At the Sept. 22 Austin City Council meeting, the council once again opted to postpone a vote regarding The Grove at Shoal Creek, a proposed 75-acre, mixed-use development near MoPac in Central Austin. Developers purchased the land from the State of Texas in 2014. Within six months of the land purchase, developers had sought neighborhood input and unveiled their plans that include a mix of residential, retail, office and recreational uses.
It wasn’t long before some of these neighbors and their friends pulled out their torches and pitchforks to burn through and poke holes at the plan. Their chief concern has been the additional traffic this project will generate, which is typically among the top three neighborhood objections to any new development (the other two being the impact on property values and the notion of any change whatsoever, usually couched as a desire to “preserve neighborhood character.”).
Beneath the surface of these common concerns lies a slew of other, less-acknowledged issues that not only likely plague The Grove proposal but countless other projects in Austin and elsewhere, and which can be better addressed with a longer-term, higher-level PR strategy:
1. Everyone’s an expert.
Except they aren’t, really. When citizens dig in their heels for a fight against a project, a handful of them often rise to the top as the primary advocates. In highly educated cities like Austin, it doesn’t take long for citizens to access plenty of data available to anyone willing to use the Internet or file public information requests. It’s easier than ever for detractors to assemble the select information that best argues their case. Since the media love reporting on a good conflict and don’t have the time or resources to validate claims, this data often gets cited as fact without proper context. Therefore, it’s important to think like the opposition thinks and anticipate what they will say and how they will say it, and have a message strategy developed accordingly.
2. Inflexible parties are on both sides of the table.
With a hefty purchase price — $47 million — there’s been speculation the Grove team is pushing for as much development as possible, particularly the commercial and retail components, to maximize the return on that investment as quickly as possible. On the other side, neighbors opposing the project in its current form have reviewed the plan, come up with their own smaller figures, and have not backed down. With each passing week, the rift between both sides seems to widen, but this also gives the developer the opportunity to appear as the bigger person by reaching across the chasm and wear the white hat in the court of public opinion.
3. The engagement process gets compressed.
The last time I wrote about The Grove, I voiced my view that its community engagement process was put on the fast track — again, likely because investors need to see a return on their investment sooner than later. This meant that, rather than work with detractors to bring their perspectives into the project earlier, the developers quickly delivered a proposed project and then were forced to negotiate it with neighbors and elected officials while also going through the regular City planning process. Would a longer or more intense public engagement process resulted in a different outcome? No one can know for sure, but it certainly would have given the developer a firmer leg to stand on when talking to decision makers about the lengths it had gone through to inform, interact and incorporate with surrounding stakeholders.
4. There is significant public attention.
The media love a good controversy and there hasn’t been a neighbor-developer battle this big in Austin for a long time. The oxygen to enflame the issue has been growing for some time, plenty of time to develop a comprehensive, adaptable and proactive earned media strategy. Each delay (or stall tactic) faced by The Grove has been a milestone opportunity for more media coverage and more time for opponents to better organize themselves, clarify their position and make their stand. With all the scrutiny, the developer spends more time defending the project rather than shaping the narrative with a more proactive, engaging outreach effort that finds and utilizes third parties to deliver important messages.
5. Even the arbiter comes into question.
At some point when two opposing sides are at an impasse, an arbiter needs to be called in to help both parties come to a resolution. In this case, it’s the City of Austin, first at the zoning and planning level and then at the City Council. As the City has examined the proposal extensively, especially the traffic study, opponents are questioning the character and competency of both the developer and the city. The more a government body is involved, more risk should be identified and more collaboration should be built into the communication effort.
Developers are equal stakeholders in any project, and they should be the authoritative voice regarding the facts of their own projects. Any developers whose projects are facing as much criticism as The Grove is now should formulate early in the process a communication strategy that assumes issues management will be necessary at some point. A little more effort on the front end can better steer the public process to make those facts widely available through proactive and suitably extensive media and community outreach, while also being prepared to quickly, professionally but assertively defend the project against detractors.