Given their druthers, 79 percent of Americans in a 2011 survey said flat out that they are opposed to new development projects in their communities.
On the question of how well their local governments performed on community planning, 51 percent rated them fair to poor, and 64 percent said relationships between local officials and developers result in unfair planning decisions.
Those sobering figures, from the Saint Consulting Group’s 2011 Saint Index, formed the backdrop for a lively panel on “Elevating Design through Public Involvement and Politics: Is It Possible?” last Wednesday at the Urban Land Institute’s 2011 Fall Meeting in Los Angeles.
The message to developers is clear, said panel moderator Jay Vincent, senior vice president at Saint.
“No longer can you show up with a good plan at city hall, and the mayor and his chief of staff will say, ‘Let me know when I should show up for the ribbon-cutting ceremony.’ Now they’re saying, ‘I’ve got a community group in that neighborhood that’s very active in planning, and I need to talk to them first; in fact, I’m going to need you to have some kind of charrette.’ ”
In other words, said Sheri Vander Dussen, planning director for the city of Anaheim, California, “Ignore stakeholders at your own risk. You can never underestimate what a room of voters can do.”
The good news, Vander Dussen and the other three panelists at the session reported, is that effective community engagement by developers can turn the tide of NIMBY-ism.
Focused more on the blunt realities of local politics than on design per se, the key takeaways from the session were the need for strategic planning, knowing a community’s political and economic back story, and building a case for project benefits.
“Land use is all about control,” said Diane Gaynor, executive vice president and partner of Roni Hicks & Associates, a San Diego, California, public relations firm. “You need to have a smart battle plan. The first component of a battle plan is recon, recon, recon. It’s about doing your research; it’s about trying to figure who’s the enemy.”
It’s also about mobilizing your support, said Mike Saint, CEO of Saint Consulting, which is based in Massachusetts.
“The NIMBYs will show up because they’re emotionally concerned that your project can hurt them,” he said. “The only way to overcome that is to overwhelm them with support, so the second element is to identify who your allies are and how do you get them from, ‘Okay, that’s a good idea,’ to, ‘What do you want me to say when I come to the planning commission?’ ”
Saint’s views were backed up with additional findings from the Saint Index on the demographics of groups opposing and supporting new developments.
Age and income are core differentiators, Vincent said, with development opponents skewing older (baby boomers and above), with incomes exceeding $100,000, while supporters range from 21 to 35 years old and earn in the $50,000-to-$75,000 range. Both groups are well educated, but a major blurring point is political affiliation, with opponents and supporters both likely to identify as either liberals or Tea Party members.
The index also found that jobs and economic growth were the best arguments for swinging public opinion on new development, he said. With frustrations about the economy still strong across the nation, 69 percent of those surveyed said they were more likely to support projects that delivered jobs and other financial benefits for their communities.
Keeping the focus on benefits is important, not only for building support among residents and other stakeholders, but also for building trust with local officials, said Ken Ryan, former mayor of Yorba Linda, California, and now a principal of the KTGY Group, an architecture and planning firm in Irvine.
“It’s not about buying votes; it’s about gaining access, trust,” he said. “The public benefit might not have anything to do with the project. Figure out how to create a nexus, and figure out a way to have it achieve the public benefit.”
“Demonstrate to public officials with every tactic you can that the political consequences of voting for your project will be good for them,” Saint concluded. “That’s what they’re concerned about, the political ramifications in their community of what your project will do if they support it or oppose it.
“You’ve got to use Facebook and Twitter and e-mails and video and petitions and telephone and town halls and every other modern political tool to demonstrate to public officials that you have overwhelming support in their communities.”