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Thread: Planners as developers?

  1. #1
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    Planners as developers?

    Good Morning All!

    Foremost, I wanted to say "hey" and pass along my compliments to this board and all who post here. It's been a good long while since I've added to the (seemingly) countless (and informative) posts scattered throughout, but I've never stopped surfing, and owe a great deal of my knowledge of our field to the pearls I've picked up here.

    That stated - a (very) brief intro, and then my question. I am currently a (25 year old) graduate student (City and Regional Planning) on the Central Coast of CA (undergraduate major in Planning as well), passionate about and dedicated to our field.

    I have had internships in both the private (consulting firms specializing in urban design, public outreach) and the public (various cities) sectors. My full-time work experience consists of a roughly 2 year tenure as an assistant planner with the aforementioned consulting folks.

    THAT stated... the question;
    One of the final avenues of planning I have not yet been privey to experience is that of private development, and I wondered if anybody here might shed light as to the "what," "how" and "ifs" of that sub-sector.

    Specifically;
    - Do development/construction firms (and I am refering to larger companies, not small scale custom home designers and the like) retain regular staff planners?

    - What kind of "planning" do they do for these companies? Urban design? Permiting?

    - Would I need a background in business, architecture or some other field to be considered for employment in such firms?

    - Finally (and probably most importantly), what are the prospects for such work? Are development sector planners well paid? Hired/fired often?

    That's quite a laundry list of questions I know, and of course any information that sheds some light on my otherwise dark world of knowledge would be very much appreciated!

    My thanks in advance!

    - CAPlanner

  2. #2
    Cyburbian Cardinal's avatar
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    My experience is that few private development firms hire planners to work as planners. Many will contract with a conslutant to help with development review, though the larger ones may have someone on staff for this. The planning work is mostly done by engineers.

    I have seen contractor/developers hire economic developers in jobs related to selling design/build services. I have seen some retail chains use planners in their site selection teams, but again, not really as planners. Data analyst might be a better term for it.

    When I have seen planners in these types of positions, it does seem like they do not stay very long. If I took an average of the half-dozen or so that I have known, it would be less than a year on the job. That's a pretty telling statistic.
    Anyone want to adopt a dog?

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    I agree with everything Cardinal stated above and would like to make a comment with regard to your questions. Smaller custom home builders may actually be a great starting place. I work closely with one (and have thought about working for him) and seeing what he does I can think of a million ways someone with my background would be useful to him. Provided it may not be in the design of his homes but land aquisition, infill development, project management are all things that a small custom home builder may want to have on staff.
    In saying that, the home builder that I am thinking of has recently ventured out into areas not only dealing with custom homes, he is starting to do very small retail structures and is taking on a redevelopment project within a historic district. If you know any smaller developers and are interested in smaller projects (infill, preservation, rehabbing, prject management, etc) it may be with your while to look into. If writing plans and zoning are what interest you, however, what I am talking about would probably not be of much interest.

  4. #4
    Cyburbian
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    I guess I agree with Cardinal and Jaxpra in part: Developers typically don't hire Planners for design work unless they have a big in house shop which is very rare in my experience.

    But what developers do hire planners for and I think it is a great untapped opportunity for planners, is for project management. And by project management I mean the process from raw ground to finished pad (pre construction, so to speak).

    There is a great deal that goes into managing the entitlement process (both administrative--such as stite plans and legislative--such as rezonings) and land development process for developers.

    Positions like this greatly expand the generalist nature of a planner. There is a need to manage the consultant team architect, land planners --and most good developers hire lands planners first for design--, engineers, traffic consultants, wetlands/env. consultants etc....And with that Planners need to know a little bit about what those folks do.

    And who better to work with community groups or be the community face of a develop than a planner? A planner who has some experience working and building concensus and understand interests groups.

    I could go on for hours on this one.

    Its what I do.

  5. #5
    Forums Administrator & Gallery Moderator NHPlanner's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Cardinal
    Many will contract with a conslutant to help with development review, <snipped>
    Off-topic:
    Glad to see this Chetism make a return.
    "Growth is inevitable and desirable, but destruction of community character is not. The question is not whether your part of the world is going to change. The question is how." -- Edward T. McMahon, The Conservation Fund

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    Quote Originally posted by gkmo62u
    I guess I agree with Cardinal and Jaxpra in part: Developers typically don't hire Planners for design work unless they have a big in house shop which is very rare in my experience.

    But what developers do hire planners for and I think it is a great untapped opportunity for planners, is for project management. And by project management I mean the process from raw ground to finished pad (pre construction, so to speak).

    There is a great deal that goes into managing the entitlement process (both administrative--such as stite plans and legislative--such as rezonings) and land development process for developers.

    Positions like this greatly expand the generalist nature of a planner. There is a need to manage the consultant team architect, land planners --and most good developers hire lands planners first for design--, engineers, traffic consultants, wetlands/env. consultants etc....And with that Planners need to know a little bit about what those folks do.

    And who better to work with community groups or be the community face of a develop than a planner? A planner who has some experience working and building concensus and understand interests groups.

    I could go on for hours on this one.

    Its what I do.
    Thanks, you said it better than I did, mostly because it isn't what I do but something I have thought about doing. I think Project Management is a great path for a planner. Who else knows the process better?

  7. #7
    Unfrozen Caveman Planner mendelman's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Jaxspra
    I think Project Management is a great path for a planner. Who else knows the process better?
    And that is why a well-trained planner could make an effective developer - just skip the middleman (developer as boss)
    I'm sorry. Is my bias showing?

    Let's not be didactic in this profession, because that is a path to disillusion and irrelevancy.

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    Quote Originally posted by mendelman
    And that is why a well-trained planner could make an effective developer - just skip the middleman (developer as boss)
    Yeah but on our salaries how on earth do you propose we become developers???

  9. #9
    Unfrozen Caveman Planner mendelman's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Jaxspra
    Yeah but on our salaries how on earth do you propose we become developers???
    the way the developers do it - convince people with money to finance your proposed development(s) - they're called in-ves-tors.
    I'm sorry. Is my bias showing?

    Let's not be didactic in this profession, because that is a path to disillusion and irrelevancy.

    Six seasons and a movie!

  10. #10
    Cyburbian The One's avatar
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    Well.....

    I did some time with a big time developer, woulda liked to do a little more, but now I think being a conslutant (or working with one) would add to the resume, plus, it would allow this planner to do some "real" planning, not just processing stuff
    Skilled Adoxographer

  11. #11
         
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    Quote Originally posted by mendelman
    the way the developers do it - convince people with money to finance your proposed development(s) - they're called in-ves-tors.
    he he...the only in-ves-tors ( ) that I know ARE the big bad developer...I need to find some new friends to preach my thoughts to, maybe then they will quit making money off MY ideas and I can make some $ off of them!!

  12. #12
    Cyburbian
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    Although not officially an employee or a consultant (although I have received compensation), I've helped an architecture firm with some of their projects. I started doing it because I am frineds with a few of the architects in the firm and they had a decent size housing project that was being ripped apart by the communities planning commission. They called me and asked if I would participate. We ended up getting approved and I was able to convince the developer that they really need to listen to what the city staff is telling them. I have helped on maybe 6-7 other projects they are working on and it is turned into a pretty good arrangement.

    There are developers who look for planners, although they are few of them. They typically are looking for someone with some design background, project management skills, etc and who are profecient in autocad.

  13. #13
    Town planning and developing are the same thing! What good is a plan if development doesn't follow it through? On the other side of the coin, development without a plan is just construction. It doesn't result in good neighborhoods. The sorry state of urbanism in North America is proof enough of that.

    So be a good American pionneer. Become a developer yourself. You know more than them what makes a good place to live, you can put them out of business in no time. Or better yet, buy them out and put their resources to work for you and your customers. That's what makes capitalism work.
    Quote Originally posted by Jaxspra
    Yeah but on our salaries how on earth do you propose we become developers???
    This is AMERICA! Credit is so cheap banks are giving out negative-amortization mortgages to people with bad credit ratings. Hell they give out mortgages to illegal immigrants! Go out and get your share. Your country needs you!

  14. #14
    Cyburbian Emeritus Chet's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by NHPlanner
    Off-topic:
    Glad to see this Chetism make a return.
    Sheesh! I leave for a two weeks to move to my new house and get settled in, and I can't tell if that was a dubious honor or not!

    EDIT: That said, After 8 years in planning I was hired by a top 15 national home builder to run their Wisconsin aquisitions and development operations. Basically, get the land under contract, get the entitlements, manage the construction, and hand it over "turn key" to the home building arm of the corporation. It as grueling, and I burned out in 18 months. I loved the job, hated the company.

    So yes, they do hire planners. But I would not wish that job for anybody with a "planner's conscious".

  15. #15
    Cyburbian
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    I agree with Chet. Working for a national production homebuilder is tough work and, even for having a pretty strong pro deveopment mind set, the driving force is getting approved lots/density. Bad planning typically results when yield drives decision making.

  16. #16
    Cyburbian abrowne's avatar
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    My experience of this in Vancouver is that the large (read: LARGE) development companies retain regular staff planners, and they primarily serve two purposes:

    1. to design and plan large areas of land owned by the developer
    2. once designed, to liaison with city staff in order to streamline the development application process (including endless meetings, attending public hearing, and so on)

    These large companies are folks like Genstar, Wesbild, and Intrawest. They typically develop hundreds of acres at a minimum. Intrawest is a bit different as they are a mountain resort company, but I do know that they employ planners for their ski villages and whatnot.

    In terms of salary, it depends on the company. Some just want the job done, and pay accordingly, and some want to attract real talent, and pay accordingly. Job security might be a bit of an issue... if business slows down the company might be more likely to retain outside consultants rather than keep a regular staff of planners.

    I would like to also counter a bit of pessimism I noticed above... from what I have seen of plans initiated by large developers in my area, the intent actually seems fairly honourable in that they, too, are interested in creating a good urban form. Profit is certainly a motive, but it seems these companies would also like to be known for good work (read: premium work that fetches more money).

  17. #17
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    Cool deal - thanks to all for the experiences/advice! As always - The Great Throbbing Brain knoweth all!

    - CAPlanner

  18. #18
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by abrowne
    In terms of salary, it depends on the company. Some just want the job done, and pay accordingly, and some want to attract real talent, and pay accordingly. Job security might be a bit of an issue... if business slows down the company might be more likely to retain outside consultants rather than keep a regular staff of planners.
    So, how realistic is it to be in private practice as a Planner, in a town of say 100,000? What kind of experience and background would it take, and what kind of additional skills would be valuable? Besides project management, AutoCAD, and design experience as Cololi said.

    Just glancing through want ads, it looks like civil engineers and landscape architects are in greater demand than planners per se. Worth putting some extra time into those at school?

  19. #19
    Cyburbian abrowne's avatar
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    Well, civil engineering is pretty far afield from planning. It would be tough to pick up on the side. Landscape architecture might be more lucrative - but possibly mind-numbing. How many awkward parking lot shrubbery and entraceway earth berm designs can you puke out onto paper before offing yourself?

    As for the scenario you outlined, I'm not sure. I think it depends on whether or not the centre is isolated or part of a larger metro area. If it is a bit isolated you might be able to get a nice local racket going on, with mot of your business probably concerning interacting with the city's planners to smooth applications. If its part of a larger metro area you will face some pretty tough competition, I would imagine.

    *shrug* Just speculation, mind you.

  20. #20
    Cyburbian
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    I am in a similar position. I am a 23-year-old planning student/aspiring developer at MIT and have been passionately involved in real estate and urban planning since high school, in both the public and private sectors. My focus: concept development and implementation of large-scale mixed-use urban infill and redevelopment projects in large cities that involve public-private partnerships, adaptive reuse, and historic preservation. As graduation looms, I am considering a couple of different pathways into the development field:

    - project management within a national urban development firm
    - planning for and opening new stores for a national retailer
    - conducting market analysis, concept development, and pre-development planning for residential and/or mixed-use projects at a real estate marketing/consulting firm
    - development planning within a private consulting firm or public economic development agency

    In any case, I want to be based in the Northeast (preferably NYC). I know which firms share my values and have identified my most preferred employers. My only issue is I am concerned about actually finding openings and deciding when to start the search.

    From what I have seen, few if any RE development firms do the typical recruiting scene where new graduate hires are made months in advance of their start date. This would mean waiting until a little before or after graduation to secure a position and, with more than $100K of student loans awaiting payment, I am not sure I feel comfortable with that situation. But even more upsetting is the dearth of entry to mid-level positions available in the development field. I went straight from undergrad to pursue an MCP degree, thus my work experience consists entirely of summer internships and part-time work during the school term. Could this be a barrier to employment?

    I am getting my real estate license. I am taking courses that concentrate on real estate finance and the development process. I am learning AutoCAD. But what else can I do to strengthen my position in the job market?

  21. #21
    Cyburbian
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    I have similar interests, and sought after (in a big big way) a place I wanted to work for. I chose affordable hosuing development as a good place to start. Obviously, if you are considering working for a national retailer and have racked up $100k in loans, you probably aren't interested in working for a non-proift affordable housing developer. Right now I find myself working on some projects that I'm not incredibly excited about, but some are exciting and I'm learning on all of them. . .

    Also, I think I am sucessfully nudging our org, towards more mixed use, infill projects. It is really really hard to find an entry level development job if you aren't born into it. . .and it's even harder to get one that is doing something really cool.


    Quote Originally posted by schristmas
    I am considering a couple of different pathways into the development field:

    - project management within a national urban development firm
    - planning for and opening new stores for a national retailer
    - conducting market analysis, concept development, and pre-development planning for residential and/or mixed-use projects at a real estate marketing/consulting firm
    - development planning within a private consulting firm or public economic development agency

  22. #22
    Super Moderator luckless pedestrian's avatar
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    well,

    what I have seen when my friends get scooped up by big development corporations (and they ran becasue the salary often got doubled for them) is they are the first to get laid off in a recession - I've seen it happen twice in the Boston area and it wasn't pretty for them

    so if you do, make sure your skills are multi-disciplinary so you can schmooze into any department during a down turn and/or pick an international development firm because they are more likely to have work going somewhere to keep you

    most developers have told me their planners on staff are considered overhead, not a good thing

    the good news is, it's great resume material as long as you know you are a temporary employee and go into it to learn as much as you can as to how the system works - i started out in the private planning consultant gig before going into the public sector and it scored points with town managers...

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