A group of national experts urged local developers to form partnerships long before breaking ground, and highlight community benefits through a compelling story when seeking project funding.
Cassandra Borchers, director of Florida transportation development for Montreal-based WSP, led the Sept. 26 presentation at the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership’s Developer’s Council meeting. The evening’s topic was how placemaking creates community value.
Borchers is intimately familiar with the area and its growth after spending a decade as the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority’s (PSTA) chief development officer. Two of her colleagues from WSP, an international consulting firm, joined her at Parkshore Grill.
“The most important thing for all of us to think about as we’re sitting here – the Downtown Partnership – is that really is what it is all about,” Borcher said. “It is about partnerships and building the community in a way that maximizes the opportunities we have to grow.”
The placemaking experts stressed the importance of reaching a stakeholder consensus before embarking on a project. Borcher said they should also create a consolidated story highlighting community needs when seeking funding.
She noted the increasing importance of environmentally resilient developments in St. Petersburg. Borcher said those projects would likely receive government support.
However, she said that would hinge on answers to multiple questions. “Is it equitable?” she asked rhetorically.
“What are you doing to the people who are having to move out, and how are you accommodating them?” Borcher added. “Is it site-specific? Are you building that site infrastructure? Is the city able to, from a funding perspective, support the kind of improvements that you need for development? Is the market there, and is the cost penciling out?
“All of this has to come into play.”
John Loughran, senior vice president and placemaking practice lead, urged developers to define what makes St. Petersburg unique and emphasize those aspects. He said community-driven projects are more sustainable and used the preponderance of closed shopping malls and national retailers as an example.
Loughran said placemaking developments are more equitable and desirable and enhance social cohesion. He said those projects also improve economies and increase tax bases, enticing aspects for local officials.
It is much easier to “go with the flow” rather than against it, and Loughran said developers should build according to a community’s desires. He also encouraged them to align project goals and provide public benefits.
“The important thing here is to reach all constituents,” Loughran said. “We have a tendency to meet with people who reinforce our ideas and notions. That can be a recipe for disaster.”
Charles Warren, vice president of value capture and real estate analytics, said developments should fit a community’s character. He said placemaking often includes several projects, and developers should refrain from acting as a “lone savior” who can build a neighborhood from scratch.
Warren told attendees to leverage public improvements and consider renovating and infilling existing buildings to reduce costs. He also noted that a city street could feature 10 to 20 properties primed for redevelopment.
“Well, that’s multiple opportunities for multiple people in the room,” Warren elaborated. “All benefitting from coming together and getting a new sidewalk and infrastructure improvements.”
Keeping with the community focus, Warren urged developers to seek funding from local underwriters. He said financial institutions with “skin in the game” often provide better terms and help a project meet its initial goals.
Warren stressed the importance of highlighting a shared vision in funding requests and said federal officials want to see multidimensional support for zoning changes around transit-oriented development (TOD) projects. He said they also consider potential community benefits, like proximity to affordable housing, grocery stores and increasing pedestrian safety.
Borchers noted that Columbus, Ohio, officials won a Smart Cities grant when they showed a link between a lack of public transit and infant mortality rates. “It’s a little bit of a brainstorming exercise to see what it is that you need, and what are the solutions you can go find funding for,” she said.
“It could even be something you don’t think is connected,” Borcher added. “But … that vision has to be cohesive. And the idea of what that place is going to be has to be in a story that can be understood by people who don’t necessarily live there.”