How to encourage collaborative development, organically

Oversimplifying developer motivations does more harm than good.
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Oversimplifying developer motivations does more harm than good.

Neighborhood development is fascinating work. The people who choose to spend their lives making places for people can be motivated by many factors beyond simple financial advancement. Yet planning policy provides only numerical parameters for good behavior, creating a world where a developer’s first task is not to visit a site’s neighbors, but to open an Excel spreadsheet; where an architect begins not with a drawing pen, but with a computer model of zoning envelopes.

The language of our regulatory framework suggests that real estate development is for financial wonks and Microsoft Excel masochists, reflecting a civic dialogue over developer motivations that leaves one important factor out — how individual developers respond, as social creatures, to their neighborhoods and to each other.

The Pike/Pine Conservation Overlay District is an example of how policy within the computational paradigm strives to influence developer behavior. Established in 2009, the district incorporates zoning provisions to encourage the retention of “character structures” — pre-1940s buildings that embody the neighborhood’s Auto Row history. Under a specific set of conditions, developers who preserve ground floor facades are rewarded with an extra floor of buildable height, and the associated monetary value of a larger building.

Constructing a policy calculus that encourages a continuous fabric of historical character is difficult. The zoning incentives have already been re-calibrated once in response to a project that uncovered a flaw in the original code, but ensuring historical continuity using financial incentives alone is still not guaranteed. As behavioral economists like to point out, “incentivizing” (a fairly recent coinage of the 1960s) does not account for the full spectrum of human motivations.

In one study, based in Haifa, Israel, a child care center attempted to discourage parents from arriving late to pick up their children by imposing a fine. Unexpectedly, after instituting the new policy, late pickups in fact increased. Whereas parents were formerly prompted by guilt to arrive on time, they were now able to pay a fee for the inconvenience they imposed.

In another example, the AARP asked some lawyers to offer their services at a reduced rate of $30 an hour to needy retirees. The lawyers were not interested. In an inspired move, the AARP then asked the lawyers to volunteer their services instead. The lawyers overwhelmingly said yes.

Money does not always elicit human responses along a predictable linear model. Professionals can also be motivated by ethics, social norms, sense of purpose, pursuit of new challenges, personal branding and other drivers beyond the spreadsheet. Local developers, in particular, are often drawn to their work not only for the income stream, but for the adrenaline rush of highly demanding civic work.

In addition to the experimental preservation zoning overlay, Pike/Pine is home to the Pike/Pine Urban Neighborhood Council (PPUNC), an open membership of preservationists, developers, and residents that meets monthly in the Agnes Underground. At one large meeting last August to discuss proposed adjustments to the preservation incentive, developers laid out and challenged each other’s financial feasibility assumptions. The prevailing tenor of the room was clear: Developers who build insensitively in Pike/Pine would damage the neighborhood fabric that others were working hard to steward.

In the culture of PPUNC, creative historic preservation is a collective ethos. Enforced by the sensibilities of local neighborhood-based developers such as Mike Malone, Liz Dunn and others, tthis ethos has influenced out-of-town developers to build more sensitively here. Kirkland-based developers changed their minds about razing the original Bauhaus café, while the Wolff Company, a real estate investment trust headquartered in Arizona and Avalon Bay, made sure to consult PPUNC during the design of the Sunset Electric, Pike Motorworks and Phil Smart projects.

The result, which avoids the tragedy of the commons, is a win-win: Developers influence each other to build more thoughtful and relevant projects and, in return, can trust that the rapidly changing neighborhood will retain the character they have invested in.

Creative reuse of character buildings here is not only a financial calculation. It is a social mandate.

In evolutionary psychology, collaboration and selfishness are not judged by moral standards. We don’t say that spiders are greedy and should behave more like honey bees. Instead, we contemplate the different environmental circumstances that produced their behavior patterns.

Likewise, rather than simply lamenting the pension funds that treat our neighborhoods as investment vehicles, Seattle can create an environment that cultivates more socially motivated developers. 

How can we build a civic framework that selects for developers who enter the field for the creative and civic challenge — not just for the financial motivation?

Here are some considerations for neighborhood groups working to “get density right”:

  1. Cultivate small-scale local developers as allies.

When a civic-minded developer makes an investment in your community, it is personal. They are more motivated to be sensitive to the neighborhood, for their own name is attached to the project, and Seattle is often their home. A smart local developer will recognize the win-win potential of collaborating with the community to steward neighborhood character. These developers, in turn, are more likely to encourage other developers to cooperate in productive, rather than antagonistic, exchanges.

  1. Prioritize one premium that matters most for your neighborhood.

Neighborhood character need not be an urban design theme; it can also be demographic or ecological in nature. Unfortunately, most neighborhood plans are unwieldy shopping lists, calling for open space, affordability, local businesses and human-scale detailing. Any one of these visions would make a neighborhood richer over the long term — potentially increasing the value of a developer's investment despite individual cost.

It is important, though, to recognize that developers often outbid others in order to purchase a piece of land, and they must now find a way to shave other costs to compensate. It is more realistic, given those financial constraints, to direct collective resources toward a single coherent theme. For instance, a family-friendly neighborhood with enclosed courtyards and available parking. Or an eco-conscious neighborhood with district energy, sustainable buildings, and a connected urban forest. Or a mixed-income neighborhood that provides affordable relocation opportunities to existing residents and businesses to minimize displacement.

When it comes to community benefit, pick one goal that describes the essence of your neighborhood — Why do people move there? — and rally around it with focus. If you need to, break a large neighborhood into smaller zones, but focus on a single priority in any given zone. The resulting ecosystem of new buildings will be more coherent and meaningful.

Invite some trusted developers to your planning meeting. Just as you wouldn’t plan a building without an architect’s knowledge of structural feasibility, don’t plan your neighborhood without a developer’s understanding of investment parameters.

  1. Trust.

Many large development firms seek solely to maximize returns, and their boots-on-the-ground developers are not responsible for corporate decisions. Getting these larger developers to build projects that are sensitive to neighborhood stewardship can require more hard-nosed negotiation.

However, it would be a strategic mistake to use that same heavy-handed approach on developers who take civic pride in their work. To these potential developer allies, facing a long list of public critique can be a demoralizing, Sisyphean experience, discouraging them from voluntary community engagement.

When working with a trustworthy developer, the community can invite trust in return by developing skills in facilitating and moderating its own feedback. If you can establish a safe space for a strong cross-section of your community to voice modest opinions rather than surrendering the lion's share of community input to the most vocal among you, developers will be more comfortable approaching the neighborhood earlier and more often.

Pick your battles, keeping in mind that the development team needs to feel ownership and pride over the final result. Pull them only in as many directions as will keep them inspired, not tired.

Regulatory policy provides safe predictability, and these days it is common to seek regulatory fixes for developer behavior. But policy is often a bumbling tool that comes with a cost: In exchange for each line of compliance, we surrender opportunities for creativity and responsiveness.

In a healthy ecosystem, growth and change are engines of inspiration, not infighting and fatigue. Our civic immune system is sounding a clear alarm. To do right by Seattle’s future, let’s discuss how to strengthen our city from the inside.

If you go: Catch Boting, Crosscut Managing Editor Berit Anderson and friends at the Seattle Design Festival's "City in Motion" community conversation this Saturday. The conversation will center around questions like, how can the city become a place where people of all ages and incomes can affordably live, work, travel and thrive? What are the relationships between design, density, community and mobility? What are the factors that make a great, affordable, livable city and how can we achieve them equitably? What are the relationships between well-being/happiness/work/play and planning/urban design/architecture/mobility?


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