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Mixing NIMBY and ensuring development approval.

Fifteen miles north of Manhattan, within Westchester County, lies the century-old community of the Village of Bronxville. An appealing, New England-style village nestled within hills, valleys and a curve in the Bronx River, Bronxville, with a population of 6,000, is-blessed with charm and affluence, peppered with upscale shops on its Tudor architectural style shopping streets and home to two fine colleges, Sarah Lawrence and Concordia, as well as one of the county's highest rated public school systems.

Architectural styles are surprisingly diverse in this picturesque village of only one square mile. Despite the presence of other relatively high-density housing, until recently a central 1.67-acre site within the village lay fallow since the early 1980's, unable to attract the community and political support to make new multi-family development a reality.

One developer worked for eight years to secure approvals, only to finally have to abandon plans for a proposed condominium project.

Yet, as the next developer to try its hand at the site, Collins Enterprises was able to receive zoning approval for a 110-unit, four-story luxury rental community, which came to be known as The Avalon, within six months of buying the site in 1993.

Why did one developer spend almost a decade in a futile effort to secure approvals, while Collins Enterprises succeeded in half a year? The answer lies in the community and political approval process for multi-family projects. These developments are increasingly coming under fire for perceived excesses, but the right approach can make approvals much easier to obtain.

Home sales and new housing starts have had another record year. Multi-family housing increased its share of total production to 19 percent. The fast pace of development has ignited heated debate over density, the pattern and type of development, preservation of green space and wildlife habitats, fears about congestion, noise and pollution, and lack of adequate public facilities to support population growth, particularly in the metropolitan and metropolitan fringe areas where most new construction is occurring.

Though home ownership is booming (a record 66.4 percent of the population owned homes in 1998), a significant percentage of the population continues to rely upon rental housing stock. On the supply side, just as high-density, multi-family rentals are meeting increasing community opposition, affordable, available rental housing units are on the decline, millions of rental units receiving federal subsidies are moving into free market rent status, and baby boomers, having reached their 50s, are cashing in on home investments, only to swell the ranks of those seeking luxury, amenity-rich rental apartments.

In a country where NIMBY's (Not in My Back Yard) and NIMEY's (Not In My Election Year) often seem to rule the development world, the ability to neutralize opposition and create positive public opinion can be more critical to a multi-family rental project's viability than financing, architecture, unit mix and market demand.

How then should developers of multi-family rental housing prepare to work with the community and facilitate political approvals for projects?

Act, Don't React

A developer having to respond to public opposition is already at a disadvantage by being on the defensive. Changing negative public perception is one of the more expensive and laborious feats of communications. Better to anticipate community and government issues before arguments become emotional and it becomes impossible to retreat from a difficult position. The more you know about a community's goals and concerns, the greater the opportunity to avoid confrontation altogether.

Research the Community

Ideally, a developer will undertake public opinion research to clearly identify a community's opinions and priorities. When millions of dollars are at risk, the cost of such research seems more than justifiable. However, when in-depth research is not feasible, you can still hold small focus groups, initiate random telephone surveys, spend time getting to know community leaders, research issues of concern in the local paper and discover what groups and individuals exert the most influence. All this will aid you in identifying effective communications strategies to build community support, bring potential opponents onto your side and make the right, if any, concessions.

Identify Supporters Instead of Confronting Opposition

Some opponents are simply anti-change, making them unlikely converts to your position. Your time, money and effort is often better spent marshalling support for a project. Identify residents, businesses and government officials who can benefit from the project through increases in property values, business or tax revenues. Those who will prospectively live, open businesses or find employment at your project can also be compelling supporters. Special interest community groups may need to be educated about specific elements of your project, such as preservation of wetlands or a new playground for pre-schoolers, to generate support.

Identify the Motivations of Your Opposition

Among the reasons private individuals and public officials may be opposed to your project and effective forms of response include:

Misunderstanding: By disseminating clear information about the project's community benefits - at public meetings, in the mail or through the press - developers can often over come this resistance.

Emotional Agendas: Community leaders - or those who perceive themselves as such will be offended, if not insulted, if they are not included in the planning process to some degree. You may well have to kowtow to these opponents' need for attention to reinforce their sense of importance.

A Question of Values: You may face opposition by environmental preservationists or other special interest groups whose position is a question of values, which are simply not negotiable. Discussion with the intention of finding some mutually agreeable ground is the best tactic.

Take Steps to Build Consensus

Make an effort to talk to all interested parties early in your development process. Reach out to interest groups that have something to say about the site or proposed project, and try to prearrange an approval strategy that will satisfy all interests. Many of these groups and individuals simply want to be heard, and others have legitimate, easily accepted suggestions.

One compromise that often gets right to the roots of opposition and has saved many endangered multi-family developments is to trade a certain amount of density for open space. Area residents opposed one New York-area Collins Enterprises project because of concerns about possible traffic congestion. A solution was reached in direct negotiations with all parties. The city agreed to purchase half the site from Collins Enterprises and convert it into a public park, and Collins Enterprises agreed to scale down the development by 50 percent.

Collins Enterprises' experience has proven repeatedly that there is a way to get to consensus. Do the best you can to acknowledge the terms and conditions of all interested parties. First, this may reduce their opposition. Second, making a good faith effort to respond to opposition demands will reduce the authority of opponents as the approval process reaches the stage of critical votes and decisions.
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Copyright 1999, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Collins, Arthur, II
Publication:Real Estate Weekly
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Nov 3, 1999
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