Negotiating in Public: The New Reality for Real Estate Development

Michele GonzalezBlog, Land DevelopmentLeave a Comment

real estate development

Real estate development projects, particularly those in urban areas, are facing more public scrutiny than ever. Increasingly vocal stakeholders have a vested interest in how a proposed land use project — particularly one that involves changing the current zoning laws — might affect the long-term livability of their city. They may be jaded by a lack of transparent communication from other developers and predisposed to approach the subject with hostility.

You can’t avoid this reality. As Kevin Baker points out, writing about New York City in a recent Harper’s article, U.S. cities face a “crisis of affluence.” While Baker laments how “boring” this has made once-edgier cities seem, the concentration of wealth in desirable urban areas has also produced a stakeholder who is more educated, entitled, and predisposed to demand more control over their environment. The rise of social media, which creates echo chambers that can intensify discontent and fabricate concerns, has only made this dissenting voice louder and more powerful.

This may seem like a liability, but it doesn’t have to be.

In West Berkeley, California, where architect David Trachtenberg says it is “a contact sport trying to develop projects,”  a project at 739 Channing Way won approval after Trachtenberg’s flexible and proactive approach. Knowing that residents in the new project would need to coexist with Poly Seal, an industry adjacent to the proposed development, Trachtenberg made structural changes that would mitigate noise and shield residents from the sight of the Poly Seal facility. These changes reassured the industry that they would not face complaints from their new neighbors down the road, and allowed the project to go forward.

Flexibility and a willingness to collaborate with stakeholders are important ways that developers can get the green light for their projects. Here are some other actions you can take throughout the public negotiation process in order to sway public opinion in your direction.

Set a Future-Focused Narrative

Successful developers open the negotiation by positioning their projects as solutions to long-standing community problems. That means you need to know what the neighborhood wants and needs in order to anticipate their responses and objections. Consider what your project offers to meet these needs — affordable housing units, a greenbelt. For instance, if the site had a historical use, and you can describe your project as building on that heritage, you have created a narrative with considerable appeal.

Enlist Influencers

Who is best able to deliver the message that your project will make the community a better place to live? It may be elected officials, a local business owner, a real estate blogger, a group devoted to improving public transportation. Having these influencers tout your development project is one of the best ways to shape the negotiation as it nudges your project from the theoretical realm into a reality that important community leaders embrace.

Start with No

There’s little point in starting the negotiation from a position of compromise, as many of the objections you will encounter are stereotypical complaints about “greedy developers” and “not in my neighborhood.” Taking a hard line at the beginning doesn’t mean not listening. At this initial stage, it is important to pay attention and carefully analyze opposition messaging. That will put you in a better position to offer compromises that resonate later on.


As the negotiation begins in earnest, you can expect multiple shifts from both the opposition and elected officials who wish to garner support from their constituents and may backpedal from an initial position of support. At this stage, it can be helpful to shift to a collaborative mode that highlights mutual gains, reinforcing the rationale for the project.

Announce Miraculous Breakthroughs

The green light for some real estate development projects only comes after the developer makes a major concession. For instance, Trachtenberg moved the location of upper floor balconies from 739 Channing Way so that they no longer faced San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. He also reduced the building from four to three stories. Concessions like these can serve as a breakthrough that allows the project to go forward, after which it may be tactically advantageous to share credit for the breakthrough with opposition figures as a face-saving gesture.

“Say/Do” Reporting

Even after the project is approved, there will be some individuals who continue to oppose the development. Thus, it is important to invest in resources that keep the public informed, particularly about how the project has lived up to the narrative of change it promised at the onset of the negotiation.

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