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  THE TOWN PAPER
VOL. 4, NO. 2 -- SPRING 2002
 

Holding Patterns -- Some TNDs Struggle To Get off the Ground

By Jason Miller

Some TNDs don't seem to run into meaningful roadblocks. Sure, there are bumps in the road that delay the approvals process, but some, like Prospect in Longmont, Colo., have a developer who loses a little sleep, has a good heart-to-heart with the city council, and discovers a short route through the bureaucratic red tape to make the vision come true. In other words, the TND gets built before the developer moves into the bifocal stage of his life.

Others, like Greenfield Village in Lynden, Wash., get built because the developer didn't push hard enough for the variances needed to get it done right, resulting in a good effort that could have been great.

So what happens when push comes to shove -- and neither party gives in? Well, not much, actually. Nowadays, a multiple-year struggle is not uncommon.

A Slogan and Strong Lungs

Sometimes, the will of a few can overcome the desire of many. Consider Miles Point, the 90-acre infill project in St. Michaels, Md., guided by developer George Valanos. With willing town commissioners and a DPZ design that mirrored the vernacular, the plan seemed to have a bright future. But in this town of 1,300 citizens, all it took was a vocal minority to gum up the works. Calling themselves "Save Our St. Michaels," the NIMBYs rose up, adopted a slogan of "Just Say No," and stalled the project for four years -- and counting. Their intent was to delay development, a strategy that has cost the town hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees and may now deliver to them a development pattern they'll like even less than Valanos' plan.

Right now, the case is in court, awaiting a ruling on development rights, i.e., what may be built. There is a possibility that the court will rule for a conventional PUD, with separated uses and no alleys -- the exact opposite of the existing St. Michaels fabric.

At this rate, "we could be waiting six months or a couple more years for concept approval," says Valanos.

Persistence and Compromise

A similar story is playing out in Waterloo, Ill., where for more than four years, developer Otto Faulbaum has been navigating an obstacle course of intent and reality. Prairie Village, a 94-acre greenfield TND, has been swamped beneath a groundswell of local fear since its inception.

"Two design charrettes were conducted in Waterloo City Hall," says Faulbaum, "so we thought we had significant involvement of all the local officials. We brought in neighbors and other people who we thought would be interested in what was going on.

"Probably only four or five people objected to the original plan, but they made themselves seem like an army. They worked the phones, got their friends to call their aldermen and made it look like a wall was in front of me."

A local newspaper column allowed people to call in and leave anonymous rants that were treated as gospel. "People are skeptical," says Faulbaum. "They think bigger is better. They haven't seen anything built in recent years that would make them think that a plan such as this would be successful."

City officials were nervous, too. They balked at the alleys and street trees that the plan contained. They weren't big fans of the density levels, mixed-use, granny flats, attached housing, rowhouses and 26-foot-wide streets, either. In the end, these elements fell by the wayside as Faulbaum tried to gain approval for the plan. All of the lots are zoned as R3, but Faulbaum managed to retain the street trees, alleys and pedestrian-friendly street lights by setting them up as property owned by the homeowners' association. To make the arrangement more palatable for the city, it was made a third-party beneficiary to any liens that might be made on any property.

The Prairie Village preliminary plat was approved on January 21, 2002. Faulbaum hopes to begin the first phase of 40 lots in June.

Seesaw Battle

Angelo Alberto, principal with Alberto and Associates Architecture, Town Planning and Land Preservation, spent four years of "constant back and forth" with county approval agencies, trying to gain approval for Whitehall, in New Castle County, Delaware.

Whitehall's 2,047-acre site is owned by the Welfare Foundation, which saw the next wave of development rapidly approaching from Wilmington and wanted the greenfield site to become a model for future development. Alberto and Associates proposed three 300-acre villages, with 1,100 contiguous acres permanently preserved (larger than Central Park). Attached to one of the villages was a 200-acre office employment site, which was lauded locally as a good example of connecting development with employment centers.

State and county agencies both pointed to the project as a model, but incredibly, approvals were not forthcoming. The county declined the plan because it was "too large" and had "too much retail" (860,000 square feet divided among the three villages).

At press time, the village component of Whitehall is on hold. "We're pursuing the employment component," says Alberto. "Once that is in place, hopefully, we can revisit the village piece."

Underground "River"

Sometimes it's what you can't see that matters. For Social Circle Jubilee, a 79-acre, greenfield TND in Social Circle, Ga., founder Paul Muldawer did everything right. He had a market study by ZVA under his belt and a strong master plan calling for 330 single-family homes, 30 townhouses, 200 multi-family homes, a bed and breakfast, a church, a shopping village, 20,000 square feet of office space, and 11 Savannah-style squares. It was the perfect fit for the town of Social Circle, which Muldawer calls "a very lovely town - no strips, no sprawl."

But the mayor of Social Circle - a former environmental engineer - had concerns over the sewer infrastructure. While the capacity was there, the distribution was decaying; the pipes were falling apart and hadn't been properly installed at the outset. So, says Muldawer, "We took a year to engineer and redesign a new system."

Muldawer hopes to start digging for the new sewer system and infrastructure this spring.

1,300 Reasons to Quit

What do you do when 1,300 separate stakeholders each own a piece of the 200-acre parcel you want to develop - and they've all left for parts unknown?

"You find them," says Erick Valle, whose firm, Correa Valle Valle (CVV) of Miami, developed the master plan for Naranja Lakes in Dade County, Fla., in collaboration with DPZ. The infill site had been occupied by 1,500 units until Hurricane Andrew swept through and wiped the slate clean. The people who had lived there collected their insurance checks and simply walked away; none of them rebuilt. The community got the local court to assign a lawyer to find them all so they could each sign a document that would let the city sell the parcel as a single piece.

"What a monster," says Valle. "They were all over the country."

The lawyer began the search but went into bankruptcy and couldn't continue. Because of the bankruptcy, however, other rules came into play that permitted the court to allow the land to be sold. Once the remaining landowners are found, they will be allowed their percentage of the final sale price. The land goes up for sale in March 2002, and all three of the front-running developers have committed verbally to hiring CVV to detail out the plan and serve as the de facto town architect.

And it only took five years.

Why Even Try?

The stress of struggle is enough to make a developer buy antacid in bulk, but the rewards are worth it, says Otto Faulbaum, Prairie Village's evangelist. "It's such an intelligent concept that it's worth sleepless nights," he says.

George Valanos (Miles Point) agrees. "You start out doing it because you want to make money. But if it gets tough, you keep doing it because it's become personal and, well, you've already started the dance.

"Is it the best return on investment? Probably not. But the end result is worth it."

Light at the End

Fortunately, these stories are not all "gloom and doom." While the struggle continues nationally - some TNDs have been mired for more than 12 years - many projects are starting to see resolution.

Whitehall is moving ahead with one component of its overall plan. Naranja Lakes will likely wait another six months after the sale of its parcel before ground is broken, but all indications point toward this project eventually moving forward. Social Circle Jubilee should break ground this spring. Prairie Village got its preliminary plat approved on Martin Luther King Day (poetic, isn't it?).

Try This at Home

The cycle of delay will repeat itself ad nauseum if we don't get the word out, says George Valanos. "We should document the disappointments," he says. "It will make it easier the next time around."

But that's easier said than done, says Otto Faulbaum. When you're in the middle of a development tussle, the last thing you need is bad press, even if it's intended to help others in similar situations. "People in this position don't want to talk to anyone resembling the media because they're afraid that anything published could be used as ammunition against them."

Perhaps "before" and "after" documentation will work, Valanos suggests, something that can be shown to new clients -- examples of townsfolk who tried to put the brakes on development instead of steering it, and now regret their decision.

Education is critical, says Valanos. "Create a favorable political environment. Start at the state level. Use the local organizations effectively. Use national organizations to connect, to help you educate, to support the cause."