off. Planners could get some nice - er - private consultancy work out of it, so I'd be happy. As immortalised in the extremely funny British TV series "Yes, Prime Minister":

    Jim Hacker: Are you saying that winking at corruption is government policy?
    Sir Humphrey: No, no, Minister. It could never be government policy. That is unthinkable. Only government practice.

  9. #9
    Cyburbian cmd uw's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by OfficialPlanner
    I currently work part-time for a regional developer, and before that I had 500 hours work experience with the city, which included some planning.

    When I read some of the discussions here, there is a sense of frustation when working with developers. For example, many times the issue will come up as to why developers build sprawling type developments instead of developments which respect the noble goals of new urbanism.

    Now from a developer's standpoint. There is a sense of frustation when working with planners. Developers (mine included) would love to build higher density developments such as new urbanism, or something which closley resembels it. However, ask a developer why they don't build them, and many times it will be the zoning code along with planning issues. After the analysis is done, sprawl ends up being chosen over urbanism, even though the latter would be far more profitable.

    So how could two entities with common goals end up with not achieving the goals for either party?
    As most of us already know, a developers main objective is to make the highest return on investment with the most minimal risk. Any plan a developer intends to move forward with must satisfy a number of parties besides that of the local planning department/ approval agency.

    First and foremost, a plan must satisfy the local market. A developer must ensure that their plan will satisfy potential home builders and accommodate the type of product that sells within that particular market. If a developer comes to the table with a plan that does not appeal to home builders or the market, they may have difficulty selling lots. This is why you'll see many proposals utilize the conventional suburban design. It's been tried, tested and been successful over and over again.

    Another important component is the bank or financial lending institute. Most developers will require some form of financial assistance throughout the lifecycle of the plan from design to construction to completion. A bank will assess the proposal and determine its level of risk. An unorthodox plan will impact the level of risk and potentially jeopardize the developers chance of securing financing. Again, utilizing the conventional plan will decrease the level of risk.

    Personally, I believe as the 'new urbanist' trend continues to gain popularity, you'll start to seeing more developers proposing those types of developments or 'bastardized' forms (e.g. incorporating designs that accommodate the pedestrian, mixed-use areas with standard suburban housing)
    "First we shape our buildings, and then our buildings start shaping us." - Sir Winston Churchill

  10. #10
    Cyburbian Budgie's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by OfficialPlanner
    One final question about the density for new applications in your area, have they at least been increasing gradually?
    IMO, with no imperical data to back it up, I'd say, yes and no.

    First I say "yes" because we have seen more duplex and triplex development, primarily as single lot in-fill, and we have had a number of assisted living facilities (apartment building and garden apartment types). We have a hospital and a VA hospital 25 miles away, so we attract a lot of retireed farmers and military personnel.

    I say "no" because our single-family detached development has continued to occur on 1/3 acre lots, give or take a few 1,000 sq. ft. The single family homes are getting larger, which means each unit takes up more space even without the "acceptable yard space". I won't even discuss the unincorporated areas of my County. Our new homes are priced beyond our local "middle class" and the existing housing stock has a large number of "empty nesters" and widows (ers) who are overhoused. These households don't want to downsize until they absolutely have to, so turnover is slow. It's not that we have a housing shortage, it's just that many families are overhoused. There are few homes for sale in the $90,000 to $50,000 price range. Those priced below $50,000 are usually former rental properties that have seen disinvestment.

    I'll stop now, because I could go on forever.

    ********************
    ALSO LET'S NOT FORGET, DEVELOPERS AND BANKERS DO NOT LIKE RISK AND THEY LIKE THE PENCILING OUT MATH TO BE FAMILIAR TO THEM. DENSITY AND MIXED USE MAKES THEIR EQUATIONS A LITTLE HARDED TO DEAL WITH AND THUS INVEST IN CONFIDENCE. IF IT'S PREDICTABLE, THEY LIKE IT. Sorry for the CAPS.
    "And all this terrible change had come about because he had ceased to believe himself and had taken to believing others. " - Leo Tolstoy

  11. #11
    Cyburbian Cardinal's avatar
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    The problem I often see is that the developers in small towns are not really developers in the true sense of the word. They are local contractors who have moved on to subdividing and creating the lots on which they build. These types are not likely to know what New Urbanism is, and given the chance to do density, the best they can manage is putting their single-family homes with front-loaded garages a little closer together, or putting up apartment buildings from some off-the-shelf plans. These don't come close to even looking good, much less creating a walkable environment.

    Even the big guys can't get it right. I am reminded of a presentation on the Pabst Farm at a Wisconsin APA meeting. The developer was pitching this thing to planners as a 1000+ acre mixed use development. Why? It had an office/industrial park on one side of the highway, a commercial district at the interchange, and single-family homes on 1-acre lots in another part of the development. Sidewalks? No - the residents wouldn't want them and besides, there was a path running through the development.
    Anyone want to adopt a dog?

  12. #12
    Cyburbian Budgie's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Cardinal
    The problem I often see is that the developers in small towns are not really developers in the true sense of the word.

    Even the big guys can't get it right. I am reminded of a presentation on the Pabst Farm at a Wisconsin APA meeting. The developer was pitching this thing to planners as a 1000+ acre mixed use development. Why?
    I agree completely with the local contractor playing developer. Many of these so called "developers", although I never hear them refer to themselves as developers, think a preliminary plat is a waste of time and don't understand why they are necessary.

    I remember seeing a presentation of the Pabst Farm project at the Wisconsin ITE Conference I was at in 2003. When they claimed it was a mixed use development, I was scratching my head. I had the same impression you had. I wasn't going to ask the obvious questions, since a lynch mob of traffic engineers were milling around me.
    "And all this terrible change had come about because he had ceased to believe himself and had taken to believing others. " - Leo Tolstoy

  13. #13
    Cyburbian biscuit's avatar
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    My opinion might be a skewed considering that I work for a large municipality that went though the low density vs. high density argument several years ago. But we have had no problem when it comes to developers wanting to do high density development. In fact, beyond what you would think for a rust-belt city, builders have been falling all over them selves to do projects here. Truthfully, we have a new zoning code that encourages such projects. The big obstacles to working with the developers have been the architectural quality of these developments. They want to go as cheap as possible with the design and materials and maximize their profit margins. Thankfully we have an administration that has an appreciation for good urban design. At least as much as the law allows us to control.

    And like jimi_d stated above, a planner sitting down with the developer in an informal setting can do wonders.

  14. #14
    The big obstacles to working with the developers have been the architectural quality of these developments. They want to go as cheap as possible with the design and materials and maximize their profit margins.
    This is very true!! Even though I have a deep appreciation for the built environment, I can't morally attempt to justify (from a business standpoint) extra spending on decent architecture when we can get away with "cheap as possible," especially for condominiums.

    Budgie,

    It's odd. Our situations are exactly opposite of each other, we want to build as dense as possible, but can't. Albeit the company only considers tight real estate markets in mid to large cities in the southern region.

  15. #15
    Member Nor Cal Planner Girl's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by OfficialPlanner
    I currently work part-time for a regional developer, and before that I had 500 hours work experience with the city, which included some planning.

    When I read some of the discussions here, there is a sense of frustation when working with developers. For example, many times the issue will come up as to why developers build sprawling type developments instead of developments which respect the noble goals of new urbanism.

    Now from a developer's standpoint. There is a sense of frustation when working with planners. Developers (mine included) would love to build higher density developments such as new urbanism, or something which closley resembels it. However, ask a developer why they don't build them, and many times it will be the zoning code along with planning issues. After the analysis is done, sprawl ends up being chosen over urbanism, even though the latter would be far more profitable.


    So how could two entities with common goals end up with not achieving the goals for either party?
    I think it really just boils down to the community and what the General Plan has to say about development... ultimately, if the community wants a different kind of development to occur, then they need to participate in the General Plan update process... and that includes developers. No one ever said the process was easy. Most people have different ideas about what kinds of developments should occur. People often like to complain about the process- and, are not very often willing to participate in the process to make a change.

  16. #16
    What the community wants is the lowest density possible or other demands that might make development unfeasible for developers. Even then, the community usally consists of many NIMBYs and would rather see sprawl, since it's away from their homes, then a denser development near their homes.

    This is not true for all communities, but I know a few just like that.

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