By P. Michael Saint, Chairman and CEO &
Patrick Fox, President, The Saint Consulting Group
Some projects are sure to tickle the NIMBY bone in abutters and nearby neighbors, and some projects are simply objectionable Locally Unwanted Land Uses (LULUs). But what about developers who work hard to make their projects “green,” set just the right density, produce marketing materials and public relations programs touting the projects’ benefits to the community, provide all sorts of mitigation and linkage, contribute to local charities, and even install floodlights at the local softball diamond? Do their projects get approved? Not necessarily.
What makes a project good is subjective. Sometimes good means politically correct or environmentally sensitive. Sometimes it reflects a belief that the community needs the proposed project, such as housing, mixed-use rehabilitation of an old factory, or a distribution plant that will provide 200 jobs. Sometimes it means architecture that residents consider attractive or a design that somehow enhances its surroundings. But what the developer and her team think is a fabulous design often generates real hostility among potential neighbors, and it makes no difference that the mayor and city council have promised to support the project. Confronted with angry constituents, public officials will back off their support. Unless the developer is sophisticated enough to have built support for the project in the community and gives public officials the political cover they need, the project will fail.
Good projects do not automatically get approved. Being good is necessary but not sufficient, just as water is necessary but not sufficient to sustain human life; we also need food, air, sunlight, and moderate temperatures. Projects need to be perceived as good by the people who count: abutters, neighbors, and, most important, citizens in general. Adding 200 jobs to the local economy is a benefit, unless neighbors view it as adding 200 cars (or 400 vehicle trips) per day to their residential streets.
Some experts argue that community opinion leaders are necessary in this process. They believe in organizing support at the “grass-tops” level—former elected officials, members of the clergy, prominent businesspeople, a local celebrity or two—to help influence public officials and bring ordinary citizens along. Others think a project needs a “champion,” an elected or appointed public official who leads the charge in favor of the project. Either approach might produce results in rare circumstances, but the good old days of political influence peddling are waning. Today citizens organize, set up Web sites, call on national organizations for advice and help, produce flyers on their home computers, and produce an angry crowd at a hearing.
In the old building-is-progress days, nobody came to hearings or raised a fuss, so projects got approved. Public officials were seen as powerful and unapproachable, part of an impenetrable political machine run by party bosses and big shots, and the little guy could not fight city hall.
The champion approach is particularly outmoded and unrealistic. This tactic was used in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when people thought they needed a politician to get anything done. Today, citizens are far more activist and assertive. They realize that the politician needs them more than they need her, and that a public official who double-crosses her constituency might well find herself voted out of office. It is highly unlikely that an elected official would stick out her neck to support a controversial project that her constituents oppose. It’s also likely that an appointed official who decided to publicly promote that same project would be told to sit down and be quiet, since his role as champion will reflect on the elected official who appointed him.
Whether the approach be grass tops or champion, Americans are far less prone today than they were in decades past to follow the leader in land use fights, be the leader a prominent local clergyman or a former mayor, especially if he is seen as promoting the project. In any case, neighbors who oppose a project because they think it will ruin their neighborhood are not going to sit on their hands just because some local politician or celebrity says so.