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Partnering with the Community: from NIMBY to CAN-DO
(Community And Neighborhood Developer Organization)


Most developers have had the same sad experience: They invest a lot of time and money in a project -- costly studies, getting finances in place, getting politicians’ support, hiring architects, and so on -- and finally they present the plan to a community group. And suddenly that beautiful plan becomes something hateful, something a group of angry residents want to block, delay, or even stop altogether.

Oh, shock and frustration. “But we’re trying to do something positive for the community! Our intentions are good, why don’t they see that?” But the road to hell, as you’ve no doubt heard, is paved with good intentions.

This story explains one way to avoid a lot of hell -- by partnering with the community before presenting them with a project to approve…in fact, before you even begin to develop a project.  It’s not a quick fix; it’s a long-term fix, and one that often becomes an ongoing win-win situation for all concerned.

No matter how well planned and designed the project, someone in the community —perhaps many people — will decide for whatever reason that they don’t want it built, the NIMBY ["not in my back yard!"] problem. Part of your job as a developer is to find out who they are, why they feel that way, and how to use that information to strengthen your project – what we call the CAN-DO solution, for “Community And Neighborhood Developer Organization”.

PHASE I – Organizing the Community

The residents of the South Bronx taught us a great deal about listening to community input. Magnusson Architecture and Planning participated in a volunteer civic effort called Bronx Center, whose purpose was to replan and revitalize the 35-block Melrose area in the downtown Bronx. This neighborhood was a classic urban renewal area. Over 50% of it had been burned out in the 1970’s, leaving rubble-strewn lots and shells of old buildings. In this case the city itself was the developer, with  grandiose visions of razing the whole site and funding major project development.

Their intentions were indeed good, but they never told the remaining residents what they planned to do. Bronx Center insisted on involving the community, however, and they invited the Melrose residents to listen to the city’s final plan. What the city said was, “We’re going to buy your land, raze it to get rid of all those burned-out buildings, and build you a beautiful new community.”

But what the residents heard was, “We’re going to throw you out of your homes where you’ve been living for decades, pay you less than what they’re worth, destroy your neighborhood, and ruin a lifetime’s worth of memories.”

In short, the residents hated the plan -- so much so, that on the spot they formed a protest group to fight the city. Despite the fact that it was one of the most depressed neighborhoods in the metropolitan area, those who were still living there were committed to the place and not about to leave. Most of the residents were Hispanic, and they called their group “Nos Quedamos”, Spanish for “We stay”.
At the time, my partner Petr Stand was volunteering with Bronx Center to help envision the redevelopment of downtown. Though he was as surprised as anyone that the residents wanted to stay, he realized how important it was to listen to what Nos Quedamos had to say. He jumped on the chance, and they agreed to meet with him.

With Petr’s input, Nos Quedamos soon understood that to stand up to the city, they needed a counter-proposal. They asked Petr to help them develop one.
Nos Quedamos asked the city for more time, and got six months to design an alternative plan. Petr met with them one full day per week for that six months.

It was in those weekly meetings that we were able to turn some angry residents into grassroots organizers and effective developers. We had to decide from scratch how to actually build the new neighborhood. Nos Quedamos was not saying “anything goes” here—they had specific idea of what they wanted and didn’t want. We listened carefully and began to study certain blocks in the neighborhood; we got residents’ input regarding their needs and dislikes. At this point we helped them visualize what was possible and how it could satisfy the community.

Needless to say, Nos Quedamos also had a lot to learn about the realities of working with city politics and laws, but they were willing and able. We of course worked with the city throughout the process, and helped NQ identify all the groups whose approval we needed: the City Council, the Borough President, the Mayor’s Office, and other city agencies.

We also helped NQ develop these building guidelines:
1. The plan should cause no involuntary displacement of the
existing community.
2.  The plan should permit the development of a mixed-income
community and create a variety of ownership and rental housing.
3. The plan must provide housing at densities appropriate to an
urban community.
4. The plan should utilize architectural design guidelines that
maximize the public investment, creating a visually desirable,
urban environment that will encourage development.
5. Development must be both environmentally conscious and
6. The open space should be incorporated in a system that responds
to the community's concerns for public safety and security.
7. The plan should respect the street pattern and movement patterns within the community.
8. The plan should provide for an appropriate distribution of
commercial space and services and enable community residents and businesses to increase their earnings potential and expand their economic opportunities.
9. Development should complement the existing infrastructure and
the community's regional location and provide for future growth and evolution.
Six months later, Nos Quedamos succeeded: They presented their plan to the city, and it was accepted.

Benefit #1: Partnering early with the community prevents community opposition, thereby saving the project from delays and abandonment.

PHASE II – Working with Developers

Once the plan was approved, we helped Nos Quedamos meet various developers who wanted to build the types of housing they had in mind. We presented ourselves as, “Here’s an idea for this block; we want a partner; how about working with us?”

Most developers weren’t used to being approached by community groups, and Nos Quedamos made it clear from the beginning that the developers had to give something back to the community and get genuinely involved—not just build, then take the money and run. For example:

  • Developers had to agree to use quality materials and building requirements, and promise not to build the low-quality housing so common in urban renewal projects.
  • The community insisted on being a partner in managing the building; that is, no absentee landlords.
  • Nos Quedamos insisted that major jobs had to be salaried, not volunteer. They required the developers to hire various community groups as community sponsors, to deal with site control approval, planning boards, community relations, and so on.
  • Nos Quedamos also required a fee for marketing the project, as opposed to paying a real estate agent to do it. The community of course had much higher credibility than an outside agent in any case.

After interviewing many potential developers, NQ selected a local Bronx developer/builder who had experience in the area and agreed to the community’s vision. Several years later, after New York’s economic recovery, the first project became Plaza de los Angeles, 35 townhouses on 4 blocks set between two churches.

On the second project, Nos Quedamos had enough experience to insist on being co-developers. The city had some housing funds, and NQ found a developer willing to go after this funding. That project became an apartment building with 50% low-income and 50% moderate-income families. Because NQ now trusted us, they insisted that MAP design the building. NQ shared in the (limited) profits, which further strengthened the community and the groups involved.

Benefit #2: The developer who is willing to share with the community in the costs and benefits of the project is the developer who will win the project.

PHASE III – Ongoing Community Development

Years after that first meeting, Nos Quedamos has grown and matured so much that they have now become a developer in their own right. Larger developers – both local and even regional -- have seen their success, and are eager to partner with them to plan and build future projects.

They also act independently in certain projects, so they never again have to listen to big developers say “Here’s our plan; take it or leave it.” The group now gets 50% of the development fee, plus management fees and a paid support staff.

The fact that NQ is now a real player should in no way be seen as a threat to other developers; in fact, what it means is more work that outside developers would otherwise not have. An added benefit is that because of their civic-mindedness, outside developers look very good to other community groups. And of course the main benefit is profits—ongoing profits.

Benefit #3: The developers who identify with and partner with strong community groups enjoy a steady stream of work.



You’ve noticed that I haven’t talked about “How to get the community to accept your idea”. Instead, I’m saying, “Listen to the community first, then design and build what they want.” Times have changed, and the community will be involved one way or the other—you ignore them at your own risk. They’ll either cause delays and headaches, or you can partner with them from the very beginning, and benefit from their strength and influence.

Assuming you choose do the latter, there are important steps to take.
  •  Define “community”  A useful definition is “any individual and any organization who is affected by the project I want to build”. This can mean residents; business owners, next door or a block away; the whole town in terms of tax issues; and local groups who represent the community. They all have different needs and issues concerning your project.
  •  Find political support  Developers have always had to get politicians on their side, and often one agreeable politician is enough to push the project through. But you can’t “partner” with politicians or planning boards—it’s a conflict of interest.
  •  Partner with the community  On the other hand, developers can partner with the residents of a community, and doing so is essential to your success.

1. Begin by regularly attending planning board meetings and listening for a few months to people’s issues and concerns. Planning or community boards are government organizations that are open to all; by speaking with board members and concerned individuals, you can identify the “players” as well as the most active, influential community groups.

 As you get involved with the residents, keep their point of view in mind. You need to identify:
  • Their particular community needs. For example, the mostly-Hispanic Melrose neighborhood required housing big enough for the typical multi-generational family
  • Their long-term and short-term goals
  • Their leaders, elected and unofficial
  • (churches, schools, informal groups, etc.)
  • Their values and overall mission
  • Their specific issues and concerns
  • The neighborhood and community power structure
  • Coalitions within the community that could affect your project
  • Other relevant issues

2. Introduce yourself to board members and get to know them. Equally important, have someone from your organization do volunteer work in the neighborhood. Both are ideal ways to learn about and meet the important people in the community. When you have an idea for a project that suits community needs, you’ll know exactly whom to contact.

3. Initiate meetings with interested members on a regular basis. A good place to start discussion is to exchange ideas about past development in the community:
  •  Which projects worked?
  •  Which ones didn’t?
  •  Why or why not?
  •  How can the same mistakes and problems be avoided next time?

4. At the same time, developers can and must educate the group on the business side of development. Working together, you can design a project that meets the communities’ needs, disrupts it as little as possible, and satisfies legal restrictions and funding requirements.

This involves a lot of groundwork, plus time, the ability to listen, and the willingness to take a genuine interest in the residents. But the alternative is fighting with angry community leaders, and wasting a great deal of time and money.

On the up side, your ROI is priceless. With community support in place…
  • You automatically avoid most delays and stops to the project
  • You get easier access to government subsidies, for various levels of housing, to finance your project
  •  It’s easier to work with other community groups who control the sale of the land, and have influence over other site issues
  • Cooperation of community groups can often save months or years in the lengthy political process to get plans approved
  • The community group itself acts as a highly credible sales force, decreasing the need for other marketing.

In short, we found that direct community involvement - volunteering and contributing in some meaningful way, especially to non-profit groups – is a solid investment. Give a little and ye shall receive a lot, in terms of cooperation, profits, and ongoing work.

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