Every developer and builder fears the possibility that a project won't pass public muster. The approval process can bring site development to a standstill, tying up thousands, if not millions, of dollars while everything from density to signage is debated. Eric Eckberg, president of Engle Homes, gained tremendous insights into the fine art of working with tough city councils during the development of McKay Landing, a 220-acre community in the city of Broomfield, north of Denver. With a regional, no-growth sentiment and a legacy of neighboring projects that the council didn't like, McKay Landing had a tough process ahead of it.

Two important steps early in the process helped pave the way for approval. The first was creating a joint venture with The James Company to build the project together. (Engle Homes' parent company, Technical Olympic USA, or TOUSA, has since acquired The James Company. Eckberg is now president of TOUSA Homes Colorado.)

That partnership brought the community a wide range of products. Engle Homes primarily builds single-family detached houses; The James Company focuses on multifamily and empty-nester lifestyle product. Experience with the council told them that approval would require a mix of both.

They also brought in Downing, Thorpe & James (now known as DTJ Design) of Boulder, an architectural firm with expertise in master plan and site design and residential architecture. Plus, DTJ knew the city's staff and was familiar with the city's approval processes.

Bringing the two builders together allowed the community to offer a wide range of product and visual diversity. Within McKay Lake's 887 units are six-plex and four-plex townhomes, rear-loaded patio homes, front-loaded single-family homes, move-up single-family homes, and luxury semi-custom homes. Unlike most master planned communities, the product mix is truly mixed -- often on the same street.

"Within an eighth of a mile, you can see four different housing types," says Thomas Kopf, principal at DTJ and the community's project director. "As you drive the street, you're constantly viewing something a little different. It makes the community a little more appealing."

Overcoming Fears

The success of McKay Landing -- and any large-scale project that faces a difficult approval -- hinged on having a clear identity and constantly communicating that to the elected officials and staff, Kopf says.

"You have to take the time upfront to describe what you're trying to create," Kopf says. "It's a reality now [that] if we don't show regulators and the public how nice our communities look and how well they're designed, we'll have roadblocks put in front of us all the time. If you're not committed to achieving it in the first phase, you'll be blown out of the water."

One of the city's major fears, he says, was that the project would be indistinguishable from any large subdivision in any city. The message: sameness is bad. Drawing on the property's location adjacent to McKay Lake, DTJ created a style dubbed "western waterfront," says principal Steven James, the company's community designer. The design extended into the project to include lighting, signage, and exterior house design.

"The architects drew character elevations, we clipped out pictures, we had workshops," James says. "We built a consensus. That was a huge part of building trust."

Two design elements proved to be problematic for the council. One was the rear-loaded patio homes. The city had no design standards for the product and was concerned about how the alleys would look. The second was walk-out basements. DTJ initially was told by city staff to get rid of them and that the council didn't like them and wouldn't approve them.

"We had to continually justify why those are OK," James says. "It was a constant battle to say the topography demands it or you have unsightly walls and added expenses."

The solution, he says, was education with lots of drawings and photographs, a change in the masonry requirements on the rear of the houses, and a refinement of the rear deck supports to make the walk-out basements more acceptable. "We didn't know any of this going in," Kopf says. "The real key there is that there are unwritten rules. You have to find out what they are and deal with them."

Another public goal in Broomfield was that the city didn't want walls surrounding the project; they wanted it to blend with the larger community. DTJ responded by eliminating the "grand entry" point to the neighborhood. Instead, they bent the arterial into a crescent moon shape with three boulevards that serve as spokes into the community.

Total Picture

"It's a tough journey," James says. "A zoning plan doesn't cut it. They wanted standards and commitments. They want a complete picture of everything that will be done. It's very difficult for a builder to invest in full design in a project they don't know will be approved. The builders finally realized they wouldn't get approvals without it."

All the site standards were packaged in a summary book that city staff and the council referred to during meetings and presentations. Creating the summary book involved the use of architectural renderings and photographs of elements from existing communities.

In addition to the summary books, DTJ created site boards and a Power Point presentation to use at group meetings, and took the council members and staff to the site.

Eighteen months after McKay Landing opened for sale, approximately half the units were sold -- and the city council now tells builders that if they want approval, they'll have to use the same kind of tools, including the summary books.

James says that to reduce the time it takes to get a project approved, builders need to "create a place for the public as part of the thinking. That's huge for most of our clients," he says. "To have a relationship with the public sector is something they're trying to avoid at all cost. If you're not willing to stretch to make it feel unique so the public sector feels it gets something special, they're against you from day one. Engle has been willing to do that," James says.

On an industry level, he says volume builders need to make room for "things with variety and texture.

"The auto industry has done this through concept cars, research, and development," he says. "I don't see that happening in big builder systems yet. You've got to proportion some part of the financial model to creating something new or you'll be stuck with a mediocre product. The ones that are willing to do that will rise above the pack in the future."