About three months ago, the Urban Development Institute, the development industry’s trade body, invited me to speak as part of one of their lunch panels. It was about community engagement. Today was the second part of that conversation, with a panel made up developers and their aides, giving the industry’s perspective on engaging with the communities. Once again I was invited, this time as a guest.
Bob Ransford was once again the moderator. The panelists were Virginia Bird who works for developers securing support for their projects, Beau Jarvis and Deanna Grinnell both of Westgroup Development, and developer Marc Josephson. The room was busy and the standing lunch — a great opportunity to network — was excellent as usual.
All of the panelists were keen on early engagement with the neighbourhoods, with face-to-face meetings, identifying potential issues and getting on with dealing with them, and sticking with the community partners through the entire project even if that is ten or twenty or more years.
However, in conversations before and after the session, many of them agreed that many — perhaps most — developers shy away from early contact, scared perhaps of what they’ll hear. I noted that developers ought to be intelligent enough to recognize that finding out problems in the beginning is a lot easier and cheaper to deal with than five minutes before they want to put spades in the ground.
They said they need a degree of certainty and often don’t get it; there were a couple of examples given where the projects were entirely in line with community plans and city policies and yet still were rejected, by either the neighbourhood or the City who didn’t give them the political coverage they felt they were entitled to after they had followed the rules. I am obliged to note that projects that follow established zoning and guidelines rarely cause major controversy. Problems usually arise when the developers are seeking a rezoning against the will of the community.
Still, it was good to meet with them and share our ideas. We need to do more of this.
By the way, today was perhaps the finest weather day of the year so far, with clear blue skies and bright sunshine. That seemed to make the views from the 34th floor of the Hyatt even more spectacular than usual.