Having developed real estate for 15+ years, I’ve learned that real estate developers are ultra-risk takers and planning departments and staff members are ultra-risk averse. Developers are almost always all in on each project, leaving personal guaranties on the line for construction loans and investing hundreds of thousands of dollars on a hope and a dream that a project will reach the Super Bowl and get city approvals. Staff members on the other side, have no incentives to expedite your development application or respond within a timely manner to multiple emails or voicemails. Their income and future are based on job stability working for a city or county until retirement. This isn’t the situation 100% of the time, but it seems to be the norm in the world of development. Successful developers often get used to it and learn how to play within the rules.
City staff members, planning commissioners, city planners and city councilmembers all have certain hot buttons that can make or break your project no matter how enriching it is to your portfolio or the neighborhood, in your opinion.
In the past 10 months I have been working to secure City of Pittsburg, California approvals for a 200,000 square-foot solar-covered executive level RV and boat storage development. We purchased the land in 2019. The project was stalled during COVID-19 lockdowns. Finally now, we are breathing new life back into this project. We invested more than $150,000 in plans and engineering, city fees, CEQA/environmental fees, etc., and have gone back and forth for months revising plans and trying to appease city staff that what we are proposing to develop – this rare Class-A covered RV and boat storage development – is good for the community. A common theme we combatted was, “How many jobs, local jobs, do you create?” One or two is all we can say here. “What community benefit are you providing?” Well, up until this date, I have not had a solid response for this question!
What community benefit does Class-A covered RV and boat storage provide to the local community? Well, as I witnessed during my Pittsburg Planning Commission hearing, which was elevated up by a planning commissioner, the Planning Commission loved my project! They loved it because a common issue and grievance for the city was code enforcement. They had been having to give tickets and fines to residents for violating HOA/CC&R/city code regulations for parking boats and RVs illegally in streets, driveways or side yards. This city in particular has had a surge in new home subdivisions that don’t have side yards or excess property to store boats or RVs. The Planning Commission marinated in praises of my project for providing a local solution to a major problem with no cost to the city. I would have never thought of using this argument in my repertoire but it was clearly a hot button for planning commissioners and staff. I rode this wave all the way into shore for a project approval with high regards and strong applause!
Admittedly, I have to eat crow on my own advice here but in my defense and as you will see, I reached out, as I always do, to each planning commissioner and asked about the hot-buttons early on. Unfortunately, I never received responses to my requests to meet. This will happen to you and don’t take it personally. Most people have 9-to-5 jobs working on a planning commission and cannot dedicate “work hours” to meet or talk on the phone about your project. Your project might take up 40% of your mind but is likely less than 1% of theirs.
We are constantly learning as humans and in our workplaces and this is one scenario where I was shocked to experience city planning commissioners coming up with positives about my project that I always knew existed but never thought to highlight.
A key component in developing in any new jurisdiction is to review recent planning commission and city council hearings, read recent staff reports or talk with staff members to ask, “What are the hot buttons?” One city I worked in only really cared about landscape plans and the tree selection. That was it. Since I focused extra effort on landscaping, it saved me months of work with staff and secured an approval.
A word from the wise is to spend a little effort up front in the early stages of a project for due diligence and personal conversations with staff members. This may help steer you and your consultants by knowing the hotspots and items you should be focusing on. You have to make time for the work that matters and sifting through this low-hanging fruit with a jurisdiction will result in returns in spades in both your time and your entitlement capital.