It’s not just a good idea for real estate developers to engage the surrounding community as part of their due diligence: It’s essential.
While on stage at the close of the InterFace Southeast Mixed-Use conference, some of the Southeast’s most prolific mixed-use developers and owners say community involvement can be the difference between success and failure.
“Nowadays, if you want a successful mixed-use project, you have to get in deep with the community and all the stakeholders — whether it’s adjacent landowners, homeowners associations, NPUs [neighborhood planning units] or local architecture committees,” said Jeff Garrison, development partner at S.J. Collins Enterprises, an Atlanta-based commercial real estate developer.
“We conducted 50 meetings for The Interlock project before we even submitted for zoning. It’s overboard, but that’s what makes it successful.”
The Interlock is an upcoming $450 million mixed-use development in Atlanta’s popular West Midtown district. S.J. Collins recently inked WeWork to lease three stories of its office tower, which will also have Georgia Tech as an anchor. Garrison says that the project’s 145-room Marriott Tribute Portfolio hotel was a direct result of feedback that his team heard from the community.
“We didn’t have a hotel in our original design,” said Garrison. “The feedback that we got was West Midtown needed a hotel and a place after hours to grab a Diet Coke and Advil. A lot of our uses started to take shape as we really heard what the community wanted. That way it’s partly theirs and they’ll buy in.”
Garrison was a speaker on the development panel at the InterFace event, which took place at the Westin Buckhead on Thursday, Aug. 22. The networking and information conference attracted more than 200 attendees from various disciplines in the mixed-use stratosphere.
Developing a rapport
Community feedback has become essential for even the most successful mixed-use developers. Jamestown LP, the developer behind Ponce City Market in Atlanta and Chelsea Market in Manhattan, recently purchased the struggling Shops of Buckhead in Atlanta’s Buckhead district. This summer and fall, Jamestown is conducting multiple town hall meetings to hear in a public forum what the community wants to see at the project.
Cheneé Joseph, executive director of Atlanta-based Historic District Development Corp. (HDDC), spoke on the development panel about how engaging with the public early and often helps the community come to understand what they want.
“Having a relationship helps them formulate what they actually want in the project,” said Joseph. “A lot of times they know what they don’t want, but they can’t communicate to us what they really want.”
Joseph said that her firm’s development philosophy goes beyond just highest and best use but is “hyper-sensitive” to what’s the best use for the history and culture of the immediate trade area. HDDC is currently redeveloping a historic project dubbed Herndon Plaza on Auburn Avenue that used to be the home of Atlanta Life Insurance Co.
“It was built by one of the first African-American millionaires,” said Joseph. “In coming up with what makes sense from a mixed-use standpoint, we wouldn’t put up a Starbucks or pawn shop. It’s about what is going to the highlight the aesthetics of the building, but also provides the culture and profitability at the same time.”
Joseph said that before it even gets to the neighborhood phase, HDDC will typically meet with local economic development agencies and groups like Invest Atlanta to glean insight.
“If we can get their feedback and how they feel about what we’re trying to do, it not only introduces them to the project, but as they feel some excitement about the development, it will help getting financing easier,” said Joseph. “As we move through the design phase, then we’ll open it up on a larger scale to the community.”
During the design and construction panel, Angelo Carusi, principal of Atlanta-based architectural firm Cooper Carry, said that understanding the community ahead of time helps tremendously during the design phase.
“The development team needs to understand what the pressure points are in the community. On top of all the intra-project conversations, there are conversations that need to be had with the community,” said Carusi. “When we were doing the Brookhaven MARTA transit-oriented development, there were a lot of public meetings and some of them were incredibly contentious. We weren’t prepared for some of the questions or the underlying themes that were coming out of the meetings.”
Fellow panelist John Moores, associate director of Wakefield Beasley & Associates, said that a project that his firm is designing in the Midwest recently had a surprise during a public hearing.
“A large development REIT has a property across the street, and they drafted a 112-page protest that they submitted,” said Moores. “Understanding what those pinch points are and having the right public relations in place is key to getting neighbors in your corner.”
A lasting relationship
Engagement with the community doesn’t really ever stop, according to the panelists. Beyond providing a great experience and real estate for the various components of a mixed-use project, developers said social engagement will help owners differentiate and elevate their projects.
Ralph Ireland, vice president of development and operations at Tavistock Development, said that at his firm’s Lake Nona master-planned development in Orlando, there are more than 1,000 events held per year.
“The programming features everything from a guitarist performing at the corner of a restaurant to a 5,000-person 5K race,” said Ireland. “That begets other events that we don’t even do anymore, it’s handled by the organizations that form within the community. It becomes theirs.”
“It’s important to constantly have these projects programmed,” added Paul Neuroth, senior vice president of leasing at Birmingham, Alabama-based Bayer Properties. “So much good comes out of it. I would highly recommend hiring a dedicated, talented social media and event planner.”
Defining success is a moving target for developers depending on their corporate strategy. Some are merchant builders and if they have a fully leased asset that’s attracting both tenants and investors, that’s a major victory. For others, success is measured by how the community interacts with the project long-term.
“Success for us is creating something that people come to call their own,” said Ireland. “That means they’ll live there, shop there, eat there and work there.”
Ralph Conti, founder and managing member of RaCo Real Estate, said that beyond returns on investment, there is a lasting legacy that is critical for developers to not overlook.
“Real estate developers have a social responsibility,” said Conti, who moderated the development panel. “There are major implications for what we build that will outlast us.”