People love placemaking but distrust the process: Let’s break it down!
PEOPLE LOVE PLACEMAKING BUT DISTRUST THE PROCESS

Ever walked out of a community meeting for a new real estate development project and felt like neither the developer or the residents heard each other? The developer didn’t seem to understand the nuance of the neighborhood with all its strengths, challenges, and character (especially true in Boston where many neighborhoods have a deeply historic and layered past). Then on the other side, the community at large is left to wonder why certain trade offs are being made (i.e. taller building height to accommodate a public green space on the property). Throw in additional stakeholders: labor unions, advocacy groups for specific issues, and future potential tenants—spanning from nonprofit civic/cultural organizations to retail, commercial, office, lab/R&D, and residential tenants. One can guess that this leads to tangled layers of priorities, desires, and expectations. 

On top of this layer cake, sprinkle the feelings of distrust and distaste that the general public often harbors toward for-profit developers. Many feel as though developers are to blame for a laundry list of complex, interconnected, and very real urban planning issues—plus other (read: NIMBY) concerns. 

The fact that for-profit developers make some amount of financial gain (like any other viable industry) from building their proposed projects is often perceived as adding insult to injury. A 2018 study surveying 1,300 residents of Los Angeles County found that “opposition to new development increases by 20 percentage points when respondents see the argument that a developer is likely to earn a large profit from the building. The magnitude is double the increase in opposition associated with concerns about traffic congestion.” This raises the question of whether residents’ blanket dislike for developers themselves is masquerading as the more logical and socially acceptable concern over traffic congestion (perhaps the loudest concern voiced by Bostonians).

Graphs depicting the findings of a Los Angeles County 2018 survey

This antagonistic relationship between resident and developer is understandable, but not necessarily helpful when working toward solutions to urban-scale problems. Like it or not, the City of Boston currently relies in part on private developers to share the financial burden of infrastructure and institution upkeep—making them perhaps the most subtly present yet powerful player within the BPDA’s Article 80 entitlement process. How many times have we seen a project pledge to enhance or even create a new T stop or vow to improve a dangerous intersection by committing to funding a tree-separated bike lane? The list of public improvements tied to a development, yet extending far beyond the project’s property line, go on and on.  

At the end of the day, the City of Boston is economically motivated and wants to be developed. The best type of developer wants to build something that has shared value, maximizes function, and makes money (assuming that these three goals do not have to be mutually exclusive). How can the City best utilize developers to provide the Boston community with sustainable, equitable growth while clearly communicating those shared values and necessary trade offs?

Venn diagram showing how Isenberg Projects translates between diverse stakeholder interests

Getting it right is hard, but incredibly important to create places local residents will value and use. IP’s jam is testing different approaches to see what sticks—after many years of learning by doing, we’ve come to a few solutions that have been helpful when chipping away at what we see as the main challenge to the process of placemaking through real estate development.

CHALLENGE // EXCLUSIVE & COMPLEX MECHANISMS

The real estate industry is confusing, exclusive, and white male dominated. It has a lot of jargon, and—for better or for worse—is constantly evolving. While transparency has improved, navigating the BPDA Article 80 entitlement process can be incredibly difficult for all stakeholders involved: everyone from the average citizen, to the development team itself, to the local nonprofit wanting to ride the wave of investment. After all, the BPDA made a 30 page how-to guide telling people how it should be navigated. 

The BPDA process alone just doesn’t cut it, though Zoom has made it arguably easier for residents with internet access to participate. Still, the community engagement process remains daunting. Residents are expected to speak up in front of a large audience or send a public comment, risking going head to head with neighbors who may have opposing viewpoints. In addition to being unappealing, a Boston area study has indicated that public meetings are often unrepresentative; the constituents that speak loudest at these meetings skew toward older, home owning males with wealth—even when neighborhood demographics do not. Overall, process tends to be  opaque in the sense that there is no “equation” to why certain developments seem to skate through the entitlement process, while others are held up in seemingly endless rounds of going back to the drawing board.

Infographic showing data from a 2018 Boston University study
SOLUTION // STRAIGHTFORWARD, TRANSPARENT TOUCHPOINTS

Quality engagement increases the likelihood of creating informed places that will be successful—in terms of a significant resource contribution to a neighborhood, overall financial viability, and key performance indicators such as foot traffic. 

Pie charts depicting London-based property giant Grovesnor’s 2019 survey

See Grosvenor’s website for more information.

The general distrust of the placemaking and development process feels insurmountable, but it’s not. This isn’t to say the sentiment will be reversed without a lot of steps to get there. IP firmly believes the path forward to mutual understanding is through usability and transparency of touchpoints, which will slowly rebuild trust. So, what are those steps on that path? 

 

STEP 1: Radical transparency on all fronts.

For the City of Boston, this could look like electeds more clearly attributing where and how developers deliver tangible urban- and community- scale benefits to the City, ranging from infrastructure development, to affordable housing stock, to increased climate resiliency, and beyond. What does all of this actually cost to the developer, and inversely, what does it save in terms of the City budget?

For citizens and community groups, this might mean having clarity around which kinds of proposal comments can actually alter a project. For better or for worse, the truth is that concerns about losing the afternoon sun on your porch don’t weigh heavily on influencing a project’s path to approval. If the goal of commenting on a project is to shape and improve the project plan, the most effective way to do that is to provide constructive and localized feedback that the developer and City electeds can work into the proposal. This feedback might touch on some or all of the following urban-scale issues: 

          • A historic neighborhood’s loss of character (AKA fear of turning into Anywhere, USA)
          • “Out of towner” big corporations moving into spaces that used to be occupied by local small businesses 
          • Reduced connectivity between newly built spaces and older pre-existing spaces in the neighborhood 
          • Lack of affordable housing (and housing in general), rising rent prices, and subsequent displacement of low income residents
          • Dis-integration due to increased wealth gap and segregation (both racial and financial)
          • Insignificant attention to universal design that is accessible to people with disabilities 
          • Loss of hyperlocal long-standing knowledge due to new residents moving in en masse, combined with perceived arrogance of newcomers (AKA new vs old guard)
          • Inability of aging infrastructure, ranging from roads to public transportation to sidewalks, to handle an influx of new users
          • “Canyoning” or reduced sunlight due to taller buildings 
          • Reduced publicly accessible community meeting spaces, recreational spaces, ocean/river access, open green spaces, and tree cover 
          • Low climate change readiness/resiliency and increased pollution
A visualization of urban scale issues that can influence the planning process and development.

For the developer, clarity means addressing financials—and the accompanying negative perceptions—head on. An approachable explanation of cross-subsidization that touches on a building design’s tradeoffs, impacts, and financials can help (i.e. to build a public plaza there needs to be five more stories to make the project financially viable long term). Proactively detailing risks and returns along with expected social and environmental benefits enables the public to envision the development team as an invested stakeholder rather than a one-dimensional imposing outsider. Many community members take the “I’ll believe it when I see it” stance, because there have been countless times they’ve experienced developers over-promising a project’s benefits. One of the ways IP fits into this equation is by working alongside development teams to determine sustainable and feasible financial commitments to community benefits that directly tie into actualizing the property’s mission. We do this work early on, BEFORE any of these commitments are voiced to the public, to ensure the pitch matches the end deliverable. 

STEP 2: Streamline the actual mechanisms of stakeholder communication.

The inherent complexities of real estate development and urban planning are enough to deal with on their own. The mechanisms of stakeholder communication during the development process should not add to this complexity. IP often assumes the role of translator and liaison between entities (developer, City, residents, local nonprofits and neighborhood groups), who all speak different “languages,” to drive properties to be the best contribution to the neighborhood they can be. 

We do this by guiding direct outreach to both community members and potential programming partners. We include partners in this initial outreach to help ensure that any collaborations with local organizations are designed to be as supportive as possible, and don’t rely on any assumptions about their capabilities. We conduct one-on-one interviews about the project with potential partners and neighborhood abutters, as well as collect broader outreach through approachable online surveys with questions that prompt nuanced feedback (i.e. “In a publicly accessible outdoor space, what matters most to you?”). IP asks for demographic information from community survey respondents to ensure that it is representative of the wider neighborhood, and parses through information-rich “long answer” responses to distill high level, actionable project recommendations that actively incorporate community feedback. These recommendations then go directly to the development team so that they are able to assemble an informed community benefit package. At the end of the survey, we provide an opportunity to sign up for the project’s mailing list to stay up to date with project updates and/or join informal focus groups (to accommodate residents not chosen for the formalized IAG but who may still want to engage with the project on a more frequent basis).  

The responses to these questions serve as the guiding light for the actual initiatives that the development’s projected operational budget and other community-related budgets will be allocated toward. IP helps craft phased activation plans and campaigns that aim to maximize the impact of these dollars by addressing the neighborhood’s top priorities. 

Speech bubbles with examples of what the public might say in a survey response to guide programming recommendations and placemaking efforts.

Example of survey responses to guide programming recommendations

STEP 3: Make getting the facts about the proposal as easy as possible. 

A developer’s trained instinct—partially reinforced by the public’s antagonism—may be to “keep cards close” about a project by staying relatively quiet in the press for as long as possible during the entitlement process. They feel that the more people that know about the project, the more opposition they will face. Not only is this instinct unrealistic (the internet exists), it feeds into the negative public perception that developers are hiding their agenda. 

When Marty Walsh took on the title of mayor, he promptly had the Boston Redevelopment Authority externally audited and overhauled to become less secretive, more standardized, and transparent. (The agency name itself was also thrown out, becoming the Boston Planning & Development Agency in the hopes that “you’ll trust them now”.) Today, the BPDA’s website provides a wealth of information at everyone’s fingertips—sometimes to the point where it can be overwhelming to sort through documents available. For residents who missed the live meeting, they are sent on an investigative hunt to be able to piece together a cohesive thread about the development’s progress: clicking into every meeting along the BPDA’s interactive timeline to download the presentation assets, scrolling through DPIRs or comment period roundups that are hundreds of pages long…how many average residents have time to piece together this scattered puzzle? If a resident can’t easily tap into the “big picture” reasoning behind a proposed development’s trade offs—or its community benefit package—how can developers expect to convert neighborhood abutters and the wider Boston community into a team of supporters for the project? 

One very tangible way IP approaches the problem of scattered information is through our “unbranded brand” property website. Instead of relying on the BPDA’s “search and you shall find” model, we work with development teams to create a public-facing website that is specific to the project. We call it the “unbranded brand” because it usually exists before the property has an official name or visual identity: the brand before the brand.

This website serves as a centralized digital portal where residents can go to find consolidated, approachable information about the proposal or get in touch with the development team. 

See full website for 1234-1240 Soliders Field Road

Beyond aggregating the facts of the proposal, this website keeps the feedback loop open: providing a home for surveys, project updates, existing press, social media channels, and other supplemental project pieces. This allows the development team to re-engage community members at key project milestones (i.e. collecting feedback on the first public activation during pre-construction). Additionally, this digital portal has the ability to highlight other happenings in the local district—everything from recurring pick-up soccer to neighborhood cleanups to local art shows. At IP we believe that a rising tide floats all boats, and we try our best to embody that ideology in all aspects of our work as connective glue between community and developer.  

THE PATH FORWARD

Magic happens when community members are an integral part of the changes happening around them. Being able to sort through the layer cake of stakeholder interests to uncover a proposal that brings the most shared value—to a neighborhood community, the City at large, and the various teams involved in building—takes dedication, time, and thoughtful research. But in IP’s opinion, this shouldn’t be seen as “extra” work. It is the work that needs to be done to reach historically marginalized populations and generate productive vocal engagement from local residents. 

Once we understand which mechanisms in the development process perpetuate disconnects between stakeholders, we can begin to address the communication breakdowns in a constructive way. To move forward from the mechanisms that we see negatively impacting the process, here are a few solutions that have been helpful across IP’s work: increasing clarity on all fronts, streamlining the actual mechanisms of stakeholder communication, and making the facts of a proposal easy to find. When these steps are taken collectively, IP believes that positive effects will be seen not only in stakeholder communication, but also in the quality and inclusivity of the city’s built environment. 

 

MARISSA VOLK
Community Impact Manager