In the world of community development, there are plenty of projects in which plans can change or go awry throughout the process—but perhaps none more so than those with the longest timelines.
Imagine a project with an area of hundreds of acres and a 20-year development timeline. During a long stretch of development, any number of issues can derail a project or even halt progress altogether. While some of these challenges are ultimately unavoidable, that doesn’t mean you can’t overcome them.
The three most common obstacles that can get in the way of long-term community development projects are market changes, community opposition, and multidisciplinary needs. Here’s how you can overcome them.
When you have a project that takes more than a decade to complete, market change is practically inevitable. Economies can shift, government administrations can change, and populations can grow—all of which can change the direction of a community development initiative. Our team experienced the latter on a long-term project in Austin, Texas.
More than 20 years ago, our team began work on the Robert Mueller Municipal Airport Redevelopment. The project is a mixed-use redevelopment that includes single-family homes, multi-family homes, retail, dining, entertainment centers, commercial/office space, and 160 acres of park space with an extensive trail system. In that time, Austin’s population has more than doubled. This resulted in a variety of design changes.
How many changes? Enough that the current design has a completely different look than the original. For example, as the population has grown, more multi-family projects have been added to the redevelopment. For utility designs, this also meant our team had to come up with unique ways to reroute wastewater and meet the capacity needs.
Growth also brings changes in the community itself, as well as the needs and desires of residents. Our initial designs for the bike lanes have evolved based on input we’ve received from the biking enthusiasts and city officials. The design now consists of cycling lanes that have been physically separated from vehicle lanes, which will improve safety.
Dealing with a plethora of changes and redesigns on any project can prove challenging. To overcome these challenges, it’s imperative that the team designs flexibility into a project to account for major changes that could occur throughout this process. At the same time, teams must also keep the fabric of the community top of mind. All project adjustments should fit within the vision that the client and the local resident’s support.
All development projects require varying levels of community engagement. After all, these projects impact local residents’ lives the most, and their buy-in is vital to getting plans approved. For some, the engagement process can take years before a plan can be finalized, especially if there is opposition.
In 2006, our team began working with the charity organization Mobile Loaves and Fishes in Austin, Texas to build Community First! Village. The group wanted to create a community in the area dedicated to lifting men and women out of homelessness by giving them homes and the support of a collaborative community. It was a unique idea that required a great deal of planning and engagement, particularly to overcome objections from residents who had the “not in my backyard” mindset.
Our success to-date on The Quay is a direct result of our prioritizing the working relationship with all parties involved—most specifically those teammates like the City of Sarasota, Sarasota County, and FDOT. Working as a team with those jurisdictions and engaging them as teammates—working hand in hand—allowed the complex, long-term vision of The Quay to take shape. Taking the time and spending the effort to work on creating those connections has allowed us to steadily complete the numerous phases of this project.
Tackling a large-scale project is an enormous undertaking and requires a tremendous amount of commitment from the developer, the design team, and the key stakeholders. In each of the three challenges outlined above, the solution ultimately boils down to one general theme—communication. Listening and working closely with your stakeholders to understand their needs and find solutions is vital to moving the community development needle forward.
Because the design for this new community was essentially a high-end RV park that would serve the homeless population of Austin, residents from the surrounding areas expressed concerns over preconceived notions that were false. Some were worried that the project would affect property values, while others were concerned about the possibility of increased crime. Through a series of neighborhood meetings, we were able to work with Mobile Loaves and Fishes to quell the pushback and finalize a site that became the home for the new village. The efforts made to provide information on the project to the surrounding neighbors has proved successful as Phase 2 nears completion.
Projects like these require regular community engagement to make sure everyone is on the same page. In this example, we had to work to demonstrate how the project was going solve a major problem in the community and improve life citywide.
Multidisciplinary needs, multiphase complexities
One inherent challenge of any large-scale project with a lengthy timeline is the sheer complexity and scope. Revitalizing a downtown area, for example, requires coordination between the city, the developer, and (usually) multiple design firms. What’s more, a section of the city can’t just shut down completely while work is underway. Life needs to continue with some semblance of normalcy for residents.
For projects like this, success depends on the ability to collaborate. By building dynamic relationships with all stakeholders involved, project teams can expedite an already long process and address issues before they arise. Furthermore, having a team with diverse experiences and backgrounds helps to build and nurture those relationships, as it creates more opportunities to collaborate and solve problems.
This is illustrated by our team’s work on The Quay Sarasota—a mixed-use redevelopment located in downtown Sarasota, Florida. The project includes improvements to roadway and stormwater infrastructure, the creation of new walkable spaces, and the construction of new mixed-use residential and commercial spaces. In addition to collaboration with the city and the developer, we’ve teamed up with the FDOT and Sarasota County to improve the communities’ long-term goals and needs concurrently with the developer’s improvements.