Three Ways Guaranteed to Get Your Planning Project Approved

If you can't sell your idea with one of these tactics, maybe you should just give it up

By Matt Carmichael on May 13, 2015 at 7:04 am CDT
Alec Baldwin explaining the ABCs of sales in Glengarry Glen Ross

A good idea is never good enough. You have to sell that idea. I'm not talking sell like Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glenn Ross' famous "ABC: A: Always, B: Be, C: CLOSING" speech. Most development projects, public and private, need public buy-in at some stage of the process. If it's a good project, you'd think it would be easy to get. Yet, there are always those who want to stand in the way, and often they yell the loudest at the public hearings.

What do you do with NIMBYs? You know, the people who want development and progress just “Not in My Backyard.” Sometimes they’re called CAVErs for “Citizens Against Virtually Everything.” At the recent 23rd Congress of the New Urbanism, three very different schools of thought were presented for dealing with them. As a side note, that’s one of the fun things about the Congress: not everyone is on the same page. It’s not uncommon for different speakers – even leaders of the movement – to have very different ideas about the theory or practice of New Urbanism. That holds true for getting public support, too.

The good-cop approach comes from Andres Duany, one of the six people generally credited with starting the New Urbanism movement. As discussed in last week’s post about the 23rd Congress of the New Urbanism, Duany declared that New Urbanism isn’t for everyone. By that he meant that it is, by its nature, full of complexity and the inner-workings of many different disciplines coexisting. It’s not for people looking for simple solutions or quick answers. That might sound off-putting, and I think he realized that. He was also quick to point out that when confronted with someone, or a room full of people at a public comment event, who don’t get it, you have to realize their perspective matters, too.

“You can’t tell people that they’re wrong,” he says. “You never have to say ‘no.’ You just have to say ‘where.’”

In our communities, there is a place for everyone and everything, he says. People who want dark skies at night can coexist with people who want safely-lit night life. Cities need the full range of options. Duany cites “visual preference” studies by the design firm A. Nelessen Associates. In the studies, people are presented with a series of options and asked where they would prefer to live. New Urbanists would argue that there are better and worse choices presented. “The pure crap is beloved,” Duany says.

His more general point is that people will choose the bad options, and in the end that’s OK. Planners just need to be sure that there are limits to how many resources, say McMansion’s on sizable lots with four-car garages, are allowed to consume in a region, especially as demand for that kind of living seems to be waning. Then its paramount to ensure that if it’s allowable to build the “bad” that it’s also legal to build the good. Many New Urbanist design principles – limited set-backs from the street, parking in the rear, mixed-use real development - are still against zoning codes in many places. If you can have one, you should be able to have the other – and in the right proportions.

Developer Christopher Leinberger got an amused reception when he suggested a different approach. He feels we are at a point where there isn’t reason to keep up the discussion. Instead, he says, we need to just start mocking the NIMBYs. New Urbanists and others know their ideas are short-sighted at best and dangerously backwards at worst. Why pacify? Why not just call them out for being the selfish, self-serving dinosaurs they are? Further, if mocking fails, move on quickly to shaming. In his opinion, the case for walkable urban places has been made in terms of demand, in terms of the economy and in terms of sustainability. There’s no reason to keep building sprawl, and by extension, no reason to keep listening to arguments from those who want to.

But perhaps the most compelling approach came from Phil Puckett of the commercial real estate firm CBRE. He spoke about the development of Dallas’ downtown Klyde Warren park. Sure, he talked about what a great green space it is and how bridging the highway, as it does, has helped connect different parts of the city both literally and figuratively. He talked about all of the programming that it presents and how much of a draw that is for area residents of all ages and incomes. He showed a pretty video with aerial and ground-level footage demonstrating the park’s impact on the community. But then he stopped and talked about the eye-popping economic impact the park has had in just a couple of years. He pulled up slide after slide talking about the 40 to 60 percent rent increases in nearby buildings and the impact of that on the tax base. He talked about how stalled residential development in surrounding areas was now going full-throttle because of the park. He talked about $1 billion in new real estate development since 2012.

Of course the best approach might be some combination of the above. Start with Puckett’s numerical, data-driven approach. If that somehow fails to get everyone on board, try compromise and Duany’s everything-in-its-place ideal. That should really get you there with most audiences. But I have to say if those two tactics fail, maybe it is time to start turning the screws a little more and letting the NIMBYs know that they aren’t the only ones with backyards and maybe they’re starting to be out-numbered.

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