Thursday, January 23, 2014

Stakeholders and Urbanism

I've been following the saga of Opus' new development in St. Louis Central West End for a while now. Background from NextSTL:

Opus Proposes 177 Unit Mixed-Used Project

About your recent rejection

It should be built

In the height of absurdity, neighborhood forces (some refer to them as NIMBY, but I don't think that's correct - they're more aesthetic critics in this case) have made Opus head back to the drawing board several times over things they just don't like. This is a change to the neighborhood, a change to the buildings they may have lived in for years, and something new. For a lot of people, that's scary.

In my day job, I deal with change all the time - whether it's convincing someone to take a new job in continuous improvement, working on a process someone has done for 10 years, or changing our procedures because the law says we have to, it is all change. 

The Opus situation, combined with my experience, led me to thinking about stakeholders in the process. 

Opus: Obviously a stakeholder. They're interested in getting this built and getting a return on their investment. Long term? Probably don't care so much about the area. They're very supportive of any proposal that doesn't cost a ton of money.

CWE Residents: Stakeholders with money on the line, too. If this place were an unmitigated disaster, it might impact their property values. As is, the concerns seem more that it doesn't "fit" and might not be high quality enough for the area. These proposals impact their sense of self in so much as they visualize themselves of a certain status due to where they live. They're suspicious of any proposal that's not perceived as very high quality.

The City: The City would love to have this developed. Unfortunately, I do think often we clamor so for any development that we don't hold development to any standard. However, the CWE does have a form based code, which this meets. I'd rate them neutral on their support/lack of for the project. 

The conflict, to me, comes from one thing - Opus wants to do this in a cost-effective manner, and certain residents want a Chase Park Plaza quality project (one that likely couldn't cash flow) in place. Other concerns like noise, parking, retailers are just secondary - they're behind the big problem which is the "image" of the Central West End.

Opus should look at ways to improve the image of the development that would be low to no cost. Some ideas:

  • Sign up high quality retail tenants that would drive traffic. I'm not chic so I've no clue what is popular, but certainly there's a market in St. Louis for some upscale stores, especially if the developer is helping out with the lease and buildout?
  • Offer streetscaping as part of the proposal. These streets are basic and not very attractive in the area. Maybe Opus could put them on a road diet, or add angled parking, or anything else. I'm not really sure, but it would make the CWE "prettier" at a lower cost that a hugely expensive building.
  • Offer something new to the area. A rooftop bar and restaurant? Those seem popular.

Unfortunately, I see no easy solution to the problem that will satisfy everyone. Someone will go unhappy. That said, if the bulk of the residents support Opus, that should be enough. Holding off on change for a few naysayers is a sure prescription for stagnation. I hope Opus, the city, the preservation board, and all other important stakeholders ignore the true roadblocks.

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