If developers want to win the approvals process, they need to treat it the same way politicians treat elections.
Like it or not, the public approvals process for real estate development in Canada has tilted sharply in favour of opponents. Originally designed to generate a balanced consideration of the merits of a proposal and weed out bad projects, today the approvals process is easily and regularly overwhelmed by opponents to development. The fundamental problem is that supporters of development do not participate in the dialogue around the project, while opponents show up and dominate it.
At a recent real estate forum in Vancouver, Greg Moore, mayor of Port Coquitlam, gave a straight take on the current state of affairs. “Never does a large contingent of ‘yes’ come out to public hearings. It’s a public speaking contest for the ‘no’ side,” he told a packed ballroom of developers. “Where are you at public hearings? Where are you when your friends are at public hearings? We as politicians are getting the crap kicked out of us by NIMBYism. We need the other side to come out.”
But for many developers, years of catching flak in the media and at public hearings has fostered a bunker mentality characterized by feelings of hostility and overwhelming opposition. The idea that a troop of residents would feel strongly enough about a project that they would rush to its defense against the attacks of their neighbours seems like wishful thinking. But it’s not. Just ask a politician.
In politics, it’s said that “campaigns matter,” playing a key role in shaping public opinion and influencing the outcome of a vote. Often long-shot candidates who can “get out the vote” find themselves in office against all expectations. Our current Prime Minister, for example, was running a distant third when the last election began.
If developers want to win back the approvals process, they need to start treating it the same way politicians approach elections. That means knowing what you stand for and, more importantly, who will stand behind you. Developers that are able to reach out to those people have the best chance of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.
The question is where to start. For many, get-out-the-vote efforts begin with those in their immediate circle: employees and colleagues who live in the area; friends; business associates; the usual suspects. For too many developers, this is also where the campaign ends. But no politician would ever get elected relying on just friends and family. Instead, developers need to think more broadly about what the project means to the community and who it will benefit. There is low-hanging fruit among industry associations, employees in downstream industries, chambers of commerce and business improvement areas, to name a few.
But efforts can’t end there either. Developers need to take their message to the broader community, often the richest source of support, despite appearances to the contrary. Studies have shown that the most vocal opponents to projects are often geographically closest, with opposition dwindling as you move outward. To find supporters, developers need to start their search on the opposite end and work their way in.
Door-to-door canvassing is the most tried-and-true method, followed by direct mail. More interesting, though, are innovations in digital geotargeting: technology that can focus on precise geographic areas and deliver tailored content directly to mobile phones and devices with an accuracy of a couple hundred metres. Done in conjunction with the latest online advertising techniques, developers can reach blocs of potential supporters with the efficiency and effectiveness of a political campaign.
A residential tower developer facing opposition from homeowners can now readily reach residents in nearby apartment buildings, who likely don’t feel tall buildings ruin the fabric of the neighbourhood. If countless hours spent going door-to-door on campaigns has taught politicians anything, it’s that no area is homogenous. Not everyone feels or thinks or votes the same way. There is support in every community if you just spend the time looking for it.
Kevin Powers is Managing Principal of Project Advocacy, a public affairs firm that helps project developers facing local and government opposition.