The Good is the Bad and the Ugly
Some development projects are bound to face local opposition. Think power plants, safe injection sites and landfills. For these, the path to approval is guaranteed to be long and ugly. Ideally, the same shouldn’t hold true for seemingly good projects. These are developments that will make a positive difference in the community, that promise to reinvigorate a deteriorating mall or bring new industries to crumbling neighbourhoods, that work hard to get green designations, create the right density and provide environmental mitigations.
In the real world, though, this means little, and the path to approval is lined equally with the graves of good projects and bad. The reason good and bad projects suffer the same fate is simple: developers and the community rarely see eye-to-eye about the merits of a project.
To a developer, good projects are win-wins. They can be environmentally sensitive and bring much-needed jobs or rehabilitate abandoned buildings. They can feature architecture that enhances a community or bring in much-needed mixed-income housing. But neighbours don’t see development the same way. For them, any new development automatically means dirt, noise and disruption. Jobs mean traffic. Mixed-income housing means crime and drugs. Rehabilitation means destroying a place that has become part of the fabric of their lives, for better or worse. No matter how well-designed, thoughtful, or environmentally sensitive a project may be, it still represents change and the possibility that bad things, real or imagined, may come of it.
As a result, not even so-called good projects can assume a clear path to approval. Yes, being good is necessary for approval, but it does not necessarily mean approval. In fact, where good projects most often go wrong is in assuming that they are good in the first place. That neighbours will see the big picture. That interest groups have bigger fish to fry. And that the lure tax dollars will satisfy politicians.
On this assumption, complacency with stakeholders becomes the default setting for many developers. Assured the merits of their project are self-evident, they will often work strictly with the planning department and maybe the local councillor. They will assume everyone else is on board until they find out, to their surprise, many aren’t.
This is an approach you never see with, say, landfill developers. They assume from the get-go, rightly, that they are not wanted and work accordingly. They figure out who won’t want them and why. They develop talking points they think might address their concerns. And before they even submit the first plans to the city, they proactively go out and meet with them. They begin a dialogue that lasts throughout the approvals process and beyond.
Exactly who those people are will vary from project to project. But there are always the same core constituencies, whether you’re a landfill or an office tower: neighbours, activists, special interests and politicians. The success of your project relies on at least attempting to allay the concerns of each. For neighbours, good projects are usually those that have the least negative effect on their peace and quiet, and the most positive impact on their property values. For activists, it could mean having the smallest possible carbon footprint or the least effect on water quality or wetlands. Interest groups will want to know you are taking measures to preserve the fabric of the neighbourhood.
And then at the top of the approval pyramid are the politicians. Yes, they need to know the size of the investment, the number of jobs and the amount of tax revenue the project will generate. But for them a good project is one that has taken steps to become part of the neighbourhood. It has made efforts to actively address the concerns of the local neighbours, environmentalists and interest groups. And because of this, it is a project they can point to with pride at election time as something that they helped bring to the community. Ultimately, if a good project hasn’t done this, it isn’t a good project after all.
Kevin Powers is Managing Principal of Project Advocacy, a public affairs firm that helps project developers facing local and government opposition.