The High Line Pointe apartments near Denver, which were completed in 2018, met a high bar for getting a project approved. The site is literally bisected by the county line separating Denver and Arapahoe counties. It sits adjacent to the High Line Canal Trail—a National Landmark Trail that is maintained by municipal recreation agencies. Complications were doubled by dealing with two school districts, two fire districts, and a powerful and, at first, adversarial HOA.
The development team included Jared Carlon of Norris Design and Chris Grady with the architecture firm, Kephart—both based in Denver. To make the deal happen they drew on skills they already had and also used the project to sharpen their strategies and tactics for successfully interacting with the local municipalities and the neighbors.
The project’s 5-acre site is 8 miles southwest of downtown Denver. The two buildings encompass 190 units with an average square feet of 1,015 square per unit. There’s approximately a 50/50 split of one bedroom and two bedroom units. The plans included a 5,600-square-foot club house and 353 parking spaces for a 1.86 parking ratio. One side of the site was use by right while the other side required rezoning. That was just the beginning of the challenge.
“We had an adjacent HOA to the south that we had at least 15 meetings with in the stretch of a year,” says Grady. The team spent a lot of time talking around kitchen tables while listening to neighbors’ concerns about the project. Before starting one-on-one chats with nervous neighbors, they organized a community meeting that was structured to avoid mob scenes of discontent.
“Even when you have a use by right situation and you’re following the rules, the simple act of meeting with the neighbors can help dispel rumors and mistrust,” says Grady. “The primary task is not to get people to support your project. That’s great if they do, but the idea is to open a dialog and maintain communication.”
Here are some tips from Grady and Carlon for keeping project approvals on track and within budget:
Hold an Open House. To kick off a project and establish relationships with the neighbors, the team recommends holding an evening “open house” meeting in a public and neutral location like a school, church, or community center. They recommend scheduling it at the beginning of the week (Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday), and they’ve found that arriving early for the chance to talk to attendees sometimes results in making allies.
Grady and Carlon use professional signs to help direct people to the meeting. They favor a sign-in table where a greeter should try to get everybody’s names and email addresses, but they shouldn’t be too pushy about it.
Rather than a team of developers sitting at a table facing the community, they advise delivering quick opening remarks and then directing guests to stations set up around the room where they can ask questions and voice concerns. The vibe should be casual and non-confrontational. The stations should showcase professionally-prepared boards mounted on easels with each outpost manned by an expert on the development team. Tables should be equipped with supplies of sticky notes and pens. The stations should be designated to the project’s major elements including traffic concerns, building aesthetics, and open space. Experts should include architects, developers, landscape architects, and planners, and each one should be prepared to answer any questions or concerns that arise.
Use Good Pictures and Take Notes. Using high-quality graphics for any presentation is important. “Graphics work especially well with the neighbors,” says Grady. “They help tell the story. Neighbors don’t always understand architectural elevations. Those lead to misunderstandings, or bad information, and that causes problems.”
Interaction can be encouraged by inviting the neighbors to write any issues they may have onto sticky notes to apply to the boards. “We may not be excited about what we read, but getting that input can really go a long way,” says Grady. Each expert in the corners should be assisted by a note-taker whose sole job is to keep track of questions asked and concerns that are voiced.
Dress Down and Leave the Lawyers at Home. Typically the team of experts manning the stations do not include legal counsel. “We don’t invite lawyers to this,” says Carlon. “We’re not trying to create barriers. When we go to a neighborhood meeting we’re going to be a bit more casual. The idea is you want to be approachable. So we’ll dress down, not wear a tie or a suit coat, you want to make sure they are willing to come up to talk to you.”
Stay Flexible and Follow Through. If there’s backlash about using the open house format, Carlon advises against being defensive. “If the neighborhood wants us to stand up in front of them and do a presentation where they can all ask questions and everyone can hear the questions, then we’ll immediately change the format,” he says. “It’s about compromise and trust. You want to be able to pick your battles, and this is not where you want to pick your battle.”
While interacting with the neighbors in these situations, it’s vital to stay cool. “Sometimes we want to express frustration but we know we can’t,” says Grady. “It’s hard. Speak honestly, speak plainly, and a lot of accusations will die. If we’re defensive and evasive, that’s going to create suspicion. The best answer is an honest one.”
If concerns are expressed and more action is required, follow-through is critical. “If you tell someone you’re going to follow through and they say, ‘Will you send me this?’ You always have to do that,” says Carlon. “The last thing you want is to give a neighbor of someone an excuse to get really upset because you didn’t follow through on something. That’s something you can easily control.”
Do Your Homework. Appearing before planning commissions, city councils, zoning boards and other gateways to approval comes with its own set of guidelines, strategy, and tactics. The High Line Pointe team believes a smooth approval process with the municipalities begins with deep research. “That can happen at the courtesy meetings with the municipality,” says Grady. “You want to dig in early get a lot of good information, look at the zoning, look at the history, look at the records.”
Getting to know the staff of the approving body is another good place to start. Grady and Carlon recommend building relationships that will pay dividends in the future for other projects.
“Each jurisdiction is different, make sure you understand how they govern their meetings,” says Carlon. Finding out who has the power to make decisions on the staff level is another good thing to know. The team believes that in order to be effective, working from the bottom up is usually the best way to start. Begin by getting to know a staff planner before going after the planning director, city manager, or supervisor. If that approach doesn’t work, consider reversing course by working from the top down.
In some cases it may make sense to bring in additional firepower by hiring somebody in the know who can be the front man running the project, or someone who’s working behind the scenes.
Be Positive. When it comes time to present, showcase the positive aspects of the project. “Talk about what it means to be a part of that community. The presentation should also address any and all of the approval criteria. Show them what they’re voting on and why it should move forward,” says Carlon.
The presentation should stick to the facts and not offer opinions. Try to retain a right to respond to any questions or concerns that arise after the presentation, and answer questions as succinctly as possible. It’s also wise to plan for contingencies in terms of specific questions about particular areas. “If we have a tough hearing coming up, we’ll have a whole different set of slides that we can bring up if the questions arise,” says Carlon.
It’s also a good idea to try to get somebody who supports the project to show up and speak on the firm’s behalf or is at least neutral on the project. Two or three people speaking in support can go further than 10 letters.
Make Some Concessions. It’s a good idea to keep some back-pocket concessions that can be used as bargaining chips along the way. “An example would be a buffer,” says Carlon. “If they want a buffer we say, ‘OK, we’ll give you 20 feet.’ But you know you can actually afford 40 feet, so you build some things in to give to them because they start saying we want this, we want that, if you give everything away on day one, they’re just going to want more.”
Media Matters. Media can impact the public perception of the project. Sometimes it makes sense to build a website for the project before it’s out of the ground to help dispel rumors and misinformation. Facebook and Twitter can also be used as organizing tools and effective ways of dispensing and accessing information and chatter about the project. Use the strength of hyper-local online publications and outlets, including NextDoor, as a way to monitor neighborhood reactions. Direct mail and door-to-door visits are another labor-intensive but, in some cases, effective way to control the messaging.
Although navigating through the approval process is frustrating and time consuming, it must be mastered to keep things moving forward. Even though contentious neighbors make a challenging deal seem impossible, minds can be changed along the way.
“On the High Line Pointe project we met with this lady named Sharon,” says Carlon. “She was standoffish, didn’t like the project, and wanted us to go away. We met with her many times in her living room or around her kitchen table with her neighbors. By the end of the project she came to the hearing and was supportive of it, and she spoke in support of it. At the grand opening, we got hugs from her.”
It also helps to try to reassure the neighbors that as the building’s owner or builder, you have a shared interest in the neighborhood’s success. “Remind them that you’re a neighbor,” says Grady. “If you’re going to own the property, you’re a neighbor. You want values to rise just like the neighbors do. You are locally invested. It’s your future and all of ours’ future, not just the neighbors.”