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McNellis: Decked by City Hall?

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McNellis Partners, Palo Alto

Making it in Real Estate (Part Ten): Decked by City Hall?

By John McNellis

“If you can’t eat their food, drink their booze, screw their women, take their money and then vote against them you’ve got no business being up here.”

McNellis Partners Palo Alto
McNellis

The late Jesse Unruh’s admonishment to his brethren in the California Assembly is well worth remembering by anyone seeking property entitlements. You may march into city hall thinking you have the votes based on your conversations with council members, but their private promises can evaporate the moment the public hearing turns contentious. It’s not that politicians are necessarily duplicitous, it’s that they consider themselves protectors of the public good while deeming you—no matter your honesty—hopelessly self-interested. Owning this lofty moral high ground, politicians can justify behavior toward developers that would raise eyebrows in Hell.

And, let’s face it, the angry neighbors are often right: Your city doesn’t need another traffic-clogging monument to stucco. But even if your project would be the best thing to hit town since fluoridated water, it is still easy to lose. The trick is to help the politicians help you. Give them the ammunition—or more accurately, the cover—they need to vote for you.

Here are a few suggestions:

First, figure out who your opposition is and why they care. Meet with them. Compromise—reduce the project a little or throw in another public benefit—and then meet with them again. Repeat this procedure until you can look the planning director in the eye and tell him you’re tapped out. He will of course know you’re not, but will nevertheless appreciate your efforts.

Second, figure out who runs the town. Cities where you want to develop tend to require three levels of approval—an architectural review committee, a planning commission and city council. Manned as they are by prima donna design professionals, architectural review committees are often wildly annoying, but seldom have real power. It does happen on occasion, however, that the second tier—the planning commission—is the true decision-maker with a timid council reluctant to overrule it on appeal. More often, the city council controls major projects and it is there your ultimate efforts must be directed. There are, however, cities where the mayor or even the city manager has inordinate influence over the process and must be individually persuaded of your project’s civic value.

Meet with the decision-makers at the outset, but advise them that you are going to honor the approval process; that before you even file your application, you will meet with the neighborhood and the planning department to solicit suggestions and opinions. And do exactly that. Only then, after your first several meetings, do you formally file your development application.

If you are young, personable and not obviously wealthy, handle your city meetings yourself. If you are not, hire a woman—an entitlements professional—to represent you; women are better listeners than men (this process requires a world of listening) and are both less threatening and less irritating to a riled public. Definitely have someone else represent you if you see nothing amiss in the following anecdote: While campaigning in West Virginia, Jay Rockefeller once grandly proclaimed to a bar jam-packed with miners, “A beer for the house and a Courvoisier for me.”

Try to meet individually with each of the board members—architectural, planning and city council—before their public hearings. This is time-consuming and sometimes painful, but it is the only way for any challenging project to be fully understood. If any representative refuses to meet with you—they often do—then write them a letter outlining why your project should be approved. And, remember, as part of the public record, your letter will be subject to scrutiny by your opposition; keep it short, straight-forward and factual.

Have a neighborhood outreach meeting before every public hearing, put your project in its best light and hope like hell you can garner a few supporters. Getting a controversial project approved requires at least some disinterested public support; that is, backing from individuals who will gain nothing from its construction. The jaded city council will discount—if not dismiss—support from the construction unions, your next-door neighbor whose property value will double and the non-profits you will enrich as part of your project’s public benefits. You need genuine support. Fortunately, even the greenest council member knows support is much harder to muster than opposition. This is why a handful of independent supporters can offset a room full of opponents. And if you do manage to recruit well-intentioned neighbors to speak on your behalf, remember them afterwards with a handwritten thank-you note or better yet chocolates or flowers. (What would you want in return for spending a whole evening at a public hearing on behalf of a stranger?)

Leave your Rolex, Porsche and, whenever possible, your lawyer at home when attending project meetings. Bringing a lawyer is a lot like hissing “Don’t you know who I am?” to a hostess when she tells you there’s a forty-five minute wait for a table. It shows you’ve already lost.

Never take a cell phone call—or check email or game scores—during any meeting, no matter how mind-numbingly protracted it becomes. There may come a point during the council meeting when the city clerk announces the next five neighborhood speakers in advance. And, since you’ve already had ten public meetings, you know that each of them would rather see you crucified than your project approved. Even so, you must sit there and politely listen to their concerns. When you can no longer follow this last rule, it’s time to hang up your spurs. (I had to.)

Finally, tell the truth and keep your word. You might as well admit your project’s drawbacks or civic costs because if it’s controversial enough, it will all come out anyway. And everyone remembers the promises you make in a public hearing; keep them.

Good luck.

John E. McNellis is a Principal at McNellis Partners in Palo Alto, Calif.