Friends or adversaries

Nov 07, 2016

If you want to achieve great things and have fun in the process, it’s best to foster a collaborative attitude.

Review and approval processes vary greatly around our country, and two extremes are California and Nevada. I’m from California and practiced there throughout my career. For the past two years, I have been exposed to processes in Nevada.

My experience in California was much different than what I’m experiencing now. Beginning with the discretionary review cycles with planning commissions, architectural review boards, and city councils, not to mention outside agencies such as the Coastal Commission, review and approval often stretched into a multi-year process. Some requirements were so outlandish that we would often abandon a creative and excellent approach for a more mundane solution.

I remember, in particular, a second home which I was designing for myself. At the end of an informal review session with a planner in Santa Cruz County, which was notorious for its excruciating approach, the planner complimented me on my most creative solution to site drainage, and then asked me how old I was. At the time, I was 63. She then asked the following, “Did you plan on occupying this house within your lifetime?” Enough said. At least she gave me fair warning, saving me a long, drawn-out variance process, which she assured me I would lose in the end. On to plan “B.”

The lesson I learned: Do not accept an adversarial relationship between your design and development team and governing agencies. Start from the beginning by explaining your goals for the project, making certain they align with the city’s, and then, demonstrate a collaborative attitude at all times. Always listen carefully to city agencies’ concerns, and always work to solve them together. Remember, they have the authority to say “no,” and you’ll never win trying to force officials to change. Over time, I’ve managed to develop strong relationships with most of the elected officials and staff in the cities in which I’ve worked.

Reno, on the opposite end of this spectrum, requires little or no discretionary review and approval on our West 2nd District project. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t hurdles. We’re in a redevelopment district which, due to some historic decisions and a horrid recession in 2008, carries a senior debt against our site of $24.1 million. This and a few other municipal challenges leave the city with zero bonding capacity. Reno is unable to bond against future tax revenues to pay for the normal public improvements such as streets, sidewalks, curb and gutters, streetlights, and utilities which are normally a city’s responsibility.

In this situation, we determined the first and most important issue was to negotiate a Disposition Development Agreement that allows these improvements to be self-funded (by us), and to be reimbursed from the future, presumably higher, tax revenues. We would be reimbursed only after the city’s senior debt has been retired. We are working with the City as partners, not adversaries. This allows the city to facilitate dramatic redevelopment improvements to a blighted area of its downtown while taking on no risk. Obviously, we must be successful in this project in order to recover our investment. We assume the risk, as do our investors in land purchase and construction, so we do not consider failure to complete a successful project to be an option.

This collaborative approach extends to virtually every other major piece of the project. With our waste water treatment system, which dramatically reduces our potable water consumption, we’re dealing with two entities: the City, which has built and manages the sewer system and the Truckee Meadows Water Authority. Current law precludes building a private utility within a public utility district. Working collaboratively, rather than as adversaries, all parties agree this is the right thing to do, setting a precedent for the future. Together, we’re committed to making compromises in a thoughtful fashion, so this approach can be replicated in future developments.

Another issue, which we are not by law required to do, is the relocation of people living in the weekly motels on various parcels we are buying. We know these low-income residents of the district will be challenged to find accommodation elsewhere in the area. We believe that, as responsible developers, we have an obligation to facilitate dignified and effective relocation. There are numerous housing and social service agencies in both the city and county, but they didn’t have a history of working with a developer on this common problem. So, we convened a strategic session to figure out how we could all work together. With the various agencies, which were pleased to participate, we have been able to share ideas on a collaborative basis, setting a new pattern of working together that did not exist before.

As a community, we are actively and collaboratively solving problems together. This is not the “normal” function of design and development professionals. I’ve found it sad over the years as I’ve watched developers, and sometimes architects, being treated by government agencies as adversaries, whose every move is doubted, and whose motives are considered less than noble.

With the West 2nd District project, we began our work with a completely open book, and encouraged the governmental agencies to do the same. As the shields began to come down, we have been able to speak and work as partners on a common mission. It is more fun this way. All it takes is great resilience and perseverance. Through the same process of figuring out how we can all work toward a common end, we can actually achieve something great – and have fun doing it.

Ed Friedrichs, FAIA, FIIDA, is a consultant with Zweig Group and the former CEO and president of Gensler. Contact him at

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