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Tips on Working With City Councils

Kelli LawrenceOne of the toughest parts of getting a new or redeveloped apartment community off the ground is working with the local city council on everything from zoning to final approval. Such projects are often put under a microscope, especially in communities where there has already been much construction activity. The key is to engage city council members early in the process, even before actual site planning begins. One person who has a lot of experience in such matters is Kelli Lawrence, Principal Partner of Cityscape Residential. What follows is our chat: 

NATIONAL APARTMENT ASSOCIATION: Could you please introduce yourself and your company to our readers?

KELLI LAWRENCE: Cityscape Residential is a multifamily development firm headquartered in Indianapolis. We do Class A institutional quality development throughout the Midwest. We're very active in Kansas City and Louisville, in particular, right now with existing assets in Indianapolis. As for myself, I came to the development world from urban planning. I worked on redevelopment projects from the public sector perspective for a thriving suburb of Indianapolis. Through that experience, I met my current partners and joined the development world about 15 years ago.

NAA: What types of situations and scenarios might an apartment owner/developer need to work with a city council?

KL: It is very difficult anymore to do a development project where you would not have to work with the city council or a public body. Almost all types now require a rezoning process. Often times, you are looking for a public-private partnership that require communication with city council members, especially with regards to public infrastructure related to the project or public incentives like tax abatements and things of that nature. Even the approval of a basic development plan and the proper zoning often requires coordination with the city council.

NAA: What kinds of information do they typically want to see?

KL: They typically want to see very detailed site plans and architectural elevations. They often want to understand the type of product that you build. We always try and bring photographs of our existing communities, because they really tell the story of the character of the community that we develop, the quality of construction, the types of amenities. We can show those things on plans and elevations. But it's really hard to understand what the finished product is. The photos of our finished communities truly help them understand what we are proposing. 

In addition to your project information, city councils also want to see that you have really reached out to the community and that you've talked with their constituents. They like to see letters of support and any other evidence that you have met with those groups. Even if they like the project, city council member will want to make sure their constituents are happy as well.

NAA: Do you have any advice for those reading this who are new at working with city councils or who have recently had trouble working with such panels?

KL: The biggest key is to start early having those individual meetings, the one-on-ones, before even having your plans finalized. When acquiring property, we'll meet very early on with city councilors or planning commission members of certain districts along with the city staff. At that point, all you're talking about is your design concepts, your planning concepts, and the overall design aesthetic that we're thinking for a site. Having that upfront communication can really save time and money down the road. It will also give you some valuable feedback in terms of what the constituents in that neighborhood might be most concerned about. That might be different than what you expect.

NAA: Can you provide an example?

KL: I'm working on a redevelopment project in Louisville, Ky., in an urban area, and I met very early with city councilors. We're actually in the middle of two different districts, and both city councilors had different perspectives on what was important. For one, green infrastructure was extremely important, which isn't something that we normally see come up in the public forum. Knowing that was important to the community upfront, we could make sure to implement that in our plans. Another city councilor was concerned about local participation on the construction side of the project. So, we were able to take that feedback in and address it as we move forward. This all has helped with public acceptance of the project early.

NAA: Was there some advice given to you early in your professional life when you were working the public sector side that has stuck with you as you work the development side?

KL: I think just having experience on the other side of the table has been valuable. I was the liaison for the neighbors in areas that might have been concerned about a rezoning process. That experience has been really valuable in terms of understanding the process and really understanding the communication that needs to happen to be successful going through an entitlement process. Again, communicate early and often. That is the key to the process going smooth. Even if people disagree with certain aspects of your development, if they feel as though they've been engaged early on and they can see that you have addressed at least some of the issues that they've raised, that often leads to a win-win situation for the community and for you as the developer.

NAA: Do you have any other anecdotes about particularly successful interactions with city councils in getting a project approved? 

KL: Another anecdote related to my Louisville rezoning is that having those early conversations and learning about some of the issues going on in the neighborhood, we have now undertaken a broader initiative within the community to look at redevelopment of adjacent properties and of public infrastructure incentives related to our project. That's been a very positive outcome of that early outreach. We're now seeing a broader initiative within the neighborhood, and that's really exciting to see. We're going to break ground in January. It's a 300-unit redevelopment of an industrial property in the middle of historic neighborhoods in urban Louisville. It will be in a very unique setting along a creek watershed that is being restored right now to become a recreational amenity. We also have two projects in downtown Kansas City that we'll be breaking ground on in early 2015, as well. So, we're looking forward to a very happy new year.

By Teddy Durgin

Operations Insights